Discover how the food you eat contributes to your mood and happiness. Good mood food contains all the essential brain nutrients and prebiotics to help your gut bugs be healthy and happy which promotes your happiness.
Food is not only critical for your physical health, but for brain health, including your mental and emotional wellbeing. Although good food and nutrition has been considered essential in the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, the field of mental health has been slow to advocate for dietary intervention for brain health and mental wellbeing.
Recently the Royal Australia and New Zealand College of Psychiatry (2020) and the United Kingdom’s 2022 National Institute and Health and Care Excellence guidelines considers dietary interventions foundational to the treatment of mood disorders.
Depression is a complex mental disorder caused by a combination of genetic, biological, and environmental factors. Adequate production of the feel good chemical serotonin has long been touted as important for mental health.
However after decades of research, a recent article published in Nature has shown that reduced levels of serotonin is an over simplification of the mechanism of depression (Moncrieff 2022).
Depression is more complex and involves not only serotonin production but many other biological factors including multiple neurotransmitters, neurotropic factors, hormones, inflammatory mediators, immune system and microbiome involvement.
As depression is also influenced by important social, psychological and developmental factors. These importantly should be addressed in conjunction to nutritional interventions.
What is Good Mood Food?
Food is not only essential for a healthy body and overall health, but for optimal mood as well. Good mood food is food that has beneficial effects on your mood and sense of wellbeing. There are a number of ways that certain foods influence a person’s mood and neuron function. Here are a few effects of food on the brain and how they influence your mood.
Nutrition for brain health
The brain needs nutrients to provide energy and building blocks for neurotransmitter function and other brain chemicals to enhance overall mood. These essential nutrients for the brain include:
- vitamin C, B vitamins such as folate and niacin,
- tryptophan and other amino acids,
- omega-3 fatty acids.
Foods that reduce brain inflammation
Foods containing a high content of antioxidants such as fruit and vegetables are neuro protective to nerve cells. Antioxidants are found abundantly in plant nutrient dense foods such as kale, cauliflower, broccoli and berries. Antioxidants bind to harmful free radicals and reduce damage to nerve cells in the brain.
Inflammation has been linked to depression. Diet can affects inflammation levels in the body by either promoting gene expression and production of proteins that reduce inflammation (anti-inflammatory) or by promoting gene expression and production of genes that increase inflammation (pro-inflammatory).
For example, a diet high in sugar and refined carbs increases low grade inflammation in the body and brain on a cellular level, while a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish, nuts, and seeds) decreases inflammation.
Foods that lower insulin resistance
Consuming refined carbohydrates, oils and processed foods promote insulin resistance. This increases the glucose exposure to the brain which results in reduced neuron function, earlier aging and death of neurons.
Consuming plant foods as part of a whole food plant based diet can help stabilize blood sugar levels. Reducing refined carbs and processed foods also help stabilize blood sugars and helps the body be more sensitive to insulin.
Food and blood vessel function
Eating foods such as walnuts that contain monounsaturated fats and many other vitamins and phytonutrients improve the endothelial function of blood vessels in the brain (Ros 2004).
These endothelial cells line the blood vessels supplying blood to nerve cells and are responsible for neurotrophins synthesis, including brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) a key molecule in learning, mood and neuroplasticity.
Foods that increase neuroplasticity
Dietary patterns that increase BDNF and other neurotrophins can enhance the creation of new synapses or connections in the brain. For example the typical western diet, (typically high-fat and high-carbohydrate reduces hippocampal BDNF content of the brain (Gyorkas 2019). This is a key area of the brain involved in emotion regulation and processing and important for mood (Zhu 2019).
Omega 3 and depression
Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy fats that are essential components of nerve cell membranes. Adequate omega- 3 is derived from plant foods such as flax seeds, seaweed and algae or fatty fish. This is essential for cell membranes function communication between cells.
HPA axis in depression
Plant foods can counteracting of the adverse metabolic effects due to the abnormal regulation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenocortical axis that occurs in depression. Processed foods and foods with high refined sugar contents can contribute to dysregulation or dysfunction of the stress hormone cascade.
The bacteria in your gut, known as the microbiome influence your mental well being. A healthy and diverse gut microbiome this provides mental health benefits of feeling well and experiencing a happy mood.
Healthy gut bacteria that is fed great prebiotic food also produces substances such as short chain fatty acid butyrate that promote healthy brain function and mood (Clapp 2017).
