While certain diets or foods may not ease depression (or put you instantly in a better mood), they may help as part of an overall treatment plan. There’s more and more research indicating that, in some ways, food and mood are related. We don’t know everything yet, but there are some interesting discoveries being made.
Basically the science of food’s affect on mood is based on this: Dietary changes can bring about chemical & physiological changes in our brain structure that can lead us to an altered behaviour.
How You Could Use Food to Boost Mood
So how should you change your diet if you want to try to improve your mood? Try these nine suggestions below. Try to combine as many as possible, because regardless of their effects on mood, most of these changes offer other health benefits as well.
1. Don’t Banish Carbs — Just Choose ‘Smart’ Ones
The connection between carbohydrates and mood is all about tryptophan, a nonessential amino acid. As more tryptophan enters the brain, more serotonin is synthesized in the brain, and mood tends to improve. Serotonin, known as a mood regulator, is made naturally in the brain from tryptophan with some help from the B vitamins. Foods thought to increase serotonin levels in the brain include fish and vitamin D.
Here’s the catch, though: While tryptophan is found in almost all protein-rich foods, other amino acids are better at passing from the bloodstream into the brain. So you can actually boost your tryptophan levels by eating more carbohydrates; they seem to help eliminate the competition for tryptophan, so more of it can enter the brain. But it’s important to make smart carbohydrate choices like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes, which also contribute important nutrients and fibre.
So what happens when you follow a very low carbohydrate diet? According to researchers from Arizona State University, a very low carbohydrate (ketogenic) diet was found to enhance fatigue and reduce the desire to exercise in overweight adults after just two weeks.
2. Get More Omega-3 Fatty Acids
In recent years, researchers have noted that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (found in fatty fish, flaxseed, and walnuts) may help protect against depression. This makes sense physiologically, since omega-3s appear to affect neurotransmitter pathways in the brain. Past studies have suggested there may be abnormal metabolism of omega-3s in depression, although some more recent studies have suggested there may not be a strong association between omega-3s and depression. Still, there are other health benefits to eating fish a few times a week, so it’s worth a try. Shoot for two to three servings of fish per week.
The best health benefits are that Omega-3 Fatty Acids have 2 great effects on fat. Firstly these acids are lipogenic, meaning they turn OFF the fat storing gene. Yes, they stop you storing fat! Secondly they are lipolytic, which means they promote fat burning. Think of this for a second, they stop you storing fat and make you burn more. This isn’t some cheesy sales pitch or just bold outright lie – it’s TRUE!
Whether it’s baked, broiled or raw sashimi, eating salmon and other oily fish like mackerel and sardines can bring a smile to your face.
These fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, the latest wunderkind of the mood world. Though they may be best known for their heart-healthy qualities, omega-3s are also good for boosting your mood. “They are probably the hottest thing presently in terms of helping the brain heal and helping mood through eating properly,” said George Pratt, a clinical psychologist in private practice at Scripps Memorial Hospital in LaJolla, California.
The body uses omega-3 fatty acids for building neurotransmitters like serotonin in the brain, and some studies have shown that eating plenty of these fats has depression-preventing qualities. If fish is not part of your diet, you can find these nourishing oils in flaxseeds and walnuts.
In fact, countries where oily fish are a part of the diet, such as Japan, have lower rates of depression than other countries. These countries often have a healthier diet and lifestyle overall, but their omega-3 intake is higher as well.
So, depending on your mood, swallow that spoonful of cod liver oil, just as your grandmother said.
For best results you should really take 1gram of Omega-3 Fatty Acids per 1% of bodyfat that you have. This can be a little expensive for some of us though, so aim to get at least 3-9 grams per day.
3. Eat a Balanced Breakfast
Eating breakfast regularly leads to improved mood, according to some researchers — along with better memory, more energy throughout the day, and feelings of calmness. It stands to reason that skipping breakfast would do the opposite, leading to fatigue and anxiety.
And what makes up a good breakfast? Lots of fibre and nutrients, some lean protein, good fats, and whole-grain carbohydrates.
4. Keep Exercising and Lose Weight (Slowly)
After looking at data from 4,641 women between the ages of 40 and 65, researchers from the Centre for Health Studies in Seattle found a strong link between depression and obesity, lower physical activity levels, and a higher calorie intake. Even without obesity as a factor, depression was associated with lower amounts of moderate or vigorous physical activity. In many of these women, I would suspect that depression feeds the obesity and vice versa.
Some researchers advise that, in overweight women, slow weight loss can improve mood. Fad dieting isn’t the answer, because cutting too far back on calories and carbohydrates can lead to irritability. And if you’re following a low-fat diet, be sure to include plenty of foods rich in omega-3s (like fish, ground flaxseed, higher omega-3 eggs, walnuts, and canola oil.)
