Quite often, when we’re feeling a little low, eating ‘properly’ is the last thing on our minds, instead resorting to easy to eat comfort foods, or perhaps nothing at all. Yet the food we eat plays a vital role in our wellbeing. But sipping the odd kale smoothie won’t instantly work magic on your physical and mental health. While it’s not something that happens overnight, often the benefits can already be felt in just a few days.
Don’t be disheartened. Eating healthily needn’t be complicated, overwhelming or costly, and should be a healthy mix of unsaturated fats, fatty acids, whole grains, fruit, vegetables, protein and plenty of water. Minimise your intake of processed foods as these tend to contain high levels of salt, sugar and saturated fats, all of which will only make you feel more lethargic.
Let’s break this down a little further and identify some of the best mood-boosting food:
Animal-derived food is the best source of protein, which we need for our bodies’ growth maintenance and repair. Protein contains high levels of tryptophan which improves the mood of people with depression, and a lack of protein can lead to irritability, tiredness and lack of coordination.
Red meat is also the most effective source of iron. Evidence shows that iron deficiency is linked to emotional behaviour and anxiety. It also helps us to produce energy, which helps to a more positive attitude.
Chicken and turkey contain tryptophan and tyrosine. Tryptophan is used by the body to make serotonin and melatonin, tyrosine is an amino acid which helps to reduce the symptoms of depression and is used to make the hormone adrenaline. Low levels of adrenaline have been linked to depression.
Fish, and particularly oily fish like mackerel or salmon contain omega-3 fatty acids. About 60% of the dry weight of our brains is fat, with about 30% of that in the form of omega-3. Eating plenty of omega-3 will keep your brain flexible so that your neurotransmitters can work more effectively. Salmon and sardines are especially high in protein, vitamins B12 and D.
Oysters are high in zinc, a nutrient that helps ease anxiety, and is also excellent for regulating sleep. If you’re not into oysters, cashew nuts, eggs, liver or beef are also a good source of zinc.
Eggs are a great, high protein food, and serve well as a transportable snack. They are rich in choline, which is a nutrient that supports the nervous system, help produce the antioxidant, selenium, and improve mood. They are high in vitamins D and B12, and help to make you feel more “full” and thus avoid junk snack food.
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are a great source of fatty acids, especially if you’re not keen on fish. They are also densely packed with fibre and protein, but also calories, so do keep track of your intake.
Almonds are a good source of protein and contain tyrosine, which is beneficial for neurotransmitter production. They are also full of Vitamin E which has been shown to improve memory and cognition.
Brazil nuts contain lots of selenium, a mineral that, when lacking, can cause increased rates of depression, irritability, anxiety and tiredness.
Sunflower seeds are another good source of Vitamin E, and also B6 and magnesium, a mineral which helps relaxation. They are a good alternative to nuts, which is great news for nut allergy sufferers.
Chia is another great source of magnesium, and all iron and Omega-3 fatty acids. They are very versatile in a multitude of recipes.
This category includes cereals, beans and pulses, and are full of fibre, vitamins and minerals. Many whole grains are naturally rich in the amino acid, Tryptophan which your body needs in order to produce melatonin and serotonin.
Easy whole grains to add to your diet include oats in porridge, quinoa, rice, especially wild rice.
Fruit and vegetables
Both fruit and vegetables are full of vitamins, minerals and micronutrients, and recent research has shown that the more of either or both of them you eat, the lower your risk of depression. Aim to eat at least five different fruit and vegetables daily. You can always chop them up for a salad or blitz them into a smoothie if the idea of chopping up handfuls of fruit and vegetables fills you with dread.
Blueberries contain more antioxidants than any other common fruit or vegetable. They have been proven to help regulate mood, improve memory and protect the brain from ageing.
Bananas contain tryptophan, vitamins A, B6 and C, fibre, potassium, iron and carbohydrate, so really are an excellent mood boosting snack.
Spinach and leafy vegetables are an excellent source of magnesium, which we know helps with relaxation. They are also high in fibre and iron.
Avocado is a source of good fats (yes, fat is good for you - if it’s the right kind of fat). They also contain vitamins B6, E, C and B5 and plenty of fibre.
Legumes, including lentils, beans, peas and chickpeas are usually a high-fibre food, which help support gut health by providing probiotics which feed the healthy bacteria in your gut.
Lentils are a complex carbohydrate, which increase the brain’s production of serotonin. They are also high in folate, deficiencies in which have been linked to depression and mania. Lentils are also a good source of iron, which will help to boost your energy.
When we are dehydrated, our mental and physical functions can be impaired and our ability to concentrate is affected. Drink at least 1.5 litres of water per day if you possibly can. If you struggle with that, try herbal tea, or add a little lemon, mint or cucumber into your water for a little flavour.
Great news for most of us, although dark chocolate is best as a mood booster. A small square of dark chocolate can boost serotonin levels, and reduce stress and anxiety. Do try to avoid sugary milk chocolate - the excess sugar cancels out the chocolate benefits.