How does food affect your mood?
More about the Brain-Gut Axis
Plant foods not only contain diverse array of nutrients which support brain function, but they also promote a more diverse microbiota, with more abundant good bacteria.
The trillions of bacteria that live in our intestines (collectively known as the microbiome) play a crucial role in many aspects of our health, from digestion to immunity. The microbiome also influences mood and behavior.
For example, studies have found that people with depression and anxiety tend to have different gut bacteria than people without these conditions.
One theory is that certain gut bacteria produce substances that affect the brain. For example, some bacteria produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that can impact the brain’s communication network (the endocannabinoid system).
There is a bi-directional connection between the human microbiome in the gut and brain health. This has become known as the gut-brain axis. Brain function affects the gut microbiome via the vagus nerve and also via the hormone and immune systems. In turn the gut microbiome produce chemicals that can affect your mood.
Current research suggests that alterations in the gut microbiota diversity can tip the gut microbiome towards dysbiosis. This is an imbalance between beneficial and non-beneficial bacteria, can contribute towards microbial lipopolysaccharides (LPS) induced inflammation.
LPS inflammatory responses resulting in cytokines sending signals to the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve triggers activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (chronic inflammatory stress) resulting in increased cortisol release. This impacts sleep, mood and brain function with symptoms such as slowed thoughts, brain fog, low mood etc.
Diagram from Limbana 2020 Cureus
Gut health is important for maintaining optimal health brain function and reducing depression.
Nutrition and Mental Health Research
There is growing evidence that diet can play a role in the prevention and treatment of mental health disorders. A number of large observational studies have found that diet is associated with mental health. Additionally the field of nutritional psychiatry is demonstrating nutritional interventions enhance mental well being.
A systematic review of 12 studies found that a Mediterranean diet (high in vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, fish, and olive oil) was associated with a lower risk of depression (Sánchez-Villegas 2016).
The SMILEs Trial (Supporting the Modification of lifestyle In Lowered Emotional States) was a 12-week program carried out in Australia. It aimed to help participants improve their mental health through diet and lifestyle changes. The program included weekly group sessions, individual counseling, and the opportunity to learn about and cook nutritious meals.
Dietary patterns were based on the ModiMedDiet i.e. a modified Mediterranean diet, which is a predominantly plant based diet. This diet focused on the intake of key food groups (recommended servings in brackets):
- whole grains (5–8 servings per day);
- vegetables (6 per day); fruit (3 per day),
- legumes (3–4 per week);
- low-fat and unsweetened dairy foods (2–3 per day);
- raw and unsalted nuts (1 per day);
- fish (at least 2 per week);
- lean red meats (3–4 per week),
- chicken (2–3 per week);
- eggs (up to 6 per week);
- and olive oil (3 tablespoons per day),
Participants also reduced intake of ‘extras’ foods, such as sweets, refined cereals, fried food, fast-food, processed meats and sugary drinks (no more than 3 per week). Red wine consumption beyond 2 standard drinks per day and all other alcohol (e.g. spirits, beer) were considered part of the extra food group.
Participants in the trial reported improvements in mood, energy levels, sleep quality, and overall well being. The trial showed that the number needed to treat was 4, meaning if 4 people modified their diet, one would have improvement in their mood. The modification of diet was twice as effective as anti-depressants which have a NNT of 7-8 and have side effects.
The Smiles Trial is just one example of how food can have a positive impact on mental health.
Increasing consumption of whole fruit and vegetables is of benefit to mood and well being even in people without mood disorders such as depression. A short-term dietary intervention showed that young adults aged 18-25 years who consumed 2 additional fruit and veg each day experienced increased vitality, flourishing, and motivation after 14-days (Conner 2017).
These studies suggest that dietary interventions can improve mental wellbeing and reduce depressive symptoms. Research is ongoing to understand how diet affects mental health and to confirm which dietary patterns are most beneficial.
Action Plan: Good Mood Food
Here is your healthy eating action plan to increase mood boosting foods in your diet. A healthy diet for good mood is a whole food diet such as a whole food plant-based diet (WFPB diet), or the Mediterranean diet which minimizes red meat and utilizes legumes and moderate amounts of poultry, dairy and seafood.
