Get special offers, recipes, health news, PLUS our FREE seafood cooking guide!
Got it, thanks! Click here for your FREE seafood cooking guide & recipes e-booklet.
Food, Health, and Eco-news
Top 5 Foods for Boosting Mood
Specific nutrients and types of food can deliver real psychological benefits 09/17/2018 By Joanne Bradbury, Ph.D. and Megan Lee, B.S. Edited by Craig Weatherby

Today's guest article comes to us courtesty of The Conversation, and was authored by two mental health researchers based at Australia’s Southern Cross University: Joanne Bradbury, Ph.D. and Ph.D. candidate Megan Lee, B.S.

It was edited and expanded by Craig Weatherby for publication in Vital Choices.

Top 5 Foods for Boosting Mood

By Joanne Bradbury, Ph.D. and Megan Lee, B.S.

We all know eating “healthy” food is good for our physical health and can lower our risks for diabetes, cancer, obesity, and heart disease.

Not as well known is that healthy diets are also good for overall brain health and can reduce your risk of depression and anxiety.

Mental health disorders are increasing at an alarming rate, and therapies and medications cost 2.5 trillion dollars a year globally.

But growing evidence shows that dietary changes can help prevent or ease mental health issues and alleviate this growing burden. (Australia’s clinical guidelines recommend addressing diet when treating depression.)

Recently there have been major advances* in addressing the influence certain foods have on psychological well-being.

[*Editor’s Note: Those advances include the SMILES study led by Australian psychology professor Felice N. Jacka, Ph.D., who co-authored one of the three studies covered in our related report, Fish Alleviates Women's Anxiety.]

Mood-lifter #1: Complex carbohydrates
One way to bolster psychological well-being is by fueling brain cells correctly.

Complex carbohydrates are long chains of sugars molecules found within fiber and starch.

They abound in fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains and release glucose [blood sugar] slowly, which helps stabilize mood.

In contrast, the simple carbohydrates — sugars and refined starches — in sugary snacks and drinks create sugar highs and lows that cause harmful mood swings.

People often use sugary and starchy foods to feel better. But this can create an addiction-like response in the brain, with negative long-term effects. 

[Editor’s Note: For more on this topic, see Is Sugar an Addictive Drug?.]

Shifting your diet to favor complex carbohydrates over sugars and starches could be the first step toward supporting long-term happiness and well-being.

Mood-lifter #2: Antioxidants
Oxidation is a normal, essential process our cells use to produce energy, via creation of unstable molecules called oxygen free radicals.

But junky diets high in sugars and refined starches create an excess of free radicals that produces harmful "oxidative stress" — which affects the brain more than any other part of the body. Oxidative stress also promotes chronic inflammation, which in turn generates more free radicals.

Neurotransmitter chemicals that promote happiness in the brain — such as dopamine, GABA, serotonin, and norepinephrine — are reduced by oxidative stress, which can harm mental health and depress mood.

Antioxidants found in brightly colored fruit and vegetables — as well as beans and whole grains — stimulate the body's own "antioxidant network" to defend against oxidative stress.

(It's somewhat misleading to refer to such chemicals in plant foods as "antioxidants", because their direct antioxidant effects on free radicals are very minor, compared to their "triggering" effects on genes that control the body's antioxidant network.)

Antioxidants also repair oxidative damage and block free radicals, so eating more antioxidant-rich foods can ensure healthy levels of dopamine and serotonin, and thereby heighten mood.

Mood-lifter #3: Omega-3s
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are critical to mood and brain health, and the workings of its feel-good chemicals: dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.

Omega-3s boost basic brain functions, may delay the progression of dementia, and are clinically proven to improve symptoms of moderate to major depression.

Omega-3s cannot be produced by the body, so it’s imperative to eat foods high in omega-3s — especially seafood, which is the only source of the omega-3s the body actually needs and uses, called DHA and EPA. (You can also get DHA and EPA from supplemental fish oils.)

The body can only make very small amounts of EPA and DHA from the plant-source omega-3 fat called ALA, which occurs in walnuts, hemp and flax seeds, leafy vegetables, and grass-fed meats.

In addition to ensuring ample intakes of omega-3 DHA and EPA, it's very important to cut back on omega-6 fatty acids, which Americans consume at extremely high, historically unprecedented levels shown to harm mood and mental health.

[Editor’s Note: For more on that topic, see the Omega-3/6 Balance page of our website.)

Omega-6 fats are concentrated in cheap vegetable oils like corn, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed, and soy, and the prepared and restaurant foods made with them.

Canola oil has substantial amounts of omega-3s, with relatively low levels of omega-6s — and non-GMO brands are available.

[Editor’s Note: For more about omega-3s and mood, see Brains on Fire: How Fish Fats Help Deter Depression and other articles in the Brain Health part of the Omega-3 Fatty Acids section of our newsletter archive. There's also some evidence that vitamin D —  whose only good food sources are fatty fish like salmon and sardines — plays a role in regulating mood; see Omega-3s and Vitamin D Boost Key Mood Chemical.]

Mood-lifter #4: B vitamins
B vitamins — especially vitamins B6 (pyridoxine ), B12 (cobalamin), and B9 (folic acid) — play big roles in the production of mood-regulating chemicals like serotonin, and are concentrated in green vegetables, beans, meat, fish, dairy, and whole grains.

Higher intakes of vitamins B6, B12, and B9 appear to protect against depression, while low intakes worsen its severity.

Vitamin B deficiencies impair the production of mood-regulating brain chemicals — dopamine, GABA, serotonin, and norepinephrine — and promotes depression and other mental health issues.

B vitamins aren’t easily absorbed, and these factors raise the risk of a deficiency in one or more B vitamins, especially vitamin B12 (cobalamin), in which about one in four Americans are deficient:

  • Age over 55
  • Gut-health issues 
  • Drinking alcohol regularly
  • Vegetarian and vegan diets
  • Drinking more than four cups of coffee daily
  • Eating a high-calorie, high-sugar/starch diet 
  • Antacids and proton-pump inhibitors can interfere with absorption
  • Lack of key dietary sources, like green vegetables, dairy, beans, and whole grains

Mood-lifter #5. Prebiotics and probiotics
The trillions of good and bad bacteria living in your gut influence your mood, behavior, appetite, metabolism, brain health, and reactions to stress.

Probiotics is the term applied to friendly bacteria, while prebiotics are things in the human diet that feed probiotic bacteria, such as certain fibers.

Probiotics found in yogurt, cheese, and other fermented foods such as kombucha, sauerkraut and kimchi work on the same brain pathways as antidepressant drugs, and studies suggest they might bring similar benefits.

Prebiotics and probiotics have been found to reduce inflammation in the brain, ease depressed and anxious states and elevate mood.

[Editor’s Note: For more on this topic, see Live Cultures May Lift Mood.]

Bonus mood-lifter: Magnesium
A recent clinical trial found that magnesium may ease depression, remarkably rapidly.

As its authors wrote, “Magnesium is effective for mild-to-moderate depression in adults. Effects were observed within two weeks.” (Tarleton EK et al. 2017)

It’s possible the mineral’s mood-elevating potential stems from its ability to reduce inflammation — as confirmed in a recent evidence review — because inflammation promotes depression (Simental-Mendía LE et al. 2017).

Please note: This article appeared in The Conversation. We edited it substantially to add detail and clarify some key points, added the information about magnesium, and added relevant references below, listed by section.

To learn more about this topic, see Vital Choice founder Randy Hartnell's interview with Drew Ramsey, M.D., titled Can Food Really Lift Your Mood? One Psychiatrist Says Yes.



  • Jacka FN, O'Neil A, Opie R, Itsiopoulos C, Cotton S, Mohebbi M, Castle D, Dash S, Mihalopoulos C, Chatterton ML, Brazionis L, Dean OM, Hodge AM, Berk M. A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the 'SMILES' trial). BMC Med. 2017 Jan 30;15(1):23. doi: 10.1186/s12916-017-0791-y.
  • Jacka FN, Pasco JA, Mykletun A, Williams LJ, Hodge AM, O'Reilly SL, Nicholson GC, Kotowicz MA, Berk M. Association of Western and traditional diets with depression and anxiety in women. Am J Psychiatry. 2010 Mar;167(3):305-11. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2009.09060881. Epub 2010 Jan 4.
  • Jacka FN, Pasco JA, Williams LJ, Meyer BJ, Digger R, Berk M. Dietary intake of fish and PUFA, and clinical depressive and anxiety disorders in women. Br J Nutr 2013;109:2059-2066. [PubMed]
  • Li Y, Lv MR, Wei YJ, Sun L, Zhang JX, Zhang HG, Li B. Dietary patterns and depression risk: A meta-analysis. Psychiatry Res. 2017 Jul;253:373-382. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2017.04.020. Epub 2017 Apr 11. Review.
  • Opie RS, Itsiopoulos C, Parletta N, Sanchez-Villegas A, Akbaraly TN, Ruusunen A, Jacka FN. Dietary recommendations for the prevention of depression. Nutr Neurosci. 2017 Apr;20(3):161-171. doi: 10.1179/1476830515Y.0000000043. Epub 2016 Mar 2.
  • Parletta N, Zarnowiecki D, Cho J, Wilson A, Bogomolova S, Villani A, Itsiopoulos C, Niyonsenga T, Blunden S, Meyer B, Segal L, Baune BT, O'Dea K. A Mediterranean-style dietary intervention supplemented with fish oil improves diet quality and mental health in people with depression: A randomized controlled trial (HELFIMED). Nutr Neurosci. 2017 Dec 7:1-14. doi: 10.1080/1028415X.2017.1411320. [Epub ahead of print]
  • Rahe C, Unrath M, Berger K. Dietary patterns and the risk of depression in adults: a systematic review of observational studies. Eur J Nutr. 2014 Jun;53(4):997-1013. doi: 10.1007/s00394-014-0652-9. Epub 2014 Jan 28. Review.
  • Whiteford HA, Degenhardt L, Rehm J, Baxter AJ, Ferrari AJ, Erskine HE, Charlson FJ, Norman RE, Flaxman AD, Johns N, Burstein R, Murray CJ, Vos T. Global burden of disease attributable to mental and substance use disorders: findings from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010. Lancet. 2013 Nov 9;382(9904):1575-86. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(13)61611-6. Epub 2013 Aug 29. Review.

B vitamins:

  • Almeida OP, Ford AH, Flicker L. Systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized placebo-controlled trials of folate and vitamin B12 for depression. Int Psychogeriatr. 2015 May;27(5):727-37. doi: 10.1017/S1041610215000046. Epub 2015 Feb 3. Review.
  • Mikkelsen K, Stojanovska L, Apostolopoulos V. The Effects of Vitamin B in Depression. Curr Med Chem. 2016;23(38):4317-4337. Review.
  • Murakami K, Mizoue T, Sasaki S, Ohta M, Sato M, Matsushita Y, Mishima N. Dietary intake of folate, other B vitamins, and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in relation to depressive symptoms in Japanese adults. Nutrition. 2008 Feb;24(2):140-7. Epub 2007 Dec 3.
  • Watanabe H, Ishida S, Konno Y, Matsumoto M, Nomachi S, Masaki K, Okayama H, Nagai Y. Impact of dietary folate intake on depressive symptoms in young women of reproductive age. J Midwifery Womens Health. 2012 Jan-Feb;57(1):43-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1542-2011.2011.00073.x. Epub 2011 Sep 23.


  • Conner TS, Brookie KL, Richardson AC, Polak MA. On carrots and curiosity: eating fruit and vegetables is associated with greater flourishing in daily life. Br J Health Psychol. 2015 May;20(2):413-27. doi: 10.1111/bjhp.12113. Epub 2014 Jul 30.
  • Knüppel A, Shipley MJ, Llewellyn CH, Brunner EJ. Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study. Sci Rep. 2017 Jul 27;7(1):6287. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-05649-7.
  • Rooney C, McKinley MC, Woodside JV. The potential role of fruit and vegetables in aspects of psychological well-being: a review of the literature and future directions. Proc Nutr Soc. 2013 Nov;72(4):420-32. doi: 10.1017/S0029665113003388. Epub 2013 Sep 11. Review.
  • Westover AN, Marangell LB. A cross-national relationship between sugar consumption and major depression? Depress Anxiety. 2002;16(3):118-20.


  • Oddy WH, Allen KL, Trapp GSA, Ambrosini GL, Black LJ, Huang RC, Rzehak P, Runions KC, Pan F, Beilin LJ, Mori TA. Dietary patterns, body mass index and inflammation: Pathways to depression and mental health problems in adolescents. Brain Behav Immun. 2018 Mar;69:428-439. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2018.01.002. Epub 2018 Jan 12.
  • Palta P, Samuel LJ, Miller ER 3rd, Szanton SL. Depression and oxidative stress: results from a meta-analysis of observational studies. Psychosom Med. 2014 Jan;76(1):12-9. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000009. Epub 2013 Dec 12.
  • Parletta N, Zarnowiecki D, Cho J, Wilson A, Bogomolova S, Villani A, Itsiopoulos C, Niyonsenga T, Blunden S, Meyer B, Segal L, Baune BT, O'Dea K. A Mediterranean-style dietary intervention supplemented with fish oil improves diet quality and mental health in people with depression: A randomized controlled trial (HELFIMED). Nutr Neurosci. 2017 Dec 7:1-14. doi: 10.1080/1028415X.2017.1411320. [Epub ahead of print]


  • Gangwisch JE, Hale L, Garcia L, Malaspina D, Opler MG, Payne ME, Rossom RC, Lane D. High glycemic index diet as a risk factor for depression: analyses from the Women's Health Initiative. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015 Aug;102(2):454-63. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.114.103846. Epub 2015 Jun 24.
  • Hedelin M, Löf M, Olsson M, Lewander T, Nilsson B, Hultman CM, Weiderpass E. Dietary intake of fish, omega-3, omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamin D and the prevalence of psychotic-like symptoms in a cohort of 33,000 women from the general population. BMC Psychiatry. 2010 May 26;10:38. doi: 10.1186/1471-244X-10-38.
  • Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Belury MA, Porter K, Beversdorf DQ, Lemeshow S, Glaser R. Depressive symptoms, omega-6:omega-3 fatty acids, and inflammation in older adults. Psychosom Med. 2007 Apr;69(3):217-24. Epub 2007 Mar 30.
  • Parletta N, Zarnowiecki D, Cho J, Wilson A, Bogomolova S, Villani A, Itsiopoulos C, Niyonsenga T, Blunden S, Meyer B, Segal L, Baune BT, O'Dea K. A Mediterranean-style dietary intervention supplemented with fish oil improves diet quality and mental health in people with depression: A randomized controlled trial (HELFIMED). Nutr Neurosci. 2017 Dec 7:1-14. doi: 10.1080/1028415X.2017.1411320. [Epub ahead of print]
  • Simopoulos AP. Evolutionary aspects of diet: the omega-6/omega-3 ratio and the brain. Mol Neurobiol. 2011 Oct;44(2):203-15. doi: 10.1007/s12035-010-8162-0. Epub 2011 Jan 29. Review.


  • Deans E.Microbiome and mental health in the modern environment. J Physiol Anthropol. 2016 Jun 27;36(1):1. doi: 10.1186/s40101-016-0101-y.
  • Huang R, Wang K, Hu J. Effect of Probiotics on Depression: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Nutrients. 2016 Aug 6;8(8). pii: E483. doi: 10.3390/nu8080483. Review.
  • Logan AC, Katzman MA, Balanzá-Martínez V. Natural environments, ancestral diets, and microbial ecology: is there a modern "paleo-deficit disorder"? Part II. J Physiol Anthropol. 2015 Mar 10;34:9. doi: 10.1186/s40101-014-0040-4. Review.
  • Lowry CA, Smith DG, Siebler PH, Schmidt D, Stamper CE, Hassell JE Jr, Yamashita PS, Fox JH, Reber SO, Brenner LA, Hoisington AJ, Postolache TT, Kinney KA, Marciani D, Hernandez M, Hemmings SM, Malan-Muller S, Wright KP, Knight R, Raison CL, Rook GA. The Microbiota, Immunoregulation, and Mental Health: Implications for Public Health. Curr Environ Health Rep. 2016 Sep;3(3):270-86. doi: 10.1007/s40572-016-0100-5. Review.
  • Nagpal R, Kumar M, Yadav AK, Hemalatha R, Yadav H, Marotta F, Yamashiro Y. Gut microbiota in health and disease: an overview focused on metabolic inflammation. Benef Microbes. 2016;7(2):181-94. doi: 10.3920/bm2015.0062. Epub 2015 Dec 8. Review.
  • Naseribafrouei A, Hestad K, Avershina E, Sekelja M, Linløkken A, Wilson R, Rudi K. Correlation between the human fecal microbiota and depression. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2014 Aug;26(8):1155-62. doi: 10.1111/nmo.12378. Epub 2014 Jun 1.
  • Perez-Cornago A, Sanchez-Villegas A, Bes-Rastrollo M, Gea A, Molero P, Lahortiga-Ramos F, Martínez-González MA. Intake of High-Fat Yogurt, but Not of Low-Fat Yogurt or Prebiotics, Is Related to Lower Risk of Depression in Women of the SUN Cohort Study. J Nutr. 2016 Sep;146(9):1731-9. doi: 10.3945/jn.116.233858. Epub 2016 Jul 27.
  • Simental-Mendía LE, Sahebkar A, Rodríguez-Morán M, Zambrano-Galván G, Guerrero-Romero F. Effect of magnesium supplementation on plasma C-reactive protein concentrations: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Curr Pharm Des. 2017 May 25. doi: 10.2174/1381612823666170525153605. [Epub ahead of print]
  • Tarleton EK, Littenberg B, MacLean CD, Kennedy AG, Daley C. Role of magnesium supplementation in the treatment of depression: A randomized clinical trial. PLoS One. 2017 Jun 27;12(6):e0180067. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0180067. eCollection 2017.
  • Tillisch K, Labus J, Kilpatrick L, Jiang Z, Stains J, Ebrat B, Guyonnet D, Legrain-Raspaud S, Trotin B, Naliboff B, Mayer EA. Consumption of fermented milk product with probiotic modulates brain activity. Gastroenterology. 2013 Jun;144(7):1394-401, 1401.e1-4. doi: 10.1053/j.gastro.2013.02.043. Epub 2013 Mar 6.