Research indicates that mood-boosting foods confirm the expression “you are what you eat”
There is a direct correlation between how we feel and the food we eat. Mounting scientific research shows that nutrition plays a critical role in mental health. Some research even suggests that a diet rich in certain nutrients may decrease the symptoms of depression and help improve mood over all.
According to Christina Scribner, MS, RD and founder of Encompass Nutrition in Littleton, mood disorders are serious mental health issues that plague many in our society. In fact, one in four people will be diagnosed with a mood disorder during their lifetime. “Suboptimal levels of certain nutrients are emerging as potentially modifiable risk factors for mood and mental illness,” says Scribner.
Vitamin D, folic acid (folate), omega-3 fatty acids and serotonin have all been identified for their roles in modulating mood, which is why a diet rich in food sources of these nutrients is encouraged for improved wellbeing.
The health benefits of high fiber complex carbohydrates are well-known, but further research reveals that complex carbohydrates, such as oatmeal, quinoa and brown rice, also help boost your mood by encouraging the body to release serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of wellbeing. Serotonin is released in response to a rise in blood sugar, which occurs when we eat carbohydrates.
In comparison to refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, the body digests the high fiber content found in whole grains more slowly. “This slow breakdown prevents the spike and consequential crash in blood sugar and serotonin alike,” says Beth Jauquet, registered dietician at Cherry Creek Nutrition.
However, combating hunger and blood sugar levels with carbohydrates alone isn’t the best idea for sustained mood improvement. “I recommend pairing a complex carbohydrate (whole grain crackers or refried beans) with a protein (cheese) or healthy fat such as avocado,” says Scribner. “One of my favorite simple snack ideas is hummus with veggies or crackers.”
B vitamins, essential for cell metabolism and central nervous system maintenance, are also critical for properly balanced brain chemistry and mood. They are essential ingredients for the production and proper functioning of several neurotransmitters including dopamine, crucial to the experience of pleasure. A deficiency in the B vitamin folic acid, or folate, and vitamin B12 can result in low serotonin activity within the brain, either by affecting receptor properties or syntheses of serotonin.
“Foods rich in folic acid have been shown to positively boost mood,” says Jauquet. Examples include dark leafy greens, beets, fruit and fruit juices, nuts, legumes, poultry, meat and whole grains. “Spinach, liver, yeast, asparagus and Brussels sprouts are among the foods with the highest levels of folate,” says Scribner.
It is well known that Vitamin D is needed for healthy bones, teeth and muscles and that a deficiency can cause numerous health problems including osteoporosis, however many studies have also found a correlation between low vitamin D levels and mood disorders. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a mood disorder with depressive symptoms, occurs during darker times of the year when there is little sunshine, coinciding with a sudden drop in vitamin D levels in the body. In addition to regular sun exposure, food sources with vitamin D include fatty fish, fortified cereals, dairy and egg yolks.
According to the Vitamin D Council, some of the vitamin D receptors in the brain are linked to depression. One theory is that vitamin D affects the amount of chemicals, called monoamines, such as serotonin, which interestingly are present in many anti-depression medications. “Some studies have found that patients suffering from depression benefit from an increase in vitamin D consumption as a supplemental treatment. However, the mechanism for both of these is unclear,” says Jauquet.
Studies suggest that the omega-3s, DHA and EPA, found in coldwater fish, such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines, may improve symptoms in people diagnosed with different types of depression, as well as improve the moods of people without a mood disorder. “Regarding mood, animal studies (rats) suggest that DHA-rich diets lead to high levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factors and serotonin, two markers that are often low among people with depression,” says Scribner. A review conducted by the New York State Psychiatric Institute concluded that supplements with at least 60 percent EPA improved depression symptoms. However, it is important to note that nutrition experts recommend that the average healthy individual consume a diet rich in omega-3s before considering supplements.
The Mediterranean diet is associated with mental health and includes an abundance of non-starchy vegetables, starchy legumes, fresh fruit, dairy products, olive oil, nuts and fish. One study published by the National Institute of Health determined that essential fatty acids, including omega-3 fatty acids, reduce inflammation, suggesting a possible positive correlation between consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids from nuts and optimal mental health. According to Scribner, both children and adults associate a more positive mood with eating foods typical of the Mediterranean lifestyle, and an inverse affect is associated with sweets, soda, red meat and a frequency of fast food.