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Can Certain Foods Make You Happier? Yes, Say Researchers

What you eat doesn’t just affect your body—it affects your brain, too.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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Not long ago, my husband, Tom, came home and observed my scowling face with alarm.

“OK, what’s up?” he asked warily. I ticked off a list of irritations: our next-door neighbor’s yappy new dog, a barrage of robo-calls, a coworker’s latest drama. As I ranted, Tom cast a quick glance at a ravaged bag of double chocolate chip cookies on our kitchen counter.

“Let me guess,” he said with a sigh. “You ate a bunch of cookies.”

I had to laugh. After many years of marriage, Tom knows that after I go on a sugar jamboree, I’m irritable, antsy, and generally not that much fun to be around.

Anyone who has been “hangry” after skipping lunch—or woozy after a turkey dinner—knows that there is a pretty strong connection between food and mood. Now the research is mounting that eating nutrient-rich foods can actually improve your mental health.

Researchers in the emerging field of nutritional psychiatry are finding a notable link between what you eat and what you feel, particularly when it comes to managing depression and anxiety.

More and more, doctors are recognizing that diet should be part of treatment—and are even prescribing certain foods alongside therapy and medication. A recent study published in BMC Medicine found that those with depressive symptoms had a “significant reduction” after 12 weeks on a healthy diet. A depression-prone friend of mine, with the help of her doctor, did just that, overhauling her diet for three months. “I felt a lot better,” she says. “I think in my case, what helped the most is that after eating well, I slept really well, which was so good for my mood.”

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, depression affects more than 322 million people worldwide. Common symptoms of depression include low mood, a lack of interest in things you once enjoyed, sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, poor concentration, and fatigue.

It makes sense that food should affect one of our biggest organs—the brain. The World Journal of Psychiatry recently published a paper listing 12 nutrients key to managing depression and anxiety, among them vitamin A, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and selenium. Here are some others that have been shown to improve your mood.

Omega-3s

Research shows that societies that don’t eat enough omega-3 fatty acids may have higher rates of depressive disorders. Omega-3s, found in fatty fish like salmon, flaxseed oil, walnuts, and fortified foods like eggs and milk, are thought to have anti-inflammatory properties that might relieve depression. Two omega-3s—EPA and DHA—seem to have the most potential to help those with mood disorders, including postpartum depression.

Vitamin C

Low levels of vitamin C have been tied to fatigue and depression, says Nina Eng, Northwell Health’s chief clinical dietitian at Plainview Hospital in Plainview, New York —and when people boost their intake by eating foods like oranges and red peppers, their anxiety lessens.

Vitamin D

Last winter, I had a bad case of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). When I mentioned it off-handedly during a checkup, my doctor immediately ordered a blood test for D levels. They were exceedingly low—and when I took supplements, within about a month’s time, my SAD receded.

The Sunshine Vitamin shows real promise: A 2013 meta-review in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that low levels of vitamin D are associated with depression.

“The depression seems to improve as D levels improve, and that includes seasonal affective disorder,” says Eng. “Vitamin D increases levels of serotonin in the brain, a neurotransmitter that promotes a calming effect on your mood.”

Dark chocolate

Chocoholics, rejoice! Science has confirmed what many of us knew all along: Chocolate makes us feel good. Cocoa beans contain flavonoids—powerful antioxidants derived from plants that have been shown to improve your mood. A 2016 Nurses’ Health study of more than 80,000 women in midlife and older with a history of depression found that eating foods with flavonoids was linked with a lower risk of experiencing it.

Fermented foods

Who knew eating sauerkraut and kimchi could lift your mood? There’s compelling evidence that eating fermented foods convey probiotics (“good bacteria”) to the gut, which has been linked to the production of serotonin.

About 95 percent of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract. “Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression, which is why medications that increase serotonin levels are used to treat it,” says Dr. Jodie Eisner, a New York City psychologist.

A Mediterranean-style diet

Beloved by nutritionists, the Mediterranean diet is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, fish, lean poultry, and monosaturated fats such as olive oil—all of which provide a bounty of nutrients shown to help ward off depression.

“The Mediterranean diet is high in folate and B vitamins,” says Eng. “There’s a correlation between low levels of folate and B vitamins and depression, and folic acid improves response to antidepressant medication.”

Foods to avoid

We all know that unhealthy foods aren’t good for your body, but research is emerging that suggests reaching for that second sprinkles-encrusted doughnut is not great for your emotional health, either. Scientists are still grappling with whether poor nutrient intake leads to depression, or whether depression causes people to eat a poor diet. Even if the cause is still unclear, the results are compelling: A 2014 study in Brain, Behavior and Immunity found an association between depression and a diet heavy in sugar and foods made with refined flour.

Why? The simple sugars in junk foods like soda and candy can make your blood sugar spike and dip like a roller coaster (just as mine did after I tunneled through that bag of cookies). They’re digested much more quickly, leading to a temporary bump in serotonin. “This increase initially makes you feel happier and less stressed,” says Dr. Eisner. “But the problem with these foods is that as quickly as your serotonin increases, it dramatically drops, leaving you feeling anxious, irritable, lethargic, and unhappy.” Researchers have also found an association between depression symptoms and trans fats—another frequent ingredient in junk food.

Of course, simply ramping up your spinach intake will not automatically boost your mood. Scientific research on diet and mood disorders is still in its adolescence and there are many complex, intertwined factors that contribute to depression, from genetics and environment to lifestyle factors such as smoking and weight. Experts say eating nutritious foods to improve mood is most effective as part of a more comprehensive program including therapy, sleep, exercise, anti-stress measures, and, if needed, medication.

Still, what’s good for your body is good for your brain. There are solid reasons why it’s a smart idea to focus on food to protect your emotional health. Changing your diet won’t necessarily stop your clinical depression, but it could help, equipping you to deal with it more effectively. “The very first step in learning how to regulate our emotions is taking care of our bodies,” Dr. Eisner points out. “When your body is functioning optimally, you’re less vulnerable to the impact of negative emotions.” And a healthy diet can reduce the risk of other chronic conditions associated with depression, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity.

Calming stress and lowering anxiety—even more evidence that it’s always a good idea to eat your vegetables.

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Published November 20th, 2018

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