Hippocrates, called the Father of Medicine, is reported to have said “Food is Medicine” Good news for those of us who like to eat! Even better news is that there are certain foods that help improve your mood—and I’m not just talking about the well-known “comfort foods” like chocolate and ice cream—I’m also talking about foods that have additional nutritional benefits—these could definitely be called “superfoods”.
Recent studies have begun to prove what many naturopathic physicians have believed and taught for some time—not only is food medicine, but certain foods can be chosen to help people improve their sleep, memory and their ability to think and concentrate—and all these things can help improve mood. 1
First off, let’s talk about moods—your mood is dependent on alot of things such as the amount of rest and relaxation you have, the way you feel about yourself, your family and your work, how much energy you have and how you feel about your “place” in the world. Many of these things won’t be addressed directly through food, but eating particular foods at particular times can help. Some things, like sleep, can be affected by the foods you eat or the beverages you drink—especially near the time you want to or need to fall asleep.
There are certain foods that help increase neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are substances produced by the brain and other organs that carry signals from one set of brain cells to another—and these can signal a better or worse mood. In general, foods that increase the neurotransmitters norepinephrine (NE) or dopamine (DA) tend to increase alertness and clarity of thinking while serotonin tends to have calming effects and a positive, happier mood. It may be that the mood swings associated with menopause are due to changes in serotonin levels. Interestingly, the gut is one of the main sources of serotonin in the body!
Vitamins and minerals are necessary for the adequate production of these neurotransmitters, so eating foods high in those vitamins and minerals can help improve your mood. 2 Some of the most important vitamins and minerals needed are Vitamin B6 ( pyridoxal phosphate), folate and B12, Vitamin D and the minerals calcium, magnesium, chromium, zinc, and iron. All these can be taken as supplements, but it really is best to eat foods rich in these substances to get the best results. Maybe its just me, but sitting down for a great meal lifts my mood more than tossing back a handful of capsules!
Serotonin- Nature’s Anti-Depressant
Nuts also have a low glycemic index, are high in minerals such as calcium, magnesium, chromium, zinc, and iron. Nuts also contain tryptophan, an amino acid precursor of serotonin.
Norepinephrine And Dopamine- Nature’s Caffeine Substitute
To increase NE and DA, high protein foods should be eaten. These include meats, fish, dairy and nuts. If you are concerned about fats, keep in mind that grass-fed beef contains the recommended ratios of omega-3 to omega-6 fats—it is the grain-fed beef that contains high omega-6 fats. Buffalo meat is also an option, especially grass-fed buffalo.
Endorphins are another type of neurotransmitter that helps improve mood. Endorphins are natural pain relievers and have been associated with the “runner’s high”.
Endorphins need Vitamin C for proper synthesis so foods containing Vitamin C are helpful—these include citrus fruit, bananas and grapes. Endorphins are also stimulated by eating spicy foods —chili peppers seem to work the best!
Another thing to keep in mind is the size of your meals. Eating smaller amounts and using, for example, a handful of nuts as a snack during the day will smooth out any highs and lows in blood sugar, in your protein levels and in the amounts of serotonin, NE and DA produced during the day. This will also minimize mood swing or any drowsiness that sometimes occurs after a high carbohydrate meal.
There also appear to be important differences on when you eat that depend on whether you are a “morning person” or a “night owl”. Morning people tend to do better with the higher protein meals or snacks in the afternoon and the evening. Night owls may need the extra protein in the morning, so should include a high protein food in their breakfast.
Finally, in our culture, fat’s have gotten an undeserved bad reputation. Every cell in our body needs fat—for energy and as an important structural building block. The problem has been the type of fat that we eat. Animal fats are the main culprit for causing problems. The omega-3 fats are necessary—and, studies have shown that they can increase memory and decrease mood problems.5 Omega-3 fats are found in fish oil, flax seeds, and nuts.
Mood is dependent on many things—if you suffer from mood problems, keep in mind that these “superfoods” can help. Also, keep in mind the importance of exercise (especially good at releasing endorphins) and drinking lots of pure water. You might have noticed that there was quite an overlap in the “superfoods” mentioned to increase serotonin, NE, DA and endorphins. There is—overall, the best advice for improving your mood is to eat low glycemic, unprocessed whole foods high in complex carbohydrates and protein, get lots of exercise, water and rest!
It is important to remember that many of us seem to want to eat when we are feeling down or depressed. The foods mentioned will give some relief and if you include these foods on a daily basis, can make a real difference in your mood—especially as the recommended foods are whole, un-processed foods that are high in nutritional value and have a low GI. If these foods don’t seem to give more than temporary relief it may be a very good idea to see a health professional. Food is medicine, but if you find yourself craving specific foods or have a problem with weight6, you may actually be self-medicating and it would be a good time to seek some professional help.