1. Eat diverse plant foods
Eating a diverse range of plant foods, including fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts and legumes ensures a wide variety of prebiotics to feeds your gut microbiota. It also increases consumption of polyphenols which are essential for healthy mood and have other health benefits such as they help lower blood pressure.
In the words of Michael Pollen: “Eat food, mostly plants.”
Plant foods containing polyphenols are varied and include:
- dark chocolate
- red cabbage
- chilli peppers
- red wine/red grapes
2. Eat a rainbow of fruit and vegetables
Eating the rainbow provides polyphenols, flavonoids, antioxidants and many other components that reduce inflammation and down regulate the expression of pro-inflammatory genes. This short summary shows the different phytonutrients that are contained in different coloured fruit and vegetables.
- Reds contain lycopene – tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit, pink guava, and papaya, red bell peppers.
- Oranges contain beta-carotene – carrots, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, cantaloupe, and winter squash
- Yellows contain (lutein/zeaxanthin) – sweet corn, Spinach, swiss chard, bell peppers, kale, parsley, pistachios, and green peas
- Greens contain (folates) – Dark green leafy greens such as turnip greens, spinach, romaine lettuce, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, also beans, peanuts, sunflower seeds.
- Purple (flavonoids) – berries, red cabbage, onions, kale, parsley, green tea, red wine, dark chocolate.
3. Eat Whole grains
Whole grains are minimally processed such as quinoa, steel cut or rolled oats, amaranth, brown rice, red rice or black rice. These mood boosting foods are complex carbs, slow your blood sugars, feed your gut microbiota and contribute to improved mood.
4. Eat foods containing omega-3 fatty acids
Include a variety of sources in your diet to reduce neuro-inflammation and supply neurons with this essential anti-inflammatory to promote a healthy nervous system. Food sources can include:
- Seaweed and algae. Seaweed, nori, spirulina, and chlorella
- Chia seeds.
- Hemp seeds.
- Pumpkin seeds
- Kidney beans.
And if you consume animal products, eat fatty fish.
5. Add Herbs and Spices to your meals
Saffron for depression
A 2017 review of the research found that saffron may be as effective as some antidepressant medications for treating mild to moderate depression or major depressive disorder.
How does it work? The active components of saffron, including crocin and safranal, are thought to increase levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain. Saffron antidepressant effects are also due to the anti-oxidants it contains which exert anti-inflammatory effects on the brain and body.
Other herbs for depression
Include turmeric, ginkgo, chamomile, valerian, Lavender, in your diet (Setorki 2020). You can try the following:
- Turmeric – add to curries, rice, or try a Turmeric latte or turmeric in your fruit smoothie. Don’t forget to add a small amount of black pepper to increase bioavailability.
- Teas made from gingko, lavender, valerian are fragrant, taste good and aid with sleep, relaxation, and can give your mood a lift.
St. John’s Wort for depression
St. John’s wort is a plant with yellow flowers that has been used for centuries to treat a variety of conditions, including depression. Meta-analysis of the research suggests that St. John’s wort is as effective as antidepressant medications for mild to moderate depression and has a lower side effect profile (Cui 2016).
How does it work? St. John’s wort is thought to increase levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain. It also likely has anti-inflammatory effects. Possible side effects include dry mouth, upset stomach, and fatigue. St. John’s wort can also interact with certain medications, so it’s important to talk to a doctor before taking it.
6. Avoid Foods that affect your mood negatively
Processed foods, ultra-processed foods and a western style diet are associated with increased risks of depression (Adjibade 2019). A western style diet is characterized by:
- low consumption of fruit and vegetables
- high intake of sweet products or soft drinks.
- rich in red meat, processed meat,
- high intake of refined grains, high-fat dairy products & butter
- potatoes, and high-fat gravy
It is best to substitute these foods for nutrient dense plant foods full of antioxidants, flavanoids and phytonutrients to enhance the mood.
Mood Lift and Lifestyle
Consuming a diet containing good mood food is only one step in making healthy lifestyle changes to support good mood. Other lifestyle changes that boost your mood and reduce stress hormones include:
- regular aerobic exercise
- time in nature
- mindfulness based stress reduction
- avoidance or reduction of alcohol, especially heavy or binge drinking
- time doing enjoyable leisure activities
- time spent with people who care about you.
Making small changes in your diet and lifestyle can have a big impact on your mental wellbeing. So, if you’re looking to boost your mood, start putting some good mood food on your plate.
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