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Foods to Lift Your Mood

Foods that Affect Mood

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Foods can affect your mood

We all know that what we eat affects our health – some foods are good for your heart, your bones, your waistline – but did you know that what you eat can affect your mental health?  A relatively new field of study, nutritional psychiatry, is devoted to studying how what we eat affects how we feel.  While it is clear that diet isn’t responsible for all psychiatric or mental health problems, there does appear to be a connection between what we eat and how we feel.[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] 

This works on a number of levels – ensuring we have energy, feel physically healthy, and get enough exercise and sleep assists with mental well-being; cutting out foods that aggravate symptoms of physical disorders (e.g., irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), psoriasis) and replacing them with foods that help relieve symptoms can have an effect on our mood; eating foods that build up our immune systems to reduce risk of infection keeps us on an even keel; losing weight if you are overweight feels good physically and mentally; and ingesting certain vitamins, minerals, and other chemicals in food can boost your serotonin level.[7]

Farmer's Market

"Farmers' Market" by NatalieMaynor is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Replace foods that can aggravate symptoms with those that help keep symptoms at bay

A number of common disorders can be aggravated by certain foods.  Two examples are IBS and psoriasis.  Some people with IBS find that avoiding dairy products or carbonated beverages and increasing dietary fiber or eating smaller meals more often instead of two or three large meals can help keep their symptoms at bay.[8]  Some people with psoriasis can manage their flare-ups better if they eat less processed foods, dairy, and refined sugars.  Because it is an inflammatory condition, psoriasis can be helped by eating inflammation-fighting foods (which tend to be good for everyone):

There are many disorders that may be affected by diet.  There is no scientific proof that avoiding certain foods will help your condition and nothing works for everyone, but if you pay attention to what you experience with different foods, you may be able to identify triggers.  If your IBS or skin gets worse after you eat certain foods, stop eating them and see what happens. That food could be a trigger for you.

Boost your immune system and your microbiome

Many of the inflation-fighting foods listed above are the basis of the Mediterranean diet, which may also be associated with the types of gut bacteria that are linked with healthy aging. In a study of older adults living in Europe, the Mediterranean diet seemed to promote a more diverse microbiome (which is thought to be healthier) and to produce lower levels of harmful inflammatory chemicals.[10]  Key nutrients involved in reducing infection by supporting antibacterial and antiviral defense include the following:

These nutrients support the immune system. The gut microbiome helps train the immune system and avoid excessive inflammatory responses to pathogenic organisms.[11]  We are still learning how important our gut bacteria are. They produce vitamins and break down our food.  Their presence or absence has been linked to obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, and the toxic side effects of prescription drugs. Researchers have found that 50 percent of the dopamine and a majority of the serotonin in our systems are secreted by these gut micro-organisms, where they regulate feelings of fullness, digestion, and appetite. The relationship between our gut microbiome and mood is still being investigated.[12] [13] 

While we are still researching how what we eat affects our brains, we are also looking at what foods are related to our moods.  In one study in New Zealand randomly assigned participants (self-reported depression) to one of two groups:  the MedDiet (Mediterranean Diet) group or the Social group. The MedDiet group received food and cooking workshops for 3 months and fish oil supplements for 6 months. The second group attended Social groups for 3 months. Measurements were taken at 3 and 6 months – both groups reported reduced sweetened drink intake, but the MedDiet group reported significantly increased consumption of vegetables, fruit, wholegrain foods, nuts and legumes and decreased intake of unhealthy snacks and meat/chicken.  While both groups reported significantly improved mental health on all outcome measures, the MedDiet group reported significantly greater improvements in depression and mental health scores than the Social group.

Foods to keep you feeling good

The typical western diet contains more ultra-processed foods than other diets, which appears to change the gut microbiome and has a connection with obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.[14]  Increasing your intake of whole foods – fruits, vegetables, and seafood – is a simple way to help your microbiota and your mood.  According to some research, specific nutrients have antidepressant properties. 

Omega-3 fatty acids - Researchers report that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids may be mood stabilizers that help with mental well-being.[15] Omega-3s are found in fish, flaxseed, broccoli, and red kidney beans.

