Virginia Woolf said that “one cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Food has an incredible capacity to make us feel good. It’s not just about flavour and the feel-good factor. Food contains micronutrients that can impact on the way our bodies and our brains function. A survey by the Food and Mood project, led by the mental health charity Mind, found that around 90% of people found that changing their diet significantly improved their mental health. So what foods do happy people tuck into?
You know that advert where a woman melts into a puddle of bliss at the first crumbly bite of chocolate? Well it turns out that it might not be so far-fetched after all. Chocolate, especially the dark, intense, high cocoa stuff, contains the brain’s bliss molecule anandamide. It’s a chemical messenger or neurotransmitter produced in the brain, and it works to temporarily block out the bad feelings like pain and depression.
Anandamide actually acts in a similar way to marijuana – but with chocolate the researchers offered the reassurance that we’re talking about something “much, much, much, much milder than a high.” The feel-good factor is extended by two of chocolate’s other magic ingredients, which slow down the natural breakdown of anandamide, allowing it to build up in the brain. And if you reach for chocolate when the going gets tough, it may be self-medication not self-indulgence. Eating just an ounce and a half of dark chocolate can make the levels of stress hormones plummet. That’s comfort eating at its best! (1,2,3)
Live cultured or Greek yoghurt is packed with probiotics. These are the “good bacteria” that line our guts and act to maintain healthy digestion and break down the fibre in our food. But research has shown that their influence can extend way beyond the bowels. An imbalance in the gut bacteria has been shown to have an impact on mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.
It could be down to the serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that’s sometimes known as the ‘happy molecule’ because of its vital role in maintaining your mood. Many of the most popular antidepressants like Prozac and Celexa boost brain levels of serotonin. But did you know that 95% of the body’s serotonin is produced by our good gut bacteria? Keep your levels topped up with active yoghurt, it will also pack a protein punch to keep your blood sugar levels, your energy and your emotions stable. (4,5)
Fish, and especially oily fish, are rich sources of Omega-3 fatty acids. Mackerel, herring, salmon, sardines, tuna and crab will all boost your intake, so experiment with fresh, frozen or canned varieties.
Omega-3 fatty acids have a wide range of health benefits, including lowering cholesterol levels and protecting against heart disease, diabetes and cancer. But it’s not just being healthier that’ll make you happy. They can also boost the blood flow in the brain and keep the levels of dopamine high to improve your mood and your cognitive function. In fact, a study in Brain Behavior and Immunity showed that students taking Omega-3 supplements had a staggering 20 percent decrease in anxiety. Low omega-3 has been linked to symptoms of depression and even suicide in the elderly. Try increasing fish intake or introduce an omega 3 supplement to prevent and combat depression. (6,7)
Bananas have a reputation as being depression-busting superfoods because they contain loads of the happy chemical serotonin. The only problem is studies show that precisely none of it can get through the body’s blood-brain barrier and get to work. But don’t let that put you off slicing some onto your granola. Bananas have lots of other ways of boosting your mood.
Bananas are a great source of L-tryptophan, an essential amino acid, which the brain converts into serotonin and are also packed with vitamin B6, to ease anxiety and soothe stress. Ripe bananas can also drive up your dopamine levels, because it’s rich in the key building- block tyrosine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps us experience pleasure and keeps us driven and motivated. (8,9)
Fancy something spicier? India has one of the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s in the world, and it could be because of all the turmeric which works to boost brain health. Turmeric is the ingredient that gives curry powder its colouring. It’s packed with a chemical called curcumin which can increase the levels of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which can protect against both dementia and depression. So having a regular vindaloo really could be the spice of life. (10)
I’m a total grouch before I’ve had my morning Americano. The good news is that research confirms that it’s not just bad behaviour on my part, it’s science. Coffee has an effect on many of the chemical messengers that help control your mood. So you’re not imaging things, that latte really does improve your sense of wellbeing.
Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, which stops us feeling sleepy and gives us an energy kick. It also affects dopamine and serotonin levels, so that we feel happier, sharper and more alert. Research has also shown that coffee also triggers BDNF release so that more neurones are created, the brain is healthier and you may feel less depressed. (11)
Blackberry season is about to start and the hedgerows are laden with the berries, so get ‘brambling’ for a dose of nature’s free antidepressant. It’s the purple pigment that makes the difference. Anthocyanins are the chemicals that give blackberries and blueberries their characteristic colour. They are antioxidants that mop up dangerous cancer-causing free- radicals and also help your brain make dopamine. Decreased dopamine activity is involved in depression so gorge on berries for a lighter mood. (9)
1. Brain cannabinoids in chocolate E. di Tomaso, M. Beltramo, D. Piomelli, Nature, 382, 677-8 (1996)
2. Chocolate may mimic marijuana in brain. Chemical and Engineering News 74, 31 (1996).
3. Researchers say chocolate triggers feel-good chemicals (CNN, Linda Ciampa), CNN, Feb. 14, 1996.
4. That gut feeling. Dr. Siri Carpenter American Psychological Association. September 2012, Vol 43, No. 8
5. Gut emotions – mechanisms of action of probiotics as novel therapeutic targets for depression and anxiety disorders.( CNS Neurol Disord Drug Targets. 2014;13(10):1770-86) Slyepchenko A, Carvalho AF, Cha DS, Kasper S, McIntyre RS1.
6. Effect of fish-oil supplementation on mental well-being in older subjects: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial (American Journal for Clinical Nutrition 2008) Ondine van de Rest, Johanna M Geleijnse, Frans J Kok, Wija A van Staveren, Willibrord H Hoefnagels, Aartjan TF Beekman, and Lisette CPGM de Groot
7. Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: a randomized controlled trial.(Brain Behav Immun. 2011 Nov;25(8):1725-34. doi:10.1016) Kiecolt-Glaser JK1, Belury MA, Andridge R, Malarkey WB, Glaser R.
9. The role of dopamine in mood disorders. Diehl DJ, Gershon S. Compr Psychiatry. 1992 Mar-Apr;33(2):115- 20.
10. Critical Examination of Studies on Curcumin for Depression (J Clin Psychiatry 2014;75(10):e1110–e1112) Chittaranjan Andrade, MD