You are what you eat.
Said differently — in order to be well, you need to eat well. Although seemingly surface-level, this motto is at the core of overall wellness. Given that human cells are replaced every 7-10 years — and food is what those new cells are made of, nutrition is essential. Food has the power to energize us, balance us, and re-energize us. But did you know you can eat food to boost your mood as well?
Particularly when it comes to mental health, food can greatly impact our brains, and thus, our mood. In fact, Eastern medicine practitioners have been prescribing dietary changes to help ease mental (and physical) ailments for over 1,000 years. In many ways, traditional Chinese medicine praises food as medicine. Now, Western science is catching on. Solid evidence is emerging that the food we eat is directly correlated to many aspects of our wellbeing, including brain health.
Why healthy eating matters.
Did you know that the brain uses more than 20% of the body’s energy stores? Although it represents a very small percentage of the average person’s total body weight, it needs substantial energy to focus, remain even-keeled, etc. Some research has shown that during a typical day, an adult uses about 320 calories just to think. In other words, food is fuel, and eating the rainbow is key for mental health. Among many benefits—like lowering risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease—healthy eating is essential for memory, mood, and focus.
How food affects mood.
Like the rest of our bodies, our brains are essentially built from the food we eat. For example, our bodies can’t make serotonin (the mood-regulating neurotransmitter) without iron and tryptophan (tryptophan is found in oats, milk, and more). Or, produce myelin, the fatty substance that insulates our brain cells, without vitamin B12 (found in seafood, beef, and dairy). By incorporating these foods, you can stabilize your mood, improve your focus, and boost your brain health. However, please consult with your doctor before making any changes to your diet.
The light between diet and mood disorders.
The link between poor diet and mood disorders has been long known, and you’ve probably experienced its effects. Ever gone through a breakup and reached for lower-quality comfort foods? Same. But, the question remains — can indulging in more comfort foods contribute to depression? New research is helping to pave the way toward greater clarity.
Studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function, and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression. This isn’t surprising. If your brain is deprived of quality nutrition, or if inflammatory cells are circulating within the brain, consequences (like mood disorders) are to be expected.
What is the gut-brain axis?
We can’t talk about diet and mood disorders without mentioning the gut-brain connection. So, what is it? The gut–brain axis is the biochemical signaling that takes place between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system. This two-way communication between the gut and brain occurs through the vagus nerve. And the vagus nerve plays a role in mental health. In essence, the gut-brain axis offers us a wider understanding of the connection between diet and disease. This includes mood disorders, like depression and anxiety. When the balance between the good and bad bacteria is disrupted, diseases may occur in the brain.
How blood sugar impacts mood.
Without sounding like a broken record, what we eat impacts our mood. Equally important, what we eat impacts blood sugar. Which, in turn, affects our brain chemicals (serotonin, dopamine, etc.). All of these things can alter how we feel. When our blood sugar levels fluctuate, our mood and energy levels change too. The negative effects of fluctuating blood sugar levels include irritability, poor concentration, fatigue, depression, and more. However, by eating the right foods, you can keep your blood sugar. Thus, your mood will be stable. Now, let’s discover the food to boost your mood.
12 everyday foods to boost your mood:
Adding vibrant produce, nuts, seeds, nourishing fats, and sustainably sourced protein is a top strategy for good mental health. After all, they provide the nutrients our bodies need to fight off inflammation in the brain. And too much inflammation in the brain can lead to depression. But the good news is, most of these foods are easy to find and versatile. They’re pantry staples —boosting your mood never tasted so good.
If you’re looking for foods to boost your mood, look no further. Bananas contain tryptophan, a type of protein that the body converts into serotonin, known to induce relaxation, improve mood levels and generally helps us to feel happier. Plus, bananas are high in vitamin B6, which helps synthesize feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.
Recipe: Simple Creamy Banana Oatmeal
Beans improve mood and happiness because they are packed with fiber and important nutrients. Fiber helps regulate blood sugars, which can in turn help stabilize your mood. Beans are also an excellent source of folate, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and iron.
Berries are loaded with anthocyanins, known to boost brain function and reduce inflammation, potentially lowering the risk of depression. They’re also loaded with antioxidants, which promote brain and nervous system health. Additionally, berries appear to have similar impacts as valproic acid, which is a mood-stabilizing medication that helps regulate emotions.
Recipe: Strawberry Salad With Balsamic
Research shows the potential positive impact between chocolate and mood. Chocolate contains a type of antioxidant called polyphenols, which are thought to boost mood. Dark chocolate is also rich in the antioxidant resveratrol, which helps boost endorphins and serotonin in the brain. Endorphins help relieve pain and boost feelings of happiness, which is why they are sometimes called “feel-good” hormones. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps stabilize mood. Lastly, chocolate contains flavonoids, which can improve memory and cognition. Now that’s food to boost your mood we can get behind.
High-quality proteins, including grass-fed beef, are building blocks for a mood-boosting diet. Grass-fed beef, specifically, contains more healthy fats than its grain-fed counterparts. Compared with typical grain-fed meat, grass-fed has more omega-3 fatty acids. Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids may play a role in managing depression.
Fermented foods, like kimchi (Korean fermented cabbage), kefir (fermented milk), miso (Japanese fermented soybean paste), and kombucha (a fermented drink brewed with yeast) all contain probiotic bacteria. And, research shows that probiotics may help boost mood and cognitive function.
The gut has been called a “second brain” because it produces many of the same neurotransmitters as the brain does, like serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid. All of these play a key role in regulating mood. In fact, it is estimated that 90% of serotonin is made in the digestive tract. In essence, a gut populated by the right probiotics can aid in mental health.
Recipe: Easy Kimchi Noodles
Leafy greens fight against all kinds of inflammation, and severe depression which has been linked with brain inflammation. Leafy greens are especially important because they contain high levels of vitamins A, C, E, and K, minerals, and phytochemicals.
Recipe: Green Smoothie
Lentils, beans, peas, chickpeas, etc. are packed with tryptophan, an amino acid that the body uses to make mood-boosting serotonin. They also contain high levels of zinc, which evidence shows can help combat depression. Getting enough zinc is particularly important for vegetarians and vegans since the absorption of zinc can be reduced by 50 percent from phytates (which are found in plants). Beans are also a substantial source of protein.
A powerful form of green tea, matcha has been shown to have positive effects on the mind and mood. Studies have shown that a higher consumption of green tea was associated with a lower prevalence of cognitive impairment in subjects aged 70 years and older. And, the healthier your brain is, the lower your risk of suffering from depression will be.
Matcha also contains l-theanine, and l-theanine has been shown to alter the amounts of dopamine and serotonin that the brain emits. The more dopamine and serotonin in your brain, the higher the likelihood of improving your mood.
Recipe: Blueberry Matcha Smoothie
Fiber helps slow the digestion of carbohydrates (oats), allowing for a gradual release of sugar into the bloodstream to keep your energy levels stable. In one study, those who ate 1.5 – 6 grams of fiber at breakfast reported better mood and energy levels. This was attributed to more stable blood sugar levels, which is important for controlling mood swings and irritability. Oats are also a wonderful source of iron, and iron deficiency anemia is associated with fatigue, sluggishness, and mood disorders.
Nuts contain an amino acid responsible for producing mood-boosting serotonin. Excellent sources include walnuts, almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and more. Moreover, nuts and seeds are a large component of both the mind and Mediterranean diets, which may support a healthy brain. What’s more, a 10-year study linked moderate nut intake to a 23% lower risk of depression.
Recipe: Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookies
Oily fish, like wild-caught salmon and mackerel are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help boost levels of serotonin. Studies have found that people in countries with the highest fish consumption have the lowest rates of depression, bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, and seasonal affective disorder. Studies have found fish oil to be as effective as Prozac for treating major depression. Plus, salmon also contains vitamin B12, which helps produce brain chemicals that affect mood. Aim for wild-caught salmon as it is more nutrient-dense and sustainable.
What we eat affects our mood, body, and lifestyle in so many ways. If you want to be healthy, you have to put in an effort and watch what you intake. Nothing is more important than our body — no matter what challenges your day brings, it’s hard to be in a good mood when you’re feeling hungry or if your body is lacking key nutrients. So, eat healthy, be happy, and let us know what’s your favorite recipe to whip up and enjoy in the comments below.