No matter what challenges your day brings, it's easier to face the world when your spirits are high. And it's hard to be in a good mood when you're feeling hungry or if your body is lacking key nutrients.
But can eating certain foods really help keep bad moods at bay? The scientific community still has much to learn about how our diet influences our moods. While we don't have the whole story yet, we certainly have some clues.
Basically, the science of how food affects our moods is based on this equation: Dietary changes bring about changes in our brain structure, chemistry, and physiology, which lead to -- changes in behavior!
Studies have shown there are quite a few things we can do, food-wise, to help stabilize our moods. I've listed some of them below. I advise following as many of these suggestions as possible so that you have all your food/mood ducks in a row. These suggestions offer many other health benefits, too, so you have nothing to lose.
How to Boost Your Mood With Food
1. Go fish! Work more omega-3 fatty acids into your meals. These are found in fish and some plant foods as well. Researchers have noted that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids may be mood stabilizers, playing a role in mental well-being.
A recent study in New Zealand found that fish consumption was linked to better mental health (as reported by the participants) -- even after the researchers allowed for other factors that could influence the results.
Among new mothers, another study found that lower levels of fish consumption, along with lower levels of DHA (the omega-3 fatty acid found in fish) in breast milk, tended to be linked to higher rates of postpartum depression.
Eating plant foods rich in omega-3s is also probably a good idea. A good source of this nutrient is ground flaxseed (1 tablespoon a day is considered a safe, effective dose for most people; check with your doctor if you are pregnant, nursing, or have any concerns). Other sources include canola oil, purslane (an herb), cauliflower, red kidney beans, and broccoli.
Regularly eating breakfast leads to improved mood, according to some researchers -- along with better memory, more energy throughout the day, and feelings of calmness.
3. Eat more selenium-rich foods. Selenium is a mineral the brain can count on. Five studies have reported that low selenium intake is linked to poorer moods. Although the cause is unclear, researchers have some clues. The way the brain metabolizes selenium differs from other organs: When there's a deficiency of selenium, the brain retains this mineral to a greater extent -- leading some researchers to believe that it plays an important role in the brain.
Top selenium-rich foods (not including organ meats, which are also shockingly high in cholesterol) include: Brazil nuts, oysters, albacore tuna, clams, sardines, pork tenderloin, crab, saltwater and freshwater fish, whole-wheat and regular pastas, lean pork chops, chicken (dark and light meat), lean lamb, sunflower seeds, whole-wheat bread, plain bagels, brown rice, oatmeal, flour tortillas, soynuts, eggs, low-fat cottage cheese, tofu, pinto beans, and low-fat yogurt.
Slow Weight Loss
4. If you are overweight, lose weight slowly but surely. Some researchers advise that slow weight loss in overweight women can help to elevate mood. Fad dieting isn't the answer, though. Depriving yourself of calories and carbohydrates can bring on irritability.
5. Boost your serotonin levels. Serotonin -- a chemical I fondly call the "feel-good" neurotransmitter -- communicates "happy" messages to your brain. Basically, the more serotonin circulating in your bloodstream, the better your mood. Quick, pass the serotonin! The other side to this coin is that low levels of serotonin can lower mood and increase aggression, according to some studies.
There are several components of food that may influence the serotonin levels in our brains, including:
- Tryptophan. As more of the amino acid tryptophan enters the brain, more mood-improving serotonin is made in the brain. Tryptophan is in almost all protein-rich foods, but the way to get more of it is not necessarily to eat these foods. Other amino acids are better at getting into the brain from the bloodstream. Eating carbohydrates seems to help tryptophan's chances of crossing the blood/brain barrier.
- Carbohydrates. The carbohydrate-serotonin connection can be a double-edged sword. We do need carbs, especially those that come with lots of fiber and other nutrients -- like whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables. But Judith Wurtman, PhD, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher who is an expert on food and mood, suspects many women learn to overeat carbohydrates (particularly snack foods) to make themselves feel better. Of course, this leads to weight gain. Some researchers think carbohydrate-rich meals affect our moods in other ways, perhaps because of comforting feelings and memories we associate with eating these foods as children.
- Folic acid (folate). Too little folic acid in our diets can cause lower levels of serotonin in our brains. Some studies suggest that taking folate supplements (there's a day's supply in most multivitamins) and eating folate-rich foods may help some people who suffer from depression. Folate-rich foods include spinach, green soybeans, lentils, romaine lettuce, pinto beans, black beans, navy beans, kidney beans, broccoli, asparagus, greens, orange juice, beets, papaya, Brussels sprouts, and tofu.
- Alcohol. You don't have to be an expert to deduce that alcohol is probably not a mood stabilizer and that you should avoid excessive amounts in the interest of discouraging low moods. But there is also scientific evidence pointing to a relationship between serotonin dysfunction, negative moods, and excessive alcohol.
Editor's Note: If you have persistent depression, don't rely on food to improve your mood. Seek medical help from a professional such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or social worker. If you're not sure where to turn, ask your doctor for a referral. Check your employee benefits for something called the Employee Assistance Plan, which offers free counseling. Keep in mind that depression is more treatable now than ever before, thanks to progress in medications and counseling techniques.