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8 Nutrients and 16 Foods to Boost Your Mood — What to Eat to Increase Happiness

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13 min read
Summary

Want to boost your mood? These 16 foods can help in stunning ways!

As it turns out, what you eat can have a massive impact on your mood. Making a few simple changes to your diet can make a difference for your mental health. Discover the stunning power of mood-boosting foods and nutrients.


Can you remember a time when you weren’t in a good mood?

At a Food Revolution Network retreat, I asked team members to say three words about how they were feeling. When it was my turn, one of the words I used was sad.

Looking at me, you would have never known that’s how I felt. On the outside, I looked happy — I was even laughing not long before we started the exercise. But how I looked was a far cry from what was going on in my heart and in my mind.

Can You Boost Your Mood Naturally?

The truth is, we’ve all felt sad or even “down in the dumps.” And sometimes, no matter how hard you try, it’s hard to turn that frown upside down.

If you ever feel down, or lonely, you’re hardly alone. We live in a world where depression is at an all-time high. Worldwide, depression affects 322 million people.

As a result, some doctors now prescribe antidepressants like they were candy. According to the CDC, antidepressants are one of the three most common prescription drugs that Americans take.

As humans, we’re made to experience a rainbow of emotions. And sometimes feeling sad is an important part of life. But most of us would like a little more (or a lot more!) levity.

Can you boost your mood naturally? Are there certain mood-boosting foods you should eat? And are there any foods you should avoid if you want to feel your best?

According to science, the answer is sure to put a smile on your face.

8 Nutrients That Can Increase Your Happiness

Mood-boosting foods: 16 foods and 8 nutrients that will boost your mood naturally

Research has found eight nutrients, in particular, that make a significant contribution to supporting healthy brain function — and to fighting depression and mood disorders.

Some of the studies focus on supplements because they’re easier to study than food. But these nutrients are all found in foods, too!

So let’s take a look at these eight nutrients. And then, we’ll review 16 mood-boosting foods that are rich in them.

1) Vitamin C

Between the years 1500 and 1800, scurvy killed an estimated two million sailors. Albert Szent-Györgyi didn’t discover the scurvy-prevention miracle of vitamin C until the 1930s. His discovery became foundational to the modern understanding of nutrition.

And now, we know that vitamin C does a lot more than prevent scurvy. It enables your body to use carbohydrates, fats, and proteins efficiently.

Vitamin C is essential to your body’s ability to make neurotransmitters, including dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin. These neurotransmitters provide mood stability and the prevention of depression.

In 2013, a clinical trial published in the The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition replenished blood levels of vitamin C to normal among acutely hospitalized patients. They saw a 71% reduction in mood disturbance and a 51% reduction in psychological distress.

And a 2018 study on 139 young adult males found that those who consumed the most vitamin C had the lowest reported feelings of depression, confusion, and anger.

(In case you’re interested, PuraTHRIVE makes a vitamin C supplement. It includes micelle liposomal delivery, which studies have found boosts absorption by up to 140 times.)

Oranges, lemons, strawberries, bell peppers, and broccoli are all high in vitamin C.

2) Vitamin B6

The goal of many antidepressants is to increase serotonin uptake. As it turns out, B-vitamins can have a similar effect.

For example, vitamin B6 is effective in treating premenstrual depression.

And your body needs it to make mood-boosting neurotransmitters, including serotonin, norepinephrine, and melatonin. Studies have found that B6 deficiency can lead to depression.

Good sources of vitamin B6 include carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, green peas, lentils and other legumes, and bananas.

3) Omega-3 Fats

A spoonful of flax seeds

Your brain is 60% fat. And it needs healthy fats to function well.

Omega-3 fatty acids, in particular, have a huge impact on the maintenance of healthy brain function in people of all ages.

People with plenty of EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid), especially have been found to experience less depression.

And other studies have found that omega-3s are effective in improving depression symptoms among adults and children.

Top plant-based food sources of omega-3 fatty acids include chia seeds, flax seeds, and algae-sourced EPA and DHA supplements. If you choose to eat fish, the best sources of EPA and DHA are those that are high in fat and low in mercury, such as wild salmon, herring, and sardines.

4) Zinc

Research shows that people with the worst depression often have the lowest levels of zinc. Zinc deficiency can lead to symptoms of depression, ADHD, difficulties with learning and memory, seizures, aggression, and violence.

