Cooking for calm

Cooking can be a great way to aid your mental health

There are few things in this world as joyful as good food, and after a long day I often find myself gravitating towards the kitchen to cook something delicious and let my thoughts drift away with any negativity. In fact, recent years and studies have proven that there is real scientific evidence indicating that cooking and eating ‘comfort food’ could have a positive impact on your mental well being. Let’s explore all the reasons why cooking can be therapeutic.

Those feel good chemicals

Researchers have discovered that cooking and eating ‘good’ food can in fact lead to a dopamine release in our bodies. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that sends messages between the brain cells and is all about motivation, reward and pleasure, so it makes us feel good. The jury is still out on what constitutes ‘good’ food though. There’s no doubt that healthier and leaner dining has plenty of health benefits, mental health included, but foods high in fat, sugar or salt can all elevate a person’s mood by tapping into the brain’s reward system and releasing dopamine. Obviously it’s best to eat this kind of food in moderation, but maybe that explains why chocolate is the go-to pick-me-up of the food world.

The benefits of nostalgia and comfort food

This is a big one for me, but eating and preparing foods that we associate with happy memories can have a huge impact on our present mindsets, and psychological research has proven that smells in particular are powerfully linked to areas in the brain that are associated with memory and emotional experiences. Preparing, eating and smelling dishes that we associate with happy times can help our bodies produce serotonin, which makes us feel calmer, and decreases the stress hormone cortisol. So next time you’re feeling a bit down, whip out your grandmother’s old cookbook and find something that reminds you of better days.

Cooking helps us socialise

I’ve said it a thousand times, but food is an expression of love, and preparing food for someone is one of my favourite ways to show them I care. There’s a reason that recipes usually cater for more than one person eating, food is meant to be shared, and cooking offers a way to connect with others, whether it’s while sourcing ingredients, swapping recipe notes, bonding in the kitchen or sitting down to eat. Socialisation and healthy personal relationships play into our mental health and stress management more than we can imagine, so the next time you’re dreading a bad day at the office, it might be a good time to bring a box of doughnuts to break the ice.

Routine is good for you

Don’t get me wrong, I love to be spontaneous, but having a set routine can be a great way to combat situational anxiety and stress. When it feels like the world is spinning out around you it helps to realise that you have a space where you are still in complete control – your kitchen. Sticking to a daily routine of food preparation and eating not only helps your moods stay regulated, it assists your circadian rhythm which flows over into your sleep patterns and overall health by regulating cortisol. In fact, routine is so beneficial for our brains that a form of psychotherapy, interpersonal and social rhythm therapy, has been developed around it as a form of treatment for some psychological struggles.

I can’t say that spending time in your kitchen will solve all your problems, but I truly believe that connecting with yourself and embracing a hands-on task in the kitchen is a great way to get out of your head and take a break from whatever else is on your mind, plus the reward factor of a delicious meal doesn’t hurt!