You know your diet affects your mood.
How happy would you be in the morning without coffee?
How amazing do you feel after a helping of your favorite comfort food?
Whether it’s an energy boost or a blood sugar spike (and crash), nothing we eat is digested without affecting how we feel.
Your brain and gut are intimately connected. You not only THINK you feel better after eating certain foods … you actually DO feel better! Your gut acts as a “second brain,” producing around 95% of the serotonin the body uses on a day