On the other hand, zinc replenishment has been found to be therapeutic in treating mood disorders.

Foods that are high in zinc include legumes (especially when sprouted), seeds, nuts, and whole grains.

5) Magnesium

Magnesium is a cofactor in more than 300 reactions in your body. However, about half of Americans don’t get enough of it.

Why is that a problem? Because your body needs magnesium to facilitate the hormone balance, enzyme activity, and neurotransmitter function that regulate your mood and overall health.

The role of magnesium isn’t exactly news, either. As a result of a benchmark study in 1921, magnesium became the first medically acknowledged substance used to treat depression.

Nearly 100 years later, a randomized controlled trial published in the journal PLoS One looked at 126 depressed participants in outpatient clinics. The participants consumed 258 mg of magnesium chloride daily for six weeks. As a result, 89% of participants showed clinically significant improvement in depression and anxiety symptoms.

Magnesium-rich foods include legumes, tofu, whole grains, and leafy greens.

6) Folate

Folate and folic acid are different forms of vitamin B9. Their names are often used interchangeably. However, researchers are finding that their effects are, in fact, quite different.

Folate fulfills many important functions in your body. For example, it helps your body create new cells and supports the formation of DNA. And folate also contributes to serotonin regulation.

Decades-old studies have also found a link between folate deficiency and depression. For those taking antidepressants, studies have also found that supplementation improved their efficacy.

Folic acid, however, is a synthetic form of vitamin B9. Studies tell us that the body doesn’t convert it to the active form of B9 very efficiently. Unmetabolized folic acid has been linked to increased risk of cancer and a number of other health problems. So if you want to take supplemental vitamin B9, folate is a better choice than folic acid.

Foods such as avocado, oranges, spinach, and asparagus are high in folate.

7) Selenium

You may not hear much about selenium, but it’s an important mineral for brain health.

A 1991 study published in Biological Psychiatry supplemented 50 individuals with 100 mcg of selenium or a placebo for five weeks. Researchers found that people who received selenium reported a general elevation of mood. They also reported a decrease in anxiety, depression, and tiredness.

A 2014 study in the Journal of Nutrition observed similar findings. Among 978 young adults, those with the lowest moods also had the lowest blood levels of selenium.

Top food sources of selenium include Brazil nuts, wild yellowfin tuna, mushrooms, and lentils.

8) Vitamin D

A woman enjoying the sun on her face

Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine vitamin.” Why? Because the only way to get it naturally is by exposing your body to sunshine.

Our ancestors lived outdoors and didn’t wear much clothing. Today, most people work indoors and wear clothes much of the time. As well, many of us live in northern climates with low levels of sunshine in the winter months.

Vitamin D deficiency is the most common vitamin deficiency in the world today. In fact, an estimated 40% to 60% of the world’s adult population don’t get enough vitamin D.

This is a shame because vitamin D can increase production of the neurotransmitters associated with mood, like serotonin. Research has also shown that vitamin D supplementation helps maintain a positive mental state.

A 2011 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that women with high levels of vitamin D had a lower risk of depression.

Other studies have found that a relationship exists between low levels of vitamin D, depression, and Seasonal Affective Disorder. During cold months, most of us tend to stay indoors. And our skin is unable to produce as much natural vitamin D as it does in warmer seasons.

What about food sources? Vitamin D is naturally present in very few foods. The flesh of certain fatty fish and some fish liver oils contain small amounts of it. Fortified foods, such as fortified orange juice and fortified milk products, provide most of the vitamin D in the American diet today.

The best source of vitamin D is the kind your body makes in response to a healthy dose of sunshine. But if that’s not viable for you, you may want to consider supplementation.

For more on vitamin D and other supplements that could be helpful even for healthy eaters, check out this article.

16 Mood-Boosting Foods to Help You Feel Your Best

We’ve looked at eight nutrients that can be helpful to your mental health and happiness. And we now know that most of the time, the best source of nutrients isn’t pills — it’s food!

So if you want to feel your best, do you know which foods ARE the best?

Here are 16 of the top mood-boosting foods:

1) Blueberries

Mood-Boosting Foods: Blueberries

Berries are a favorite antioxidant-containing food for many reasons. One of which is because they help make your brain happy. Studies have shown that the flavonoids in blueberries can improve your mood.

