Is it possible to eat your way to a better mood? A mounting body of research linking food and mood suggests that it may be.
One such study, which involved the analysis of the diets of 97 people diagnosed with mood disorders such as major depressive disorder and anxiety, suggests a direct association between higher levels of nutrient intake and better mental health. In a 2012 paper in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, the researchers reported that study participants who performed worse on tests of global functioning were more likely to have consumed lower-than-average amounts of healthy grains, vegetables and fruits over a three-day period, and higher-than-average amounts of unhealthy foods such as processed meats and foods with high sugar, fat and salt content.
“The nutritional components of a person’s diet affect the chemistry of the brain in a number of important ways, and many of these effects benefit mood,” says David Mischoulon, MD, PhD, Director of Research and Alternative Remedy Studies at MGH’s Depression Clinical and Research Program. “Levels of brain chemicals such as the neurotransmitters dopamine, acetylcholine and serotonin—which have a strong influence on mood—are directly related to what we eat. Our food also supplies the essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, polyphenols, and other molecules we need for good mental health.
“Researchers have identified certain foods that seem to be especially helpful in promoting feelings of wellbeing and calm, and provided evidence that others help prevent deficiencies that can lead to symptoms such as depression, insomnia, or mood instability. There’s no reason not to include these healthy foods in your diet to help ensure a healthy mood state. But since many other factors besides nutrition may contribute to a person’s feelings of depression or anxiety, it’s a good idea to seek professional help for any symptoms that cause serious distress or last more than two weeks or so.”
The basis for good brain health rests in a low-calorie, nutrient-rich diet. Eat plenty of antioxidant-rich fresh vegetables and fruits. Choose whole-grain cereals and breads, beans, low-fat dairy products, and lean meats and poultry. Eggs, nuts, and fish also supply vital nutrients for the brain. Choose healthier monounsaturated canola and olive oils and reduce consumption of oils such as corn, safflower, soy, and cottonseed oils. A daily vitamin, used with your doctor’s approval, may also be helpful.
To this healthy diet, add these five super-foods, each of which supplies abundant amounts of nutrients that have been shown to benefit mood:
- Bananas: This miracle food is loaded not only with magnesium, which improves mood, boosts resistance to stress, and decreases anxiety, but also with copius amounts of vitamin B6, which helps promote mental alertness. Bananas are also rich in the amino acid tryptophan, which helps promote the brain’s production of serotonin, which is associated with feelings of calm and wellbeing.
- Mussels: Like many other types of seafood, mussels are rich in DHA, an essential omega-3 fatty acid associated with better overall mood and lower risk of depression, negative thinking, and impulsivity. Mussels also have high concentrations of vitamin B12—which is critical to healthy mood, focus, and memory—and selenium and vitamin B2, both of which help promote mood stability.
- Brown Rice: This complex carbohydrate helps boost the brain’s production of serotonin and also provides abundant levels of vitamin B1, or thiamine, which is thought to support sociability and better mood.
- Spinach: Popeye’s favorite vegetable is a rich source of folate, which reduces feelings of agitation, promotes sleep and supports a healthy nervous system. High levels of folate have been directly associated in research with lower risk for depression. Spinach is also rich in anxiety-reducing magnesium.
- Sunflower seeds: These nutritional powerhouses help promote a sunny mood because of their high levels of vitamin B1 and tryptophan, as well as the mineral selenium, which helps stabilize mood.