How we feel mentally has a lot to do with our diet and lifestyle. If we eat well and keep active, we feel better as a result. These mood-boosting superfoods can help you to eat away the January Blues! January, in particular, can be hard because diet culture shames us more than ever for eating! We need food to be healthy and thrive, and these foods are good for your soul (and body).
However, that’s not to dismiss mental illness, chronic illness, or provide an over-simplified solution. While a healthy lifestyle may help to ease symptoms of depression or anxiety, it’s not a cure. If you’re suffering from mental illness, you know what works for you best, and professional help is always advised. Nor is it “your fault” for having any of these conditions because of what you eat.
That said, whether you have a mental illness or not or even Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), winter can be a rough season. Even if you don’t have SAD, a lot of people feel a bit lower due to the lack of sunlight, and colder, wet weather. These mood-boosting superfoods can be the pick-me-up your looking for!
High protein foods:
Precursors to dopamine are found in protein-rich foods. Protein is made up of amino acids. Tyrosine is an amino acid which when broken down by enzymes helps create dopamine. Protein is essential for building and maintaining muscle mass, as well as growth and repair. Without sufficient protein intake, you’ll find yourself feeling weak, tired, and light-headed.
Dopamine is responsible for stress management, alertness, and mood. Low levels of dopamine are associated with depression and other mental illnesses.
Protein-rich foods that can help ward off low-dopamine levels include tofu and other soy products, beans, and nuts such as almonds and cashews.
Dopamine is also found in good mood foods like bananas and dark chocolate, so treat yourself!
More than 60% of our brain is made up of fats, yet fats are still a fear-food (despite being an essential macronutrient). Omega-3 fatty acids cannot be made by the body, which is why we need to eat omega-3 rich foods.
Omega-3 is a healthy unsaturated fat and is found in avocados, walnuts, and flax-seeds. If you’re vegan or vegetarian or worried you’re not getting enough omega-3 in your diet you can take algal oil supplements. Algal oil or algae-based supplements are made from the very same algae fish eat that make them omega-3 rich in the first place, so you’re basically skipping the middle man… or rather, middle fish. It’s important to consult with your GP or dietician before taking any new supplements first to avoid overconsuming any micronutrients.
High omega-3 intake has been associated with lower levels of depression. The mood-boosting properties are hypothesized as it can easily travel through the brain and interact with mood-related molecules, and because it is anti-inflammatory.
Choline is a precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is important in memory and concentration. Choline is similar to the B-vitamins and made in the liver, but also should be consumed in good mood foods such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and soy.
B-complex vitamins are important for producing brain chemicals that affect mood. Low levels of B12 B6, and folate are believed to be linked to depression.
Vegans worried about their B-12 intake should eat fortified foods, nutritional yeast, or take supplements. You should consult your GP and/or dietitian first to ensure you don’t experience hypervitaminosis (a condition caused by toxicity from consuming too many vitamins)
Vitamin D & Serotonin
The lack of sunlight is a big trigger for Seasonal Affective Disorder and low-mood during winter. A lot of people’s serotonin levels are lower during winter. This is believed to be due to the fact that vitamin D increases serotonin levels. As sunlight helps the body synthesize vitamin D, the fact that we get less sun, go out less, and wear more clothing means that it’s not synthesized as well.
Serotonin is a mood regulator that helps produce happy, calm feelings. It’s found in the central nervous system, blood platelets, and the digestive tract. Low levels of serotonin can cause irritability. Serotonin is also found in pineapples, tofu, and nuts.
Bananas being yellow and looking like a smile is also a lovely coincidence as they too contain serotonin. Although the serotonin in bananas doesn’t directly make it’s way to the brain, they do help the brain in producing it to an extent. Banana’s are also rich in vitamin B6, with one medium banana contains 20% of the RDA of this vitamin. Low B6 can contribute to low serotonin levels, so a banana a day is a good start! As banana’s also contain dopamine they really are one of the best mood-boosting superfoods.
Vitamin D can be found in mushrooms, fortified milk, tofu, and orange juice.
Some suffers of SAD get light therapy boxes that mimic sunlight to make the winter months easier.
90% of our serotonin is made in the digestive system and not in the brain! Other neurotransmitters like acetylcholine, dopamine, and norepinephrine are also in the gut. As well as GABA which plays a role in reward and motivation.
A study found that women who ate fermented dairy products with probiotics such as yogurt twice a day for four weeks had “calmer” brains during “emotional tasks” than those taking non-fermented products, and those taking nothing.
This good gut bacteria can be found in natural yogurts and miso, which is made from fermented soya beans and sometimes rice.
However, probiotics don’t suit everyone, so proceed with caution as you don’t want to mess with your gut’s natural bacterial balance. Everything in moderation!
The Bottom Line
If you’re deficient in some of these food groups and nutrients, you may find yourself feeling a little low. Incorporating these foods into your lifestyle can help lift and stabilize your mood. There are no short cuts to feeling happier or healthier – a balanced diet and active lifestyle are always a good start.
To reiterate, these good mood foods and diet alone won’t “cure” or treat mental illness, and it’s not right to suggest that “going for a walk” will fix everything. Dealing with these illnesses takes a multifaceted approach, and should be done so with the help of mental health professionals.
Do you regularly eat these mood-boosting superfoods?