It turns out that some simple dietary tweaks may be able to turn your frown upside down.
Do you ever feel cranky and don’t know why? Between the unprecedented circumstances we are coping with and the normal day-to-day stressors of life, you’re definitely not alone if you find yourself feeling down nowadays.
When you think of the many benefits that come from a healthy diet, a better mood isn’t usually on the list. However, the connection between foods, mood and overall gut health is an emerging field of research, and it turns out that some simple dietary tweaks may be able to turn your frown upside down.
It’s also completely normal to crave and reach for sweets when you’re blue. That temporary rush of endorphins released by sugar can make you feel better momentarily, but it’s usually followed by a crash. Instead, focusing on science-backed foods to boost your mood can support your mind and body in the long run.
First, let’s take a quick look at how the gut and brain are connected, and then dive into the best foods and nutrients to boost your mood. While you might not be venturing out much these days, the foods discussed in this article keep well, or can be cooked and frozen in between trips to the grocery store.
The Gut-Brain Connection
If you’ve ever experienced the sensation of “butterflies in your stomach,” or loss of appetite when feeling anxious or sad, you know firsthand that the gut and brain are intricately connected. Studies show that brain health can impact gut health, and vice versa, via a system called the gut-brain axis. (1)
Highly important for mood, the brain and gut are also connected via neurotransmitters, which are substances produced in the brain that control emotions and feelings. However, the gut also produces neurotransmitters, particularly feel-good serotonin. (2)
The gut microbiota also seems to play a major role in brain health, as the trillions of microbes living in your intestinal tract (the gut microbiome) produce chemicals that affect cognitive health and mood. (3)
Key Nutrients for Brain Function
The following three nutrients have been shown to be especially helpful for boosting mood and overall brain function and health, and can be found in many wholesome foods.
Turmeric is a spice you might already have in your kitchen, and its bioactive ingredient that provides many health benefits is called curcumin. Turmeric and curcumin are most well known for helping to support a healthy inflammatory response in the body and research has made the connection between inflammatory responses and mood. (4)
The human brain is made up of about 80% fat, so a diet rich in the right kinds of healthy fats is essential for brain health. Past generations knew that fish was a “brain food” and now we know why. Fascinatingly, research shows that overall perceived happiness and well-being are more common in nations where people eat large amounts of fish. (5)
Omega 3 fats are essential for the maintenance of healthy brain function throughout life, as they strengthen and preserve cell membrane function and improve brain cell communication. Studies show that in older adults, low DHA (fatty acid) levels can be associated with accelerated aging. (6)
Magnesium is a key nutrient that plays hundreds of crucial roles in the body, and one is allowing our cells (including brain cells) to relax. What this means is that magnesium supports something called brain plasticity, meaning ability for your brain to change over time. This is a crucial function of a good memory, cognition, mood, and learning.
Top Nine Foods to Boost Your Mood
1. DARK LEAFY GREENS
Dark leafy veggies are an important part of your diet for many reasons, and mood is definitely one of them. These include spinach, dark lettuce, Swiss chard, kale, collard greens, arugula and others. All are packed full of magnesium, which can positively affect your serotonin levels and boost your mood.
Walnuts are commonly thought of as a brain-healthy food, and even slightly resemble the human brain! These tasty nuts are rich in omega 3 fatty acids, which are known to support cognitive function and even improve your mood.
3. WILD CAUGHT FISH
Wild caught fish is the best food source of omega 3 fatty acids. Alaskan wild salmon is a wonderful choice if you can find it, or opt for the more affordable version of canned wild salmon on a salad or sandwich.
Avocados are rich in tryptophan, an amino acid that is converted to serotonin, the brain chemical that allows the brain to relax and is largely responsible for mood, memory, and sexual desire, along with other functions.
Thanks to their high content of antioxidants, quercetin and vitamin C, berries are thought to support a healthy inflammatory response and boost cognitive function. Likely due to their flavonoids, berries have been linked to a better mood. (7)
6. RAW NUTS AND SEEDS
Raw nuts and seeds are not only high in omega 3 fatty acids (again, walnuts especially), but also contain significant amounts of vitamin E and vitamin B6, which are excellent in supporting and calming the nervous system.
7. TURMERIC, DRIED OR FRESH
Turmeric root resembles ginger and can be purchased at most grocery stores, or you might have the dried spice already in your kitchen. Excellent for supporting the body’s natural and healthy inflammatory response and improving mood, turmeric can be grated and enjoyed as a tea called golden milk, used fresh or dry in a curry or stir fry, or sprinkled over any meat or veggie dish.
8. DARK CHOCOLATE
Chocolate is an excellent source of mood-boosting compounds, such as theobromine, caffeine, flavonoids and N-acylethanolamine. Aim for a 70% or higher dark chocolate to cut back on sugar and reap the maximum benefits, and stick to a one ounce serving size.
9. FERMENTED FOODS
Back to the gut-brain connection, fermented foods that naturally nourish the gut microbiome also function to boost your mood. Fermented foods contain probiotics, which are the “good” bacteria living in the gut. Wonderful options that you can find at most health food stores include raw sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, plain yogurt, and kombucha tea.
If you struggle under the weight of frequent grumpy moods, or if you simply want to infuse your diet with brain-healthy foods, try adding some of these options to your daily menu. Remember, you are what you eat, and foods have a profound impact on mood, gut health and just about every aspect of health and wellness. Definitely speak with your healthcare practitioner if you have concerns about frequent mood swings or other concerning symptoms.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of medical advice or treatment from a personal physician. Readers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither the author(s) nor the publisher of this content take responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All readers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement or lifestyle program.
1. Carabotti, M., Scirocco, A., Maselli, M. A., & Severi, C. (2015). The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems. Annals of gastroenterology, 28(2), 203–209.
2. Yano, J. M., Yu, K., Donaldson, G. P., Shastri, G. G., Ann, P., Ma, L., Nagler, C. R., Ismagilov, R. F., Mazmanian, S. K., & Hsiao, E. Y. (2015). Indigenous bacteria from the gut microbiota regulate host serotonin biosynthesis. Cell, 161(2), 264–276.
6. Tan, Z. S., Harris, W. S., Beiser, A. S., Au, R., Himali, J. J., Debette, S., Pikula, A., Decarli, C., Wolf, P. A., Vasan, R. S., Robins, S. J., & Seshadri, S. (2012). Red blood cell ω-3 fatty acid levels and markers of accelerated brain aging. Neurology, 78(9), 658–664.
7. Khalid, S., Barfoot, K., May, G., Lamport, D., Reynolds, S., & Williams, C. (2017). Effects of Acute Blueberry Flavonoids on Mood in Children and Young Adults. Nutrients, 9(2), 158. doi :10.3390/nu9020158