Eating gives us a sense of pleasure, it makes us feel good and in food science/neurochemistry this is referred to as a food’s hedonic properties but have you ever thought about the role food plays in supporting your mood in general? Or how the quality of your diet might affect how you feel over the long run? If your mood is off, it’s worth taking an inventory of your diet to see if you’re feeding your brain the nutrients it needs so it can in turn, support you. For certain there are definitely more foods than are in this list below but this is a great place to start.
9 foods that help enhance your mood
Protein-rich foods: animal foods (meat, fish, poultry, eggs, cheese) are the most concentrated source of protein followed by pulses (chickpeas, lentils, dried peas & beans) and to a lesser extend nuts & seeds, and whole grains. Protein powders work too.
Protein is broken down in to their amino acid building blocks which the body uses to make neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, norepinepherine, acetlycholine and more). Getting a steady supply of protein rich foods throughout the day, at each main meal, is the best place to start to ensure you’re giving your body the raw materials it needs to support your mood.
Fatty fish: all fish & seafood contain the omega-3 fats EPA, DPA & DHA (not to be confused with the plant form of omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA) which have the best track record when it comes to supporting the brain’s structure and function when it comes to healthy moods.
Cold water fish, such as salmon, trout, herring, sardines, mackerel etc, have more EPA & DHA per serving so you get more bang for your buck. DHA is the main omega-3 fat in the brain and is needed for optimal brain cell (neuron) structure (think growth, repair and maintenance). EPA helps to increase blood flow to the brain to ensure it gets lots of oxygen and nutrients BUT it also helps to squash inflammation; lower inflammation keeps depression and anxiety at bay and can help to manage depression and anxiety that may be present.
Dark chocolate: ah, YUM. There really is a reason why chocolate, note – good quality chocolate – makes things better. Chocolate contains compounds that causes the brain to release endorphins (naturally produced, mild opioid neuro [brain] peptides [proteins]). These are the guys that are responsible for the ‘runner’s high’ or the feel-good sensation that comes with an honest workout. Chocolate also stimulates the brain to release serotonin; a well-known feel-good neurotransmitter.
The darker the chocolate, the more active/healthy compounds per serving. While I love chocolate with a 90% cocoa content, many might find this too bitter. You can get dark chocolate starting with a 55% cocoa content but I recommended 72% as the minimum.
Oysters: think oysters, think ZINC! Zinc is an essential mineral that may be lacking in modern processed and strict vegetarian diets. Beans and grains do contain zinc but phytates in grains, legumes/pulses (chickpeas, lentils, dried peas & beans), and nuts can interfere with its absorption. Since the body has no special zinc storage capability, its important to consume a bit of zinc on a regular basis
Zinc is crucial for energy production and brain health, plus zinc levels have been found to be deficient for depression sufferers, and increasing zinc has been shown to help alleviate those with mild to moderate depression. Not only that, zinc plays a role in modulating the brain and body’s response to stress and chronic stress has been shown to worsen depression and delay recovery.
Oysters are also rich in the amino acid tyrosine which, your brain uses to produce the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Coffee: it’s no surprised that moderate coffee consumption, e.g. two to four, 6 oz or 188 ml servings of coffee per day are associated with lower rates of depression and better overall moods. Why? One reason is because coffee raises both dopamine (feel good neurotransmitter) and norepinephrine levels. Norepinepherine also has mood enhancing properties but it also gives us a little ‘lift’; we get a little more physical and mental energy.
A word to the wise, too much coffee and other caffeine-containing beverages or supplements (5 Hour Energy and energy drinks) can back-fire. Too much norepinepherine can lead to irritability, disturbed sleep and can aggravate stress.
The expression ‘too much of a good thing can be bad’ definitely applies here.
Pulses: chickpeas, lentils, dried peas & beans, ‘legumes’ if you’re old school, are one of the best sources of folate, or vitamin B9. Along with vitamins B6 & B12, folate is central to a fancy metabolic reaction called ‘methylation’ and one of methylation’s improtant job’s is to keep homocysteine levels within a healthy range. If elevated, homocysteine can increase the risk for mood disorders because higher levels of homocysteine promotes inflammation which is a well-understood driver of depression in particular.
Many with treatment-resistant depression find improvement when they increase their intake of folate.
Liver: as a food, liver has fallen out of favour. I don’t know many people who order it or cooked it at home, myself included. Liver and onions anyone? The very thought of it makes me retch BUT I do like liver pate which I include semi-regularly.
Not only does liver have heaps of vitamin A, it’s the single best source of vitamin B12. A 3 oz, or 86 g serving, has 71 mcg of B12 for a mere 115 calories. B12 is needed for neurotransmitter production and function (which support healthy moods) and B12 is needed for myelin sheath repair and maintenance. Myelin is the fatty membrane that covers nerves, like the covering that wraps the wires of an extension chord. Healthy myelin ensures proper nerve transmission.
B12 is also needed to keep homocysteine levels in a healthy range; when homocysteine is elevated, its a sign of inflammation and as mentioned above, both of which increase the risk for, and worsens depression.
Brazil nuts: one of the single best sources of the mineral selenium and studies have shown that a low intake, and low blood levels of selenium increase the risk, and are predictive of higher rates of depression, irritability and anxiety. Selenium is also needed to make glutathione, an antioxidant and master detoxifying molecule found in nearly every cell; good glutathione levels help to support stable moods by reducing oxidation and by supporting the liver’s job in clearing toxins.
Because the amount of selenium in soil is different in different parts of the world, the amount of selenium in foods varies drastically as well. This, on top of our increasingly highly processed food supply has lead to large portions of the population low in selenium. Including more selenium-rich foods like Brazil nuts is a good first step.
Alcohol: this is a bit misleading. Alcohol is not something to use as a mood enhancer. It’s true that it only takes a very small amount to raise the feel good neurotransmitter dopamine, and to briefly produce a pleasant and relaxed state of mind but alcohol is a ultimately a nervous system depressant.
Too much, too often and it increases the risk for depression even though it’s the number one ‘go-to’ for people when they’re feeling anxious. It also doesn’t take much to lead to poorer sleep quality which can then affect your mood the next day, even if it just means feeling ‘blah’, or having a lack of motivation or worse, feeling irritable, moody and anxious.