5. Move to a Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet is a balanced, healthy eating pattern that includes plenty of fruits, nuts, vegetables, cereals, legumes, and fish — all of which are important sources of nutrients linked to preventing depression.
A recent Spanish study, using data from 4,211 men and 5,459 women, showed that rates of depression tended to increase in men (especially smokers) as folate intake decreased. The same occurred for women (especially among those who smoked or were physically active) but with another B-vitamin: B12.
This isn’t the first study to discover an association between these two vitamins and depression.
Researchers wonder whether poor nutrient intake may lead to depression, or whether depression leads people to eat a poor diet. Folate is found in Mediterranean diet staples like legumes, nuts, many fruits, and particularly dark green vegetables. B-12 can be found in all lean and low-fat animal products, such as fish and low-fat dairy products.
6. Get Enough Vitamin D
Vitamin D increases levels of serotonin in the brain but researchers are unsure of the individual differences that determine how much vitamin D is ideal (based on where you live, time of year, skin type, level of sun exposure). Researchers from the University of Toronto noticed that people who were suffering from depression, particularly those with seasonal affective disorder, tended to improve as their vitamin D levels in the body increased over the normal course of a year. Try to get about 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D a day from food if possible.
7. Select Selenium-Rich Foods
Selenium supplementation of 200 micrograms a day for seven weeks improved mild and moderate depression in 16 elderly participants, according to a small study from Texas Tech University. Previous studies have also reported an association between low selenium intakes and poorer moods.
More studies are needed, but it can’t hurt to make sure you’re eating foods that help you meet the Dietary Reference Intake for selenium (55 micrograms a day). It’s possible to ingest toxic doses of selenium, but this is unlikely if you’re getting it from foods rather than supplements.
Foods rich in selenium are foods we should be eating anyway such as:
· Seafood (oysters, clams, sardines, crab, saltwater fish and freshwater fish)
· Nuts and seeds (particularly Brazil nuts)
· Lean meat (lean pork and beef, skinless chicken and turkey)
· Whole grains (whole-grain pasta, brown rice, oatmeal, etc.)
· Low-fat dairy products
Thinking of Brazil Nuts, if an apple a day keeps the doctor away, some brazil nuts each day might keep the psychiatrist at bay.
Brazil nuts, native to South America, are rich in the mineral selenium. Though scientists are not certain of the mechanism, selenium is essential for maintaining a good mood and getting enough selenium may prevent depression. These rich nuts are also a good source of B vitamins, magnesium, and zinc, which can help calm stressed nerves and keep you alert.
If you really don’t want any of these foods, or don’t want to overload on them, then you can get a high quality source of selenium for your diet from here.
8. Don’t Overdo Caffeine
In people with sensitivity, caffeine may exacerbate depression. (And if caffeine keeps you awake at night, this could certainly affect your mood the next day.) Those at risk could try limiting or eliminating caffeine for a month or so to see if it improves mood.
Coffee can boost mood on many levels. In the morning, the aroma of a rich Columbian roast can be enough to make you feel more alert. After two cups, the mind is alert, the eyes are bright, and the tail is bushy.
Of course, the sensory effects of coffee, and other warm beverages, like tea or cocoa, can lift your spirits. But the caffeine is the key ingredient when it comes to how a cup of java can affect your mood. The chemical can induce feelings of happiness and euphoria. “A small amount of coffee or caffeine may help you feel more energized and alert,” said the ADA’s Lona Sandon. “Too much may backfire, leaving you feeling more stressed and jittery.”
Excess amounts of caffeine – say, more than four or five cups each day – can have effects on their own. The body becomes accustomed to the caffeine boost, and when it doesn’t receive it, can go through withdrawal-like symptoms, which can lead to irritability and depression. Drinking caffeine after noon can interfere with sleep patterns, leading to further risk of fatigue and depression.
The effect of caffeine is magnified in people with an existing mental condition.
“A patient with bipolar disorder may react positively to coffee when depressed, where as mania could be exacerbated,” said Carla Wolper, a nutritionist at the Obesity Research Centre at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York.
The expert verdict: A small cup of coffee in the morning is permissible, beneficial, even. More than that, however, and your mood is at risk.
9. Steer Clear Of Alcohol
Most high school children learn, through drug and alcohol education, that alcohol is a depressant – literally. Alcohol can dull your central nervous system and impair important brain functions. But that’s not the only thing alcohol can dull.
