While our physical health is regularly linked with our diet, our mental health is almost always attributed to biochemical or emotional factors. But with an increasing number of studies on brain biochemistry, it has become irrefutable that there is a link between what we eat and how we feel on a psychological level. Below are five foods that can improve your mood by literally changing your brain chemistry. (And, chances are, you’re not eating enough of these powerful nutrients.) The next time you go to the supermarket, bring along this cheat sheet of good mood foods and load up on these.
1.) FERMENTED FOODS like sauerkraut, kimchee, miso, fermented vegetables, kefir, kombucha, buttermilk or yogurt.
WHY fermented foods are so important for a good mood? The greatest concentration of serotonin, which is involved in mood control, depression and aggression, is found in your intestines, not your brain. Fermented foods contain probiotics, which are key to good intestinal health, and therefore, good serotonin levels.
2.) TURMERIC, the golden spice found in curry powder.
WHY turmeric is so important for a good mood? Turmeric contains curcumin, which a number of studies have shown directly fight depression. Many people only eat turmeric when enjoying Indian food, but this spice can be added to chili, soups, stir frys, and rice. Curcumin can also be taken as a supplement, although according to physician Tieraona Low Dog, chair of U.S. Pharmacopeia’s Dietary Supplements and Botanicals Expert Committee: “You need to take two to three teaspoons per day of turmeric to see a benefit. Remember, though: Eat the turmeric with some fat and add black pepper, as this dramatically increases the absorption of the curcumin.” *Adding more spice to your diet in general can curb sugar cravings and also lift the spirit. Think about also adding spices like vanilla and cloves to your food and drinks (think chai or vanilla yogurt), which lift the mood by soothing the central nervous system.
3.) LOW MERCURY FISH like shrimp, scallops, sardines, wild and Alaskan salmon, oysters, squid and tilapia (a 132 lb person can safely eat 36 oz per week, a 44 lb child can safely eat 18 oz per week).
WHY fish is so important for a good mood? Brain tissue is about 80% fat and a high proportion of these fats are omega 3, so consuming enough of these in our diets is critical for normal brain functioning. Many people avoid fish because of confusion about mercury toxicity, but eating our nutrients as opposed to taking a supplement almost always increases the bioavailability of the nutrient (meaning the body will absorb more of it). Eating fish, as opposed to taking Omega 3 supplements, is also an efficient way of getting lean protein and other vitamins and minerals. See this detailed article by Consumer Reports on safe mercury levels in seafood for further options and guidelines on fish choices.
4.) HIGH PROTEIN FOODS like turkey, beef, chicken and eggs (grass fed, free range, and/or omega 3 enriched if at all possible).
WHY high protein foods are so important for a good mood? These foods are rich in tryptophan, the amino acid needed to make serotonin in the brain. The lower the serotonin levels in the brain, the more likely one will experience depression. Eating high protein foods at every meal ensures a steady delivery of tryptophan to the brain. Heavy meat consumption has been discouraged due to its link with chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer, but small portions of high quality protein (which need not always be meat), has been shown to provide the essential amino acids needed to keep mood in balance.
*If you are vegetarian, it is much harder to get enough tryptophan from vegetarian sources. However, vegetarian foods high in tryptophan include nutritional yeast, dairy products, nuts, seeds, bananas and pumpkin.
5.) DARK GREEN LEAFY VEGETABLES rich in B vitamins like kale, spinach, and chard.
WHY leafy greens are so important for a good mood? The B vitamins in leafy greens work with the amino acid tryptophan to produce serotonin. A diet rich in B vitamins also aids in good sleep, which is key to good mood. Folate, or folic acid, has received much publicity for it’s crucial role in brain development. This is why doctors prescribe this supplement to all pregnant women for the prevention of birth defects. But less publicized is the link between folate deficiency with onset of both depression and dementia.
Knowing that these good mood foods are creating serotonin in your brain and literally changing your brain chemistry is a strong motivator for incorporating them into your daily routine. Of course, good nutrition is not a cure all for mental or physical health issues and it is important to be mindful of what your personal health needs are. Varying levels of neurotransmitter depletion, body and brain chemistry, genetics and environmental circumstances all impact our moods and will impact how long diet changes take to show any noticeable changes. That being said, some individuals very low in serotonin who take amino acid supplements to boost tryptophan levels in the brain notice a dramatic change in mood within 24 hours. Omega 3’s on the other hand, have been found to take up to 2-3 weeks to have an impact on mood. Most people feel the “good” gut feeling within a short period of a few days to a week after incorporating probiotics or fermented foods into their daily routine, however, there are countless types of probiotics and the amount and type one consumes will impact how fast. Everyone is different, so as you incorporate these foods into your daily diet, notice how you feel and what foods seem to impact you most positively. That will be your guide for how much and what specific types of these foods will make the most difference for you.
Everyone’s tastes are also different, so merely buying these things at the supermarket does not always translate into eating them regularly. Start by picking one food from each category that you really enjoy and working it into your daily diet. Buy one of the fermented foods on the list and try eating it everyday. Experiment with adding 2-3 teaspoon of turmeric in soups or even into pasta sauce, where the taste is barely detectable. Throw a few leafy greens into a morning smoothie.
Below you will find several excellent resources for how to learn more about these nutrients and incorporate these mood boosting foods into your diet:
The Pfeiffer Treatment Center provides treatment for mental health issues using nutrients and supplements as opposed to psychotropic medication. This website is an excellent resource for furthering your knowledge about the use of nutrients to treat mental illness, as well as for holistic mental health treatment.
Dr. Sears provides great tips for families trying to incorporate these good mood foods into their diet, focusing on both the benefit of these nutrients for children and practical advice for parents how to the whole family to eat them!
For further reading on the health benefits of consuming grass fed and free range meat and eggs.
If it is difficult for you to find high quality meat and seafood where you live, you can order high quality meat and seafood directly from this website.
The Radiant Life Catalog is an excellent resource for ordering the foods mentioned in this article. Foods that may not be immediately available in your local stores can be ordered online here. The site also contains valuable information on the additional health benefits of the foods mentioned here, and other foods traditionally consumed by indigenous peoples.
Michael Pollan’s in depth look at the multiple benefits of probiotics in our gut, for a fascinating look at the benefit of probiotics to your mental and physical health. Pollan’s most recent book Cooked also devotes a chapter to fermentation; the joys of making and consuming fermented foods.
Scholarly article on the multiple health benefits of curcumin, the depression fighting component of turmeric.
This website provides dozens of recipes for easy, tasty smoothies that incorporate leafy greens and whole foods. Shopping lists and recipes are sent right to your inbox so you can easily make green smoothies everyday.
The Art of Fermentation and Wild Fermentation, by Sandor Katz
Moosewood Restaurant Cooking for Health, by The Moosewood Collective
Everyday Greens, by Annie Somerville
Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon
Icelandic Food and Cookery, by Nanna Rognvaldardottir
The Mood Cure, by Julia Ross
About this Contributor: Laney Cline King, LCSW, received her Bachelor of Science in Psychology at the University of California, San Diego and her Masters in Social Work from Columbia University, New York. She is an LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) with over 10 years of experience helping children and families in a variety of nonprofit settings. As a certified LEAN nutrition coach, she currently provides workshops to families wanting to lead healthier lifestyles. At this time, Laney is most involved with the toughest job of her career, raising her three children in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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