Christmas credit card bills coming in; New Year’s resolutions failing and dreary weather (and true to form it’s grey and wet here in London as I write this). No wonder today is supposedly the most depressing day of the year. So what can you eat to boost your mood?
Many people (especially women, for some reason) seem to swear by the curative powers of chocolate, but beware: although there’s been a fair amount of research recently which suggests that dark chocolate may help to lift mood, there’s also evidence that people who eat more chocolate (1 bar a week or more) are more depressed than those who don’t. It could be that depressed people are ‘self-treating’ with chocolate, but the researchers writing in the Archives of Internal Medicine point out that chocolate may also work like alcohol and initially make you feel good, but then make you feel worse, actually contributing to depression. If you want a little lift now, choose 70% cocoa or higher. But if chocolate is not the best long term solution, what is?
Food is never going to produce instantaneous results, but the way you eat can affect your overall mood and energy levels by altering your metabolism and brain chemistry.
Turkey and Chicken
These are good sources of two amino acids needed to make brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) involved in mood: tyrosine, which boosts levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, responsible for motivation and alertness; and tryptophan, needed to make the ‘happy’ chemical, serotonin. Research shows that the brain’s ability to make these mood-altering chemicals depends on the availability of the right amino acids. So make sure you eat enough protein, including chicken and turkey which are good sources of tryptophan two or three times a week, and include other sources of tyrosine such as almonds, avocados, bananas, dairy products, butter beans (aka lima beans), pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds. Perhaps a chicken and avocado salad, or turkey salad sandwich and a banana for lunch?
Complex, wholegrain carbohydrates
It’s much better to eat wholegrains like wholewheat, oats, quinoa, barley and brown rice than refined carbs such as white rice, white bread and white pasta for two reasons: firstly, refined carbs upset your blood sugar (glucose) balance, making it shoot up and then plummet, which can have a negative impact on energy levels and mood. The brain needs glucose to work properly, and when it doesn’t have enough, that can leave you feeling tired, irritable, unable to concentrate and generally low. So include wholegrains with your main meals, and instead of snacking on cakes and biscuits, have something like a couple of oat cakes with some hummus, or an apple with a small handful of nuts. These will give you a pick-me-up without making your blood glucose see-saw.
Wholegrain carbohydrates are also a good source of B-vitamins, as are beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, and leafy greens. B-vitamins are essential for energy production in every cell of the body, and are also needed to make brain chemicals involved in mood, like dopamine and serotonin. So try sprinkling pumpkin seeds or chopped almonds, pistachios or walnuts (rich in B6 which seems to be especially important) on your porridge in the morning, or try a chickpea and spinach curry for dinner.
Curries and chilies
Spicing up your food may help you to feel good: the spicy heat in a curry comes from a substance called capsaicin contained in chilies: these stimulate nerve endings in the mouth, creating a sensation of heat or burning (depending on how you like your curry!) and the brain produces feel-good chemicals called endorphins in response.
Fish and seafood
Oily fish like salmon, trout, sardines and mackerel are high in healthy omega-3 fats. They also contain vitamin D. Increasing levels of both of these has been shown to have a positive effect on mood. So try sardines in tomato sauce mashed up on toast and grilled as a light lunch, or have mix some smoked salmon in with scrambled eggs in for breakfast. Vegetarian sources of omega-3 include nuts and seeds like walnuts and pumpkin seeds.
Fish and seafood (and nuts and seeds) are also a source of zinc and selenium, low levels of which have also been associated with depression.
Bananas contain B-vitamins, tryptophan (for making the ‘happy’ brain chemical serotonin) and magnesium which is also needed to make the brain chemicals which control our mood, and energy. Bananas are great chopped up in porridge in the morning, or as a snack. Don’t have them too ripe though or the sugar content might send your blood sugar rocketing and then crashing back down. Snacking on a banana which still has a slight tinge of green, together with a few nuts, can help prevent this.
Stress and feelings of low mood are closely linked. A Japanese study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition conducted with over 40,000 people found that levels of psychological stress were 20 percent lower in those who drank at least five cups of green tea per day compared to those who drank less than one cup per day, even after other factors that could be affecting stress levels were taken into account. So it does seem that there’s something in green tea that helps us feel less stressed which could have a positive impact on mood.
Breakfast: porridge with chopped banana and pumpkin seeds
Lunch: Chicken and avocado salad with a hunk of wholemeal or multi-grain bread (or a chicken and avocado sandwich on wholemeal bread with plenty of salad stuffed in).
Dinner: Grilled salmon marinated in chili, ginger and soy sauce, with broccoli and brown rice; a couple of squares (squares, not bars) of 70% cocoa chocolate as an after-dinner treat
Drinks: Green tea / water (have a coffee too if you like, but using caffeine to keep you going in the day could make you feel strung-out)
Snacks: Apple with a few walnuts; carrot sticks and hummus
This article is for interest only and is not intended as medical advice. You should consult your doctor if you think you are depressed or having been feeling low for two weeks or more. You should consult a nutritional therapist or other qualified health professional before taking nutritional supplements, especially if you are taking any other medications or are (or might be) pregnant.