Even though we are sitting smack dab in the middle of the Wilmington summer – sun shining brightly and vacation fun all around – we can all use a happiness tuneup. Exercise is a much studied mood lifter, but did you know that certain foods can make us feel more positive as well?
It’s important to understand how the brain regulates mood. It uses neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid), dopamine and serotonin to communicate signals that keep our mood stable. These mood-affecting chemicals don’t magically appear. They are created by compounds found in food and some are better at neurotransmitter production than others. I guess it’s appropriate to call them “happy foods.”
The following are 10 of my favorite happy foods. Of course, this list is not exhaustive. Here is my challenge to you. Consume three or more servings (different ones) of these foods every day for 10 days and let me know how you feel.
- Greens. The most popular greens are spinach, collard greens and kale. Some of my patients get tired of hearing me tell them to eat one cup of leafy greens each day, but I hope they can feel my love in that request. Spinach is especially high in folate which is used in serotonin creation. All of them are rich in vitamin C and magnesium, both important in converting tryptophan and tyrosine (amino acids) to serotonin and dopamine.
- Cabbage, especially red. I never make a pot of vegetable soup without adding cabbage. One of the reasons is its l-glutamine content. Studies show that l-glutamine improves mood, concentration and memory. It is a building block to make GABA which foods don’t contain. Trust me on this one – you want more GABA. GABA brings calming to the nerve activity in the brain and helps in the production of endorphins. In supplement form, GABA is ineffective. So often I see patients who think they are serotonin deficient and need an antidepressant, but instead they lack GABA. L-glutamine is the best way to increase GABA.
Red cabbage is considered one of the densest foods containing l-glutamine. Fermenting cabbage creates even more l-glutamine because the enzymes and good bacteria allow for better absorption.
- Wild-caught fish and seafood. Omega-3 essential fatty acids are like WD40 for the brain. Both components (DHA and EPA) are backed by great research as to their mood boosting abilities. This may be because omega-3s enable membrane fluidity in the brain to allow maximum neurotransmitter fluidity. Wild caught, low mercury fish and seafood high in omega-3s are the best sources. These include Alaskan salmon, shrimp, mackerel, sardines, cod, oysters, mussels and rainbow trout.
- Grass-fed beef. This has the highest animal source of l-glutamine, so like cabbage it aids in the production of GABA. Grass-fed beef also has a higher omega-3 content than commercially raised beef (what you mostly find in grocery stores).
- Nuts and seeds. I’ve heard cashews referred to as “nature’s Prozac” because of their mood boosting properties. Sesame, pumpkin and sunflowers seeds are high in l-glutamine (think GABA above) while walnuts, flax, chia and pumpkin seeds are rich sources of mood-boosting omega-3s. Almonds are high in zinc, a mood balancing nutrient and iron.
- Blueberries. Got angst? Eat blueberries. We’ve long known blueberries’ role in memory but because of their high stress-reducing antioxidant profile, they also help with mood. Blueberries are also high in folate, a B vitamin, which contributes to the production of serotonin.
- Vitamin D-rich foods. Studies are definitive about vitamin D’s ability to fight depression. I’m finding that even though many of my patients are out and about in the sun because it’s summer, for Pete’s Sake. Nevertheless, they’re still presenting with low D levels. Vitamin D is simply amazing and crucial. For more information about its amazing benefits can go to my website and read the article, Superstar D. D is found in mushrooms, almond and coconut milk, dairy products and oily fish. Have your vitamin D checked and consider taking a supplement of D3 as directed by a health professional if you are low.
- Bananas. Bananas are loaded with stress busting nutrients like vitamin B6, magnesium and potassium. Bananas are also high in the amino acid, tryptophan, which is converted into serotonin in the brain. Tryptophan goes directly to the brain because it can cross the blood brain barrier (the cellular barrier between the bloodstream and the brain).
- Vitamin B-rich foods. There are several B vitamins and low levels have been shown to contribute to low mood. All the B vitamins help to combat stress as well. Foods high in B vitamins include spinach, broccoli, legumes, nuts, seeds, brown rice and oats. Vitamin B12 can only be found in animal sources such as dairy, meat and fish. Remember, organic is always better.
- Fermented foods. Although we don’t fully understand how serotonin affects our mood, we do know that most of our serotonin is produced in the gut (intestines). This is why gut health is crucial to mood and why we need to feed our guts with foods that feed and make good bacteria. Fermented foods are the best at doing this and they include sauerkraut (raw is best), kimchi, fermented vegetables of all kinds, tempeh, miso, kefir and kombucha. You may not be used to eating these kinds of foods, but a tablespoon of them a day for a month will positively train your taste buds. These foods are too important to gut health and ultimately brain health to ignore.
I realize mood is complicated and eating happy foods is just one piece of the puzzle. What I’m seeing over and over again in my practice is hormonal imbalance in both my men and women. Along with suboptimal food choices, hormones can wreak havoc on mood. Here is a 32-year-old patient’s story:
"I have suffered from anxiety for nearly 20 years. My battle with this has taken me to several therapists and doctors as well as a variety of antidepressants, all of which had side effects and terrible withdrawal symptoms. After giving birth to my sons, my condition worsened and I once again began the cycle of therapy and antidepressants. Then I found Lindy. I always suspected that my condition was related to a reproductive hormonal imbalance. After analyzing my blood work, Lindy was able to confirm my suspicions, change my diet and suggested hormone strengthening supplements. Lindy also sent me to a physician who could look further into the issue. Six months later I am feeling better than I have in years and I am not taking a single prescription drug. I greatly appreciate all that Lindy has done for me."
If you suspect an imbalance, have your hormones checked along with a comprehensive thyroid panel (not just the TSH). Don’t forget my challenge to eat at least three different kinds of these happy foods every day. Wishing you a fun, memorable and happy Wilmy summer!
Lindy Ford, RD, LDN is a Registered Dietitian and Licensed Nutritionist who runs Lindy Ford Nutrition & Wellness, LLC, a private practice in Wilmington. She received her degree in Nutritional Science from the University of Maryland, College Park. She treats each patient according to their unique physiology so they can achieve long-term results. For more information, visit lindyfordwellness.com, call (443) 417-8352 or send an email to [email protected].