“Sugar and alcohol elate momentarily while they shoot excessive sugar into the system… but the resultant insulin response drives the blood sugar to dive low, creating brain and ultimate mood changes such as anxiety, depression, hopelessness, and/or sadness,” said Adele Puhn, a clinical nutritionist who has written extensively about diet.
When taken responsibly, a small quantity of alcohol can have calming, sedative effects. But while a glass of red wine with dinner may have a soothing effect after a hard day at work, downing martinis or scotch will do the opposite.
“Alcohol will help you go to sleep, but you will wake up rapidly,” Pratt said, when the alcohol is converted to sugar in the body. Sleep disruption can contribute to feeling tired, anxious, and depressed. “You just want to be very kind and loving to yourself.”
What Else Can/Should I Eat?
To list every food type and say yes or no would take this from a relatively simple article to War & Peace, and I’m not going to do that to you (and to be honest, I haven’t got that much time either!)
Here are a few other things to consider adding in to and removing from your diet.
Perhaps the spider that frightened Little Miss Muffet away was hip to the nutritional value of her curds and whey. Whey is the natural by-product of cheese. It is the thin, slightly cloudy liquid that is left behind once milk has been curdled and strained.
The mood benefits of whey come from the high concentration of tryptophan, that essential amino acid that gets converted to serotonin in the brain and lifts your mood.
If the thought of liquid whey does not set your mouth watering, it is often sold as whey protein, a powdered supplement found in health stores.
Maybe spinach helped Popeye the sailor strengthen up to fight for his love, Olive Oyl, but spinach has more effect on mood than Popeye let on.
Spinach is a potent green. Part of the family that includes kale and chard, spinach is a rich source of several minerals that are good for anxiety and depression.
People with anxiety might benefit from a cup of cooked spinach, according to Trudy Scott, a nutritionist and spokesperson for the National Association of Nutrition Professionals. Spinach contains magnesium, a mineral with relaxing and calming effects.
Green leafy vegetables are also high in folic acid, low levels of which have been linked to depression in several studies.
Comfort foods are different for everyone. It may be a pasta dish eaten as a child or a sweet given as a reward for doing well in school. But the effect of these foods is always the same: they make you feel good.
“There’s no question that when we eat something that really pleases us…presumably it sets off certain reward centres in the brain,” said Alan Gelenberg, emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona. “It is not dissimilar to the centres associated with drug abuse and sex.”
Because of the strong emotional component, comfort foods increase the production and release of the pleasure neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine, in the brain to give a sense of well-being and even euphoria.
Comfort foods may be simple in themselves: mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, chocolate cake, ice cream. In general, though, these foods taste good and immediately distract from a bad mood. But most often, we crave carbohydrate-rich foods when our mood is low because they are easy to digest and quickly release serotonin for a calming effect.
“They don’t require much work for the body to break down,” said the ADA’s Taub-Dix. “Your body is saying, “do me a favour, let’s just take it easy, I don’t want to work hard.” But this urge can backfire when unchecked. Overeating calorie- and fat-laden food can result in weight gain, which can also cause poor self-image and depression.
Gelenberg said the best way to head this off this scenario is to maintain a balanced diet and be physically active. “Then you can feel good and have selected number of treats as a favour to yourself,”.
Unequivocally, fast foods are mood downers. While it may be cheap, fast, or just easy to reach for a donut, a bag of chips, or a hamburger, eventually, your mood will pay the price.
The immediate effects of a high-fat or sugary snack can be misleading. Often, they give a quick burst of energy and may reduce tension. But these effects run in reverse rapidly, said Robert Thayer, a professor of psychology at California State University at Long Beach. “They shift to increase tension and reduce energy,” he said.
Fast food and junk food are usually the most processed foods, where the nutrients are refined to the point where they are absorbed immediately or not at all, leaving no long-term sustenance for the body to feed off of. “It is addictive to eat that sort of lipid-laden diet,” said Gelenberg.
Besides the poor nutrient content, fast food often contains many additives and preservatives that can affect mood negatively. Food colourings and preservatives, like benzoate, and added flavourings like monosodium glutamate (MSG), can cause anxiety, according to Scott.
Studies have shown that the omega-6 fatty acids often found in these foods can compete with omega-3 fatty acids and an imbalance between the two can lead to obesity and depression. Since Americans often don’t get enough omega-3s in their diets, consuming too many fast food items puts them at risk for mood problems.
Most of us are busy…and many people put themselves last. Fast food is horrible – for the salt content alone, never mind the fat and calories – but when we’re stressed we’re looking for rapid solutions… Emotionally centring yourself will be immensely helpful.
So, there you have it: how your food can make or break your day.