There are lots of foods that bring a smile to my face—cookies, veggie burritos, and peanut butter oatmeal (trust me, it’s delicious) are just a few. But it turns out some foods don’t just please the palate; they stimulate the brain and make us physically happy, too. When we need a little pick-me-up, we should skip the cookies (as yummy as they are, the sugar rush destabilizes our moods) and seek out these foods instead.
This leafy green is loaded with the B vitamin folate, which has been linked to depression when levels are too low. B vitamins help the brain produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood and behavior.
Turkey’s full of tryptophan, an amino acid that the body uses to create mood-regulating serotonin and melatonin. Since our bodies don’t produce tryptophan naturally, we must get it from food sources. For a non-poultry vehicle for the amino acid, try pineapple, cottage cheese, or lobster.
Researchers at the Massachusetts based McLean Hospital found that rats’ moods improved when given an injection of omega-3 fatty acids. Walnuts and ground flaxseeds (they have to be ground for the body to absorb the nutrients) are the best non-animal source of omega-3s.
Milk products and vitamin-fortified non-dairy products (soy milk, almond milk, etc.) are rich in vitamin D, which can increase serotonin production and has been linked to reducing depression in some people. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine found that vitamin D alleviated some depressive symptoms.
Like turkey, soy products such as tofu and edamame have high levels of tryptophan. Soybeans also rank low on the glycemic index, meaning they don’t spike energy levels too quickly and won’t cause a mood crash later.
If you’re not a vegetarian, the best way to get a good dose of omega-3s into your diet is through salmon. Not a fan of salmon? Tuna and herring boast a decent amount of the fatty acids as well.
Protein- and fiber-filled legumes like black beans and lentils are also packed with iron, an essential mineral that combats lethargy and gives us energy.
Few people would frown after popping a square of chocolate into their mouths, but it’s not just because it tastes so good—chocolate causes the brain to release endorphins and can boost serotonin levels and it contains compounds, like phenylethylamine, that act as mild stimulants. However, plain old milk chocolate won’t do; opt for 70 percent dark chocolate to ensure maximum health benefits.
Foods rich in carbohydrates also affect serotonin levels in the body, but simple carbs—those with white flour as the primary ingredient—increase insulin production so rapidly that the feel-good vibes we get after ingesting them quickly turn into grumpiness. Stick to whole grains like oats, brown rice, and whole wheat bread, all of which contain B vitamins as well.
Besides being a potassium powerhouse, eating bananas adds a hefty amount of tryptophan to our diets. In a study at Oxford University, researchers found that women recovering from depression who were deficient in tryptophan had a higher chance of regressing back to depressive states. Bananas are a great source of iron, too.
What makes certain foods mood-elevating seems based on whether they contain essential ingredients such as omega-3 fatty acids, tryptophan, vitamin D, or B vitamins. Unfortunately, what we crave when we’re depressed usually isn’t flaxseeds or salmon. Our cravings are usually in the form of French fries and donuts, foods that comfort us briefly but make us feel even more sluggish and moody afterward. But if we learn to reach for these mood-boosting foods instead, maybe we can banish the blues before they even start.