2) Avocado

Avocados are rich in B vitamins — particularly vitamin B6. And they’re a rich source of folate. One avocado provides around one-third of your daily folate needs. And when it comes to magnesium, one avocado provides around 15% of your daily needs.

3) Walnuts

Walnuts have many brain-protective compounds, such as vitamin E, folate, antioxidant polyphenols. They also contain omega-3 fats, which have been shown to improve mood.

4) Chocolate

Mood-Boosting Foods: Chocolate

Chocolate’s remarkable effects on human mood are no secret. And now, we are beginning to understand why.

So why is chocolate considered one of the top mood-boosting foods? For one thing, it contains phenethylamine, which triggers the release of pleasurable endorphins. When you become infatuated or fall in love, the brain releases phenethylamine. It also potentiates the action of dopamine, a neurochemical associated with sexual arousal and pleasure.

Another substance found in chocolate is anandamide. (Anandamide comes from the Sanskrit word “ananda,” which means peaceful bliss). This fatty substance is naturally made in the brain.  Pharmacologists at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego have isolated anandamide from chocolate. It binds to the same receptor sites in the brain as cannabinoids like THC — the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana. As a result, it produces feelings of elation and exhilaration. (If this becomes more widely known, will they make chocolate illegal?)

As if that weren’t enough, chocolate also contains polyphenols, which have been shown to have a positive impact on mood. This has led researchers to suggest they be studied more for their role in depression therapies. Darker chocolate contains more polyphenols.

(Sadly, some of our chocolate today comes from unsustainable and exploitative conditions. For more on the chocolate-slavery connection, and how to find ethical options, check out this article.)

5) Lion’s Mane Mushrooms

Lion’s Mane mushrooms have the remarkable ability to synthesize the peptide “nerve growth factor” (NGF). NGF is necessary for the growth and survival of brain neurons, and it contributes to mood improvement. It may also reduce your risk of depression.

For more on the health benefits of this mood-boosting food and other medicinal mushrooms, click here.

6) Green Tea

Mood-Boosting Foods: Green Tea

While technically a drink, green tea deserves a spot on the list of mood-boosting foods. Green tea has many benefits. Research has linked it to lower rates of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and many other ailments.

One type of green tea, matcha, is a particularly rich source of the amino acid L-theanine, which can help you to relax and maintain a calm demeanor. (Here are six science-backed reasons to drink matcha.)

7) Brazil Nuts

Low dietary selenium has been shown to increase the risk of depressive disorders. And researchers suggest that selenium-rich foods could be beneficial for primary prevention.

Did you know that a single Brazil nut can provide twice your daily selenium needs? Because they are such a potent source of selenium, it’s usually recommended not to eat more than four or five Brazil nuts per day to make sure you don’t get a selenium overdose!

8) Probiotics

Probiotics are the “good bacteria” in your gut. They produce serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. No wonder probiotics have been shown to improve depression.

Fermented foods, such as tempeh, miso, natto, and sauerkraut, support healthy gut bacteria. (For more on how to make the best use of probiotics, click here.)

9) Dark Leafy Greens

Mood-Boosting Foods: Dark Leafy Vegetables

The term “folic” comes from the Latin word folium, which means leaf. Why am I telling you this? Because dark, leafy green vegetables are one of the best places to find folate! They’re also rich in magnesium, which can help reduce anxiety and depression.

10) Lentils

To prevent deficiency, many nutrition experts suggest eating about 400 mcg of folate per day. One cup of cooked lentils can provide around 90% of this amount — and might help to prevent depression.

11) Chickpeas

Chickpeas contain folate, iron, magnesium, manganese, copper, zinc, fiber, and phosphorus. And a single cup of chickpeas provides over 50% of the daily value for vitamin B6.

12) Broccoli

Mood-Boosting Foods: Broccoli

Broccoli is rich in chromium, which can increase your body’s levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, and melatonin. Because chromium works directly with mood regulators, it has been found to be an effective treatment for depression.

13) Quinoa

Quinoa is a complex carbohydrate. Because it’s rich in protein and fiber, it can help stabilize blood sugar levels. It also contains B vitamins, magnesium, iron, and amino acids that contribute to the production of serotonin. (And low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression.)

14) Bananas

A 2008 study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that low sodium, high potassium diets had a positive impact on mood.

Though there is no RDA for potassium, it’s often recommended that you get around 1600-2000 mg per day. One banana can provide over 450 mg. Bananas are also rich in vitamin B6, which your body needs to synthesize serotonin.

