A Scientific Way to Improve Emotional Regulation

Feb 18, 2022 | Leadership, Stress

Have you or those around you been irritable lately?

Have you noticed more arguments, complaints or snide remarks?

Regulating our emotions – particularly highly charged ones like anger – is not easy. And stress is a factor.

But here’s another factor that you might not have considered: what you’re eating.

Unfortunately, when we’re busy or stressed, we are more likely to turn to fast food, junk food or sugar to get through the day.

But that can start a vicious cycle of further reducing our mood and capacity for emotional regulation.

Is your brain hungry?

The brain burns about 20 percent of our calorie intake and needs a constant source of energy.

The brain tries to budget for our energy needs. (Click here for more on this.) If our energy supply is low, the brain will likely not budget for emotional regulation over other tasks more crucial to our survival.

As you can imagine, controlling our impulses and emotional reactions requires extra energy.

For that, we need complex carbohydrates which slowly release that energy source (in the form of glucose), as opposed to quick fixes like sugar.

(Complex carbs include whole grains, beans, and high-fiber fruits and vegetables like apples, bananas, broccoli, leafy greens and carrots.)

Nutrients and self-regulation

In addition to the energy factor, the brain needs many vitamins and minerals for mood regulation. When these are lacking, the result can be heightened irritability and anger.

One study showed that when diet is poor, the vagus nerve, which connects many internal organs to the brain, carries signals of caution and protection from the gut to the brain.  One can imagine how such signals might cause us to react with anger or fear – a fight-flight response.

Research also shows that the body needs at least 30 vitamins and minerals to support healthy functions, including the creation and release of energy, and the production of important neurotransmitters like seratonin and dopamine that are involved in regulating mood.

Not surprisingly, improving diet and nutrient intake has been linked to improved emotional regulation and reduced irritability and anger.

What we can do

A few years ago, I was noticing my own irritability, as well as low energy at the end of the day, and memory problems.

After doing some research and having my doctor check my blood levels, I realized I needed more vitamin B12. I also realized I could stand to have more vitamin D in my diet. Now I take supplements for both of those. And I’ve noticed a significant difference.

I’ve also gotten much better at linking my mood and energy levels to the food I’ve eaten.

You can do the same.

Start by noticing your energy, mood and emotional regulation, then be curious about what you have been eating.

What might you need more of in terms of complex carbs and whole foods?

What happens if you cut down on processed food and added sugars?

Are you getting enough of the right vitamins and minerals?

If your colleagues or team have been more irritable lately, send them this post, or get curious with them about how they’ve been eating.

And at your next meeting, instead of serving donuts and cookies, consider some alternatives that will better feed the brain.

Photo by Afif Kusuma on Unsplash



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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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