Selenium is important to mood – low selenium intake is linked to lower moods. Foods high in selenium include fish, oysters, albacore tuna, sardines, Brazil nuts, oatmeal, eggs, tofu, and sunflower seeds.[16]

Serotonin - The more serotonin in your bloodstream, the better your mood. Foods that may influence the serotonin levels in our brains: tryptophan is in almost all protein-rich food, but eating carbohydrates helps it cross the blood/brain barrier; carbohydrates do make you feel good, but can be eaten with lots of fiber and other nutrients (whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables); and folic acid (folate) helps maintain serotonin in our brains (spinach, lentils, romaine lettuce, broccoli, asparagus greens, tofu, pinto, black, and navy beans).

Vitamin D – the only nutrient your body produces when exposed to sunlight. The recommended daily value is 800 International Units from food.  Foods high in vitamin D include salmon, herring, sardines, halibut, and mackerel.[17]

Disclaimer:  Please do not stop any medications you are taking without consulting your physician.  Changing your diet is not a substitute for treatment. 

You may feel better with specific lifestyle changes, such as improving eating habits (e.g., eliminating foods that are bad for you or make you feel bad and eating more anti-inflammatory foods). Be patient, as it may take some time before feeling the results.

If you have anxiety or depression that interferes with your day-to-day activities or enjoyment of life, you may benefit from counseling (psychotherapy) or medication.

[1]  Adan, R.A.H., van der Beek, E.M., Buitelaar, J.K., Cryan, J.F., Hebebrand, J., Higgs, S., Schellekens, H., & Dickson, S.L. (2019). Nutritional Psychiatry:  Twoards improving mental health by what you eat.  European Neuropsychopharmacology, 29(1321-1332).  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.euroneuro.2019.10.011

[2]  Jacka, F. N. (2017). Nutritional Psychiatry: Where to Next? EBioMedicine, 17(24–29). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ebiom.2017.02.020

[3]  Sarris, J., Logan, A.C., Akbaraly, T.N., et al. (2015). Nutritional medicine as mainstream in psychiatry. Lancet Psychiatry, 2(3):271-274.  https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(14)00051-0

[4]  Selhub, E. (2015) Nutritional psychiatry:  Your brain on food, Harvard Health Blog. Updated March 26, 2020. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626

[5]  International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research

[6]  Sawchuk, C.N. (2017). Coping with anxiety: Can diet make a difference? Mayo Clinic website (May 17, 2017) Generalized Anxiety FAQ.  https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/generalized-anxiety-disorder/expert-answers/coping-with-anxiety/faq-20057987

[7]   Magee, E.  Foods to uplift your mood.  WebMD website accessed Dec. 27, 2020. https://www.webmd.com/diet/features/foods-to-uplift-your-mood#1

[8]  https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs

[9]   What You Should Know About Psoriasis and Your Diet. Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario on Nov. 10, 2020 on the WebMD website. https://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/psoriasis/psoriasis-avoid-foods

[10]  Preidt, R. (2020). 'Mediterranean Diet' Is Good for Your Microbiome. HealthDay News on the WebMD website Feb. 19, 2020.  https://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20200219/healthy-mediterranean-diet-is-good-for-your-microbiome#2

[11]  Prados, A. (2020). What is the role of nutrition in immunity and host susceptibility to COVID-19? Posted Dec. 21, 2020 on the Gut Microbiota for Health by  European Society for Neurogastroenterology and Motility (ESNM) website.  https://www.gutmicrobiotaforhealth.com/

[12]  Smith, P.E. (2015). Can the bacteria in your gut explain your mood?  The New York Times Magazine, The Mental Health Issue, June 25, 2015. http://nyti.ms/1N45wIF

[13]  Naidoo, U. (2019). Nutritional Psychiatry:  The Gut-Brain Connection.  Psychiatric Times, 36(1).

[14]  Naidoo, U. (2019). Nutritional Psychiatry:  The Gut-Brain Connection.  Psychiatric Times, 36(1).

[15]  Magee, E.  Foods to uplift your mood.  WebMD website accessed Dec. 27, 2020. https://www.webmd.com/diet/features/foods-to-uplift-your-mood#1

[16]   Magee, E.  Foods to uplift your mood.  WebMD website accessed Dec. 27, 2020. https://www.webmd.com/diet/features/foods-to-uplift-your-mood#1

[17]  https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/9-foods-high-in-vitamin-d