15) Zucchini

Mood-Boosting Foods: Zucchini

Zucchini is high in mood-boosting folate, fiber, vitamin B6, and vitamin C. Want to increase your fiber intake? Try eating zucchini with its skin left on.

16) Coffee

Coffee is well-known for providing a happy feeling after you drink it. That’s one reason it’s such a popular way for many people to start their morning.

In 2015, researchers reviewed all the available research on the consumption of coffee and tea and risk for depression. In total, they looked at 346,913 individuals and 8,146 cases of depression. What did they find? There was a peak protective effect against depression for those who drank around 400 mL/day of coffee (just over 1 ½ cups).

Why could this be? The caffeine in coffee stimulates dopamine. And dopamine is the neurotransmitter that produces the feeling of euphoria.

Coffee is also a vasodilator, which means it causes your blood vessels to expand. This is good for your circulation. And it has a particularly positive effect on your brain — and perhaps, your mood. In addition, coffee is the #1 source of antioxidants in the American diet — something your brain definitely won’t complain about getting. (For more about the benefits of coffee, check out this article.)

Why Sugar and Fast Food Can Make Your Mood Worse

A woman lying in bed on her stomach looking at her phone and eating potato chips while under the covers

We’ve known for some time that there’s an association between added sugars and unhealthy fats with an increased risk of cancer, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, obesity, and many other ailments. But now we’re learning that they’re also bad for your mental and even your emotional health.

A 2012 study published in the Public Health Journal looked at fast food consumption and depression. Compared to those who ate little to no fast food products, people who ate fast food at least twice a week were 51% more likely to develop depression.

And while it can bring short-term pleasure, in the long run, sugar seems to be especially bad for your mood. Studies have shown that it increases the risk of mood disorders and depression.

The Whitehall Study II looked at the diets and health conditions of 8,000 people over 22 years. Researchers found that men who ate 67 or more grams of sugar per day were 23% more likely to have a depression diagnosis in a five-year period than men who consumed 40 grams or less.

Beverages are one of the most under-recognized sources of added sugars in the modern diet. And now we’re learning that they can have a major impact on mental health.

A 2014 Japanese study reviewed dietary patterns and self-reported depression levels of more than 260,000 participants. Researchers found a dramatic increase in rates of depression amongst participants who drank the most sweetened beverages. Diet soda drinkers, however, had even worse outcomes than regular soda drinkers. Meanwhile, coffee and tea drinkers fared the best — particularly when they drank their coffee or tea unsweetened. (Here are five healthy beverages you should be drinking.)

The Value of Veggies

A paper bag bursting with fresh fruits and vegetables
Like a car, your brain functions best when it’s given the highest quality fuel. But while cars perform best on gasoline, your brain performs best with a diet based on plants.

In one of the largest studies ever conducted on food and happiness, researchers collected dietary data from 80,000 people in Great Britain. Those who ate more fruits and vegetables (seven to eight servings a day) reported much higher life satisfaction. (This was after adjusting for employment, marital status, income, education, and illness.)

And when it comes to mood, it looks like vegetarians may have a particular leg up. In a 2012 study published in Nutrition Journal, 39 omnivores were randomly broken into three groups for two weeks. The first group ate a diet that included meat, poultry, and fish. A second group ate a vegetarian diet plus fish. And a third group was strictly vegetarian.

Over the two weeks, the omnivorous and fish groups reported little change in overall mood. But the vegetarian group reported a more positive mood state. In fact, several participants experienced dramatic improvements. Observational studies have come to a similar conclusion. Compared to omnivores, vegetarians report a significantly more positive mood, with less depression and anxiety.

The human brain is extraordinarily complex. And we have much more to learn about how it works, and about how different foods impact your physical and mental health. But it doesn’t take any more studies to see the pattern. A diet based on whole plant foods and low in added sugars and unhealthy fats is good for your health AND your happiness.

So next time you’re feeling blue, try showing your body — and your brain – some love by reaching for greens (or any of the mood-boosting foods). Your world just might change for the better.

And you might even turn a frown upside down.

Tell us in the comments:

  • What are your favorite mood-boosting foods?

  • Have you found natural solutions to help with stress, anxiety, or depression?

Diets abundant in whole fruits and vegetables have been associated with a decreased risk of depression.

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