Eating the right foods can put us in a positive mood. I’m not talking about curling up with your favorite sweet treat in front of the TV, either.
The foods we eat act on chemical messengers that originate in the brain (neurotransmitters) and can alter mood. Some foods lend a positive result, others not so much.
How Nutrients in Food Influence Brain Function
Neurochemicals (just another name for neurotransmitters) allow our brain cells (called neurons) to communicate with one another. This keeps our body systems operating properly.
Millions of messages constantly enter and exit the brain. These messages are about everything from the pain we feel when we stub our toe, to the need to jump up and swat that volleyball flying toward us.
This constant communication requires proper nutrition. Surprisingly, most nutrients required to make these essential brain chemicals are not substances our bodies produce naturally.
Our brains are reliant on foods we eat for the necessary nutrients to make the chemical messengers that keep our bodies performing at their best.
Real Brain Foods
When it comes to how we feel, there are three neurotransmitters we want to keep in check.
Norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin are the primary chemicals controlling feelings like joy, agitation, motivation and even depression.
Certain nutrients in foods act as precursors to these critical neurochemicals.
Now, you can probably imagine the processes involved in the conversion of nutrients in a food like a banana to a neurotransmitter like norepinephrine is a complex, multi-step process. Fortunately, understanding that complex series of biochemical reactions is not one we need to know in detail to benefit from “good mood foods”.
Of course, I do want to give you a few easy-to-remember examples to help this complex idea a little more concrete.
Here are a few common foods and the amino acids they contain, along with how they play a role in manufacturing these three neurotransmitters (remember, this is the simplified version!):
- Foods like bananas, avocados, and legumes naturally contain the amino acid tyrosine (also associated with thyroid function), which is a precursor to norepinephrine production.
- Eggs, soy, and sesame seeds contain the amino acid, phenylalanine, which can be converted by the body into dopamine.
- Most often associated with that sleepy, lethargic feeling after eating turkey, the amino acid tryptophan, can be converted into serotonin in the brain.
Of course, it’s not all about brain chemicals. How we feel also depends on a variety of factors like sleep, stress level and health issues.
But, as you can tell from the examples above, the foods we eat do play a significant role in how we feel. Even a slight change in the level of any of these three chemicals in our brains can alter our mood.
That’s great news because it means we can improve how we feel by controlling what we eat, even when other aspects of life seem a bit out of control.
By making smart food choices, we can make every meal one that boosts our mood naturally. Here are three simple, do-it-today ways you can begin supporting your positive mood with food.
Three Tips You Can Use Today to Boost Your Mood with Food
Mood-Boosting Tip #1: Keep Blood Sugar Stable with the Protein-Carbohydrate Connection
Stable blood sugar (the amount of glucose in the bloodstream) means more energy and improved mood. (For an in-depth explanation of blood sugar, read my article about Celiac Disease and Type I Diabetes.)
High-quality proteins and complex carbohydrates play a role in stabilizing blood sugar by slowing the release of glucose into the body. When eaten together in the same meal or snack, these foods provide even more blood sugar stabilizing power.
And there’s a protein bonus, too! Because proteins are made up of amino acids (the same components neurotransmitters are made of), they support neurotransmitter manufacture in the body.
For sources of quality plant-based protein, choose amaranth, quinoa, beans (white, Kidney, black, Garbonzo, etc. Learn how simple and affordable it is to cook your own dry beans), lentils and split peas. Other great choices are nuts (almonds, walnuts, peanuts, etc.), seeds (pumpkin and sunflower), and nut and/or seed butters. Learn how to make your own sunbutter here!
For complex carbohydrates, choose plant foods, gluten free whole grains and legumes, (versus simple carbs like sugar-laden desserts or sodas).
Mood-Boosting Tip #2: Eat Enough Feel Good Fat
Do not fear fat! Fat is necessary for optimal body functioning. It is also important to a good mood. In particular, Omega-3 fatty acids are a vital part of our diet, especially when it comes to enhancing mood. That’s because Omega-3 fatty acids make up cell membranes that support efficient transmission of chemical messages between brain cells.
There’s even research that links low levels of Omega-3s to poor mood and, in certain cases, to clinical depression.
Incorporating Omega-3 fatty acids into our gluten free diet naturally is easy:
Good sources of Omega-3 fatty acids are foods like flax and chia seeds, walnuts, dark green leafy vegetables, sea vegetables (like nori and wakame), avocados and cold-water fish (like salmon, mackerel, and herring).
Mood-Boosting Tip #3: Vital Vitamins
We all know a wide variety of vitamins and minerals are necessary for optimal health. When it comes to improving mood through our diet, research shows some vitamins are more critical than others. Those are vitamin D, vitamin B12 and folate (vitamin B-9). Let’s take a closer look at each one.
Vitamin D increases brain levels of serotonin, one of the mood stabilizing neurotransmitters mentioned earlier. In particular, research studies show adequate blood levels of vitamin D can help alleviate Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression associated with decreased daylight in winter months.
Vitamin D deficiency is also associated with celiac disease (CD), so for those of us on a gluten free diet due to CD, it’s vital to get enough “D” through foods we eat.
Good sources of vitamin D are the Omega-3 rich cold-water fish mentioned above and egg yolks.
For a plant-based source of vitamin D, pile on the ‘shrooms! Mushrooms are loaded with “D”.
As for the B-Complex vitamins, vitamin B12 and folate, studies show these vitamins work along with the amino acids in protein to produce all three brain chemicals that regulate mood.
We can get our B-complex vitamins in foods like red meat, turkey, fish, potatoes, bananas, lentils, beans, molasses and nutritional yeast.
Did you notice how the nutritional factors involved in improving mood are often incorporated within the same foods? For example, tasty cold-water fish are full of protein, Omega-3s AND all those vital vitamins we need.
This is a great example how foods work together naturally to help us!
Eating foods like those listed here is a sure way to be on your way to increased energy and a positive mood in no time!