by Shelly Xu, Poppy Life Care Nutritionist Program Manager
When you’re feeling down, it can be tempting to turn to food to lift your spirits. However, the sugary, high-calorie treats that many people crave have negative consequences. On the other hand, certain foods have been shown to improve brain health and make you feel happier. Chances are, you have one or more of these foods in your home right now!
1. Dark chocolate
Chocolate’s pleasurable taste, texture, and smell already promote good mood, plus it is also
rich in many mood-boosting compounds. Dark chocolate contains an amino acid called tryptophan that your brain uses to produce the neurotransmitter serotonin, which can increase feelings of overall happiness. Serotonin is the feel-good chemical and influences your mood. Its levels increase with the amount of cacao, so darker chocolate, or raw cacao gives you the most effect. Also, cacao causes your brain to release endorphins which are also released during exercise. They lower your stress and give you a general sense of happiness (Andrew Scholey et al, Effects of chocolate on cognitive function and mood: a systematic review, Nutrition Reviews, Oct 2013).
Fermented foods are rich in probiotics (beneficial microbes) and include kimchi, yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and sauerkraut. These foods may improve gut health and mood.
The fermentation process allows live bacteria to thrive. These live microorganisms support the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut and may increase serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects many facts of human behavior, such as mood, stress response, appetite, and sexual drive.
Bananas may help turn a frown upside down. They’re high in vitamin B6, which helps synthesize feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin .
Furthermore, one large banana provides 16 grams of natural sugar and 3.5 grams of fiber. When paired with fiber, the sugar from a banana is released slowly into your bloodstream, allowing for stable blood sugar levels and better mood control. Blood sugar levels that are too low or too high may lead to irritability and mood swings.
Oats are a whole grain that can keep you in good spirits all morning. You can enjoy them in many forms, such as overnight oats, oatmeal, muesli and granola.
They’re an excellent source of fiber. Fiber helps slow your digestion of carbs, 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 (Samantha Nabb et al, The effect of the interaction between glucose tolerance and breakfasts varying in carbohydrate and fiber on mood and cognition, Nutrition Neuroscience, August 2006).
Although other sources of whole grains can have this effect, oats may be especially advantageous, as they’re also a great source of iron, since 1 raw cup meets 19% of your daily iron needs. Iron deficiency anemia, one of the most common nutrient deficiencies, is associated with symptoms like fatigue, sluggishness and mood disorders.
Berries contain a wide range of antioxidants and phenolic compounds. They’re particularly high in anthocyanins, a pigment that gives certain berries their purple-blue color. Those compounds
play a key role in combatting oxidative stress. It may also help manage inflammation associated with depression and other mood disorders. One study found that associated a diet rich in anthocyanins show a 39% lower risk of depression symptoms. More good news: if you can’t find them fresh, frozen berries have the same effect!
6. Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are high in plant-based proteins, healthy fats, and fiber. Additionally, they provide tryptophan, an amino acid responsible for producing mood-boosting serotonin.
A study linked moderate nut intake to a 23% lower risk of depression. And certain nuts and seeds, such as Brazil nuts, almonds, and pine nuts, are good sources of zinc and selenium. Deficiency in these minerals is associated with higher rates of depression (Fresán U et al , Does the MIND diet decrease depression risk? A comparison with Mediterranean diet in the SUN cohort, European Journal of Nutrition, April 2019 ).
Coffee is the world’s most popular drink, and it may make you happier, too. The caffeine in coffee prevents a naturally occurring compound called adenosine. This chemical attaches to brain receptors that promote tiredness, so increasing alertness and attention. Moreover, it increases the release of mood-boosting neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and norepinephrine.
A study in 72 people found that both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee significantly improved mood compared with a placebo beverage, suggesting that coffee contains phenolic compounds which may influence mood (Crystal F Haskell-Ramsay et al , The Acute Effects of Caffeinated Black Coffee on Cognition and Mood in Healthy Young and Older Adults, Nutrients, September 2018).
8. Beans and Lentils
In addition to being high in fiber and plant-based protein, beans and lentils are full of feel-good nutrients. They’re an excellent source of B vitamins, which help improve mood by increasing levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), all of which are important for regulating mood.
Fatty fish like salmon and albacore tuna are rich in omega-3s — docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) – which play key roles in brain development and the transmission of cell signals. In addition, consuming omega-3s in the form of fish oil lowers the risk of depression. Given that a 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of salmon provides 2,260 mg of EPA and DHA, eating this fish a few times per week is a great way to lift your mood (Food Data Central, USD April 2019).
If you prefer the taste or texture of smoked salmon, give the following recipe a try!
Smoked Salmon Salad with Spinach and Mushrooms
Main Nutrients: Omega 3 Fatty acids, Vitamin D , Vitamin B,Vitamin C, Magnesium and Potassium
Per serving: Calories 300 Total Fat 25g Saturated Fat 4g Cholesterol 138mg Carbohydrates 8.6g Added Sugar 6g Sodium 1100 mg Protein 16 g
Serving size 3
- 6 oz. smoked salmon, thinly sliced
- 1 cup sliced mushrooms
- 2 boiled eggs, sliced
- 8 cups baby spinach
- 1/2 cucumber, sliced
- 1 green onion, sliced
- 1/4 cup dried cranberries (optional)
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
- 2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
- 2 tbsp. fresh dill, minced
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Add olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
- Add the mushrooms and cook until soft, about 5 to 8 minutes, season to taste and set aside.
- In a small bowl combine the extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice, dill, and pepper.
- In the salad bowl toss the mushrooms, cucumber, green onions, cranberries, and spinach together.
- Add the boiled eggs and smoked salmon, then drizzle with the dill vinaigrette.
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