Boost your mood with food
We all know that the food we eat affects how we feel. We feel tired after a big Sunday roast and get a kick from a cup of coffee. But can food really improve our mood and make us feel happier? The answer is a definite yes! There are many reasons why certain foods can help to improve our mood, whilst others can contribute to us feeling down in the dumps. The secret lies in eating in a way that can boost our levels of the happiness substance serotonin.
Serotonin – the key to happiness
A range of different chemicals determine how we feel. However, one of the key substances responsible for boosting our mood is serotonin. Serotonin is a monoamine neurotransmitter that is derived from the amino acid tryptophan. As well as being a contributor to our happiness it is also involved in regulation of appetite and sleep. The beneficial effects that serotonin has on mood means that many anti-depressants work to increase serotonin levels. However, there are also many natural ways that this can be achieved.
Whilst serotonin is found in the central nervous system, approximately 90% is located in the gastro-intestinal tract. This shows we really do have ‘gut feelings’ and that the health of our gut is essential to our overall health and mood.
Good food makes you feel good
Food has a huge impact on how we feel and there are many reasons for this.
When we eat a nutrient-dense diet that is high is wholefoods we are less likely to have any nutrient deficiencies. This is particularly important when thinking about mood because certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies have been linked to low mood. This is particularly true for vitamins and minerals that are needed as co-factors in the production for serotonin from tryptophan. This includes folic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin C, as well as the minerals zinc, calcium, iron and magnesium (Ref 1). In addition, some people have a greater requirement for folic acid and vitamin B6 due to their individual genetic make-up and methylation requirements (Ref 2).
Eating enough ‘good’ fats in the diet is important for serotonin production. The good fats include both omega-3 and omega-6 fats, but the ones that we want to boost mood are the omega-3 fats from oily fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel), flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts. This is because omega-3s help with serotonin production as well as increasing the efficiency of the serotonin we already have. A study by Dr Joseph Hibbeln discovered that fish eaters are less prone to low mood (Ref 3). The role of fats in boosting mood is one of the reasons why very low fat diets are not beneficial for long-term health. And likewise, a diet high in processed and trans-fats can block the beneficial effects of the essential fats.
Wholefoods and blood sugar & hormones
Eating a diet that is high in fruit, vegetables, whole-grains, pulses, eggs, fish, chicken and lean-meat and low in processed and refined foods will help to balance blood sugar levels. This is because meals that balance blood sugar have a low glycemic index, some quality protein and good levels of fibre. A diet high in processed and refined foods on the other hand will have low levels of fibre and a high glycemic index. In addition, processed and refined foods have had many of their nutrients stripped away, which further contribute to nutrient deficiencies. Eating regular meals is also important food mood, because low blood sugar levels are also linked with low mood.
A diet of wholefoods will also nourish the whole hormonal system, including the adrenals and thyroid glands, which if unbalanced can cause poor energy and mood.
Chocolate and cocoa are derived from the cacao plant. It is the beans of the cacao pod that can be processed into cocoa powder, cocoa butter or chocolate. They have been prized for their medicinal properties throughout time and were traded as currency among ancient South American civilizations. Indeed chocolate has been described as ‘food of the Gods’.
Chocolate is loved worldwide and there are some very biochemical reasons for why it makes us feel so good. One of them is a chemical called Phenethylamine, PEA. This is a chemical that we naturally create when we are excited and when we fall in love. It therefore helps to lift mood and give a sense of euphoria. Cacao also contains another ‘bliss’ chemical called anandamide, which is associated with feelings of relaxation, euphoria and improved mood. In addition to PEA and anandamide, cacao also raises serotonin levels, so it helps to boost mood through many modes of action (Ref 4)
Good quality chocolate, especially raw cacao powder and dark chocolate (70% cacao and above) is high in antioxidants. The antioxidant value of foods is measured as its Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) score and raw cacao powder comes out with a score of 95,500 and dark chocolate at 13,120, which is significantly higher than blueberries which have a ORAC score of 2,400 (Ref 5).
Cacao is also a source of vitamins and minerals, and contains high levels of magnesium, which is the mineral of relaxation. Magnesium deficiency is becoming an increasing problem in the UK due to the increase in refined and processed foods. Signs of magnesium deficiency include fatigue, muscle aches, insomnia, anxiety, low mood, pre-menstrual syndrome and migraines (Ref 6). The high levels of magnesium in cacao may therefore be another reason why we crave chocolate when we are tired or feeling low.
The key to getting the health benefits of chocolate is to ensure that the chocolate you eat is good quality – raw chocolate or dark chocolate. This is because regular ‘milk chocolate’ is high in sugar and have very little of the beneficial cacao.
Gut and mood link
We all know that we can have ‘gut feelings’ and ‘butterflies in the stomach’ and there are very physical reasons for this. Our gut is our ‘second brain’, or more technically our ‘enteric nervous system’. It is equipped with its own reflexes and senses and can control gut behavior independently of the brain. In addition, about 90 percent of the fibres in the primary visceral nerve, the vagus nerve, carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around. And 90% of our serotonin is in the gut (Ref 7).
In addition to the gut nervous system and neurotransmitters, our gut bacteria also play a significant role in how we feel. This is because the micro-organisms in our gut also secrete a profound number of chemicals that regulate mood, including serotonin. Indeed there is a growing link between intestinal disorders and high levels of depression and anxiety, and certain gut bacteria are more likely to be associated with low mood (Ref 8).
Eating a diet rich in wholefoods is one of the best way we can support our gut health. This is because a wholefood diet is rich in fibre, which provides ‘pre-biotic’ food to nourish the good bacteria in the gut. Fermented foods, such as natural live yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut and miso are also an important part of the diet as they provide a constant source of new beneficial gut bacteria.
Go with protein and carbohydrates
Serotonin, our ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter, is made from the amino acid tryptophan. Amino acids are found in protein-containing foods. Therefore a diet that is low in protein is likely to also be low in tryptophan. Foods that contain good levels of tryptophan include turkey, chicken, seeds, nuts, eggs, beans, lentils and fish.
However, in addition to making sure we have enough protein in our diet we also need to make sure we are eating enough carbohydrate. This is because eating carbohydrate is the first step involved in the brain making more serotonin. Although serotonin isn’t made from carbohydrates, it allows the tryptophan to enter into the brain. Once the tryptophan is in the brain it can be converted into serotonin (Ref 9).
Carbohydrate cravings are common in the winter when we are more prone to ‘winter blues’ and it might be the body’s way of is getting us to make more serotonin. Therefore eating small amounts of carbohydrates (about 30 grams), twice a day as snacks and eating some starchy carbohydrates with your evening meal is an ideal way to boost serotonin and mood.
Looking at lifestyle
Whilst our diet has a huge impact on how we feel, it is important to look at diet changes in the wider context of our lifestyle. Often lifestyle factors also need to be addressed, particularly when it comes to boosting mood. This includes looking at our personal circumstances and seeing if there are any factors in our life that may be affecting our mood. However, regardless of our circumstances we can also address our response to difficult situations and improve our outlook through positive lifestyle choices.
Many activities have been shown to raise serotonin levels and the more of these we can incorporate into our daily lives the more we can boost our mood. This includes exercise, sunlight and meditation.
In numerous studies exercise has been shown to increase both serotonin production and release. In particular, aerobic exercises like running and cycling give a large serotonin boost, as well as an endorphin high. However, more gentle activity like yoga also has a significant effect on mood through serotonin levels and stimulating the calming parasympathetic nervous system (Ref 10). The key to exercise is choosing something that you want to do so that it doesn’t feel like a chore, but a choice, and making it a part of your routine. Routine is important to make exercise a habit because if serotonin levels drop you may not feel like exercising…but it’s exactly what you need to give you a boost.
Getting outside in the sunshine also helps to boost mood, as serotonin production increases in bright daylight. It also helps to increase production of vitamin D which is essential to feeling good. The reduced sunshine and fewer daylight hours in the winter is one of the reasons why people can feel low at this time of the year and why UV light boxes are recommended for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Therefore aim to get outside in the bright daylight (mid-day is ideal) for a mood boosting walk.
Meditation has also been shown to help improve mood. It does this in many ways as the deep state of rest produced by meditation triggers the brain to release neurotransmitters including serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins. Each of these are naturally linked to happiness (Ref 11). The key to ensuring you experience the benefits of meditation is practicing it regularly – even as little as 10 minutes per day has been shown to have significant effects on brain chemistry.
There are many simple and effective ways to boost mood through eating good food. Eating a wholefood diet will ensure that you are not deficient in any macro or micro-nutrients which are needed to make serotonin, the happiness neurotransmitter. Some specific recommendations to improve mood include eating oily fish a couple of times per week, having regular fermented foods such as natural yoghurt and enjoying a little raw or dark chocolate. As well as dietary changes, lifestyle choices can also boost serotonin, including exercise, getting out in the sunshine and meditation. The more of these that can be incorporated into day-to-day life, the happier and healthier we can be.
2. Patrick Holford. Optimum Nutrition for the Mind.
3. J.R Hibbeln. Fish consumption and major depression. Lancet. Vol 351 (9110), 1998, p.1213.