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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 was penned 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.


Sources

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B vitamins:

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Omega-3s:

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Probiotics:

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