If only we could eat our way to happiness, right? While strictly speaking that might not be possible, a growing body of research indicates that our dietary choices can, in fact, significantly affect how we feel both short- and long-term.
Studies on how food and supplements interact with our neurochemistry fall under the umbrella of a new and emerging scientific specialty: nutritional psychiatry. This article will discuss some of the surprising facts that nutritional psychiatry has uncovered, and take a look at 10 mood-boosting foods you can corporate into your daily diet.
But first, what is nutritional psychiatry?
Many mental health problems are closely associated with deficiencies of essential vitamins and nutrients.
Nutritional psychiatry (also known as nutri-pyschiatry) is a growing field that investigates how foods and supplements can be used to treat a range of psychological symptoms, including those typically associated with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
Although the discipline is still in its infancy, it has vast potential and represents hope for millions who struggle with mental health issues. If a simple dietary change could be used to treat or prevent symptoms of depression or anxiety, for instance, it could mean that fewer people would need to resort to potentially dangerous and addictive psychotropic medications.
In fact, this has already been done in multiple studies. A meta-analysis of 22 separate scientific papers investigated the association between a Mediterranean diet and risk of depression. The conclusion of the analysis was that high adherence to the diet appeared to have a preventative effect on the disease, regardless of other factors.
So how can you lower your risk of depression and naturally elevate your mood at the same time? The answer might just lie in a refined diet — one rich in so-called “brain foods” that contain essential nutrients for a healthy mind. Here are ten majorly mood-boosting foods that fall into that category:
The benefit oats have on mood all comes down to something called the glycemic index, which is a measurement of how quickly a food causes an increase in blood glucose levels.
Mood is often directly related to blood sugar; for example, the very high glycemic index of sugary foods prompts a drastic jump in your blood sugar — a quick “rush” — before leaving you feeling tired and irritable.
The glycemic index of oats, on the other hand, is very low, meaning that when you eat them, your blood sugar rises very slowly and predictably during digestion. This helps you maintain a stable mood.
Tryptophan, vitamin A, vitamin B6, Vitamin C, fiber, potassium, iron, phosphorus, and carbohydrates: these are nine important nutrients you get from bananas, and they all work together to boost your mood.
Tryptophan, aided by the carbs in bananas, gets quickly absorbed by the digestive tract, and vitamin B6 converts tryptophan into serotonin, the “happiness hormone.”
Lots of tryptophan in the diet (you’ll find a good bit more on this list) is always a good idea. Pharmaceutical forms of tryptophan are even occasionally used to treat symptoms of insomnia, depression, and anxiety. Oatmeal with banana slices for breakfast, anyone?
3. Oily Fish
About 60 percent of the brain is made up of fat cells, a significant portion of which are omega-3 fatty acids. It makes sense, then, that a deficiency in those acids would lead to some negative mental side effects.
Sure enough, it has been proven that people low in omega-3 fatty acids are more susceptible to depression and low moods, while adding omega-3s to the diet can significantly improve the related symptoms.
Luckily, it’s not difficult to get plenty of omega-3s, even without taking a supplement. Oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, and sardines all contain high levels of these acids, and getting enough of them can mean the difference between brain cells that are “stiff” or “flexible”– the latter allowing your mind to more effectively communicate via its neurotransmitters.
Know what goes great with some salmon for lunch? A delicious bowl full of lentils — or lentil soup, or lentil casserole.
Like oats, lentils have a low glycemic index, and like bananas, they help the brain convert tryptophan to serotonin.
Additionally, lentils serve up a heavy dose of folate — a nutrient whose deficiency has been linked to depression. Plus, lentils are high in iron, which the body needs to maintain energy levels.
Remember how B6 vitamins help the brain convert tryptophan into serotonin? B6 deficiency has been linked to symptoms of depression, which in turn is thought to be majorly connected to serotonin uptake.
Greens, as it turns out, are an excellent source of B vitamins. Fortunately, since not everyone goes for turnips, there are plenty of delicious varieties of greens, from spinach and kale to broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Raw, steamed, sauteed, or baked, all forms of leafy and cruciferous greens make a great addition to your diet.
Tryptophan has been mentioned several times in this list, but here it comes again. It is, after all, the precursor to serotonin, which is one of the most important neurotransmitters in the brain — especially when it comes to mood.
In addition to serotonin, tryptophan aids the brain in producing melatonin, a sleep-regulating hormone; and of course, healthy sleep is a vital ingredient for a healthy mood.
Chicken, turkey, and other lean poultry or fowl is not just an excellent source of tryptophan, but also tyrosine. Tyrosine is an amino acid that’s crucial in the production of adrenaline, and according to research, low adrenaline levels are often associated with low moods in general.
Speaking of tyrosine, another great place to find it is in oysters. It’s not just tyrosine that gets oysters onto this list, though — they’re actually somewhat of a mental health super-booster.
Oysters contain high levels of zinc, which is an essential ingredient for energy production, and another nutrient whose deficiency is associated with depression.
Oysters are also loaded with B and D vitamins, as well as copper, selenium, protein, and healthy fats — all things your brain needs to feel good and work as intended.
8. Brazil Nuts
If “Brazil nuts” seems oddly specific (why not just “nuts?”), there’s actually a reason. Brazil nuts are unique among their food group as an excellent source of a mineral called selenium. In fact, Brazil nuts are one of the best ways to naturally boost your selenium levels.
Why is that so important for your mood? Because selenium deficiency is serious business, associated with increased rates of depression, anxiety, and other chronic issues like irritability, brain fog, and fatigue. According to at least one study, a single selenium-laden Brazil nut per day might be enough to positively impact your brain and your mood.
9. Dark Chocolate
If you’re a picky eater who doesn’t like greens, oysters, oats, sardines, or lentils, well, not to worry — there’s still something for you on this list. In between meals or as a dessert, you can justify nibbling on some dark chocolate, thanks to its many health benefits, including those on mood.
Just one small square of extra dark chocolate is typically enough to prompt the brain into releasing extra endorphins and serotonin. When incorporated as a regular part of the diet, it can even decrease stress, anxiety, and symptoms of depression.
Water might deserve to be at the top of this list, but since it’s debatable whether or not it qualifies as a food, it’s way down here instead. However, the critical importance of water on both physical and mental health is something that’s not debatable.
Even mild dehydration affects your brain’s uptake of important neurotransmitters, leaving you tired, irritable, and unable to focus. 
Most experts recommend drinking between one and two liters of water every day. For some people, the thought of that much water isn’t pleasant. In that case, just remember that all fluids count toward that goal, and even if you think water isn’t your favorite thing to drink, your body is really begging for it.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, there may be reasons for low moods that simply can’t be properly addressed with a “quick fix.” That’s why it’s important to maintain a healthy diet, exercise routine, and sleep cycle — as well as consult with a physician anytime you notice a significant change in how you’re feeling on a day-to-day basis.
In other cases, however, our negative feelings may just be the result of putting junk into our bodies — the equivalent of how your car would react if you tried pouring corn syrup into the fuel tank.
The fact is, focusing on a dietary upgrade could make all the difference in terms of mood. And hey, it’s worth a try just to make chocolate a part of your daily routine, right?
Featured photo credit: Daria Nepriakhina via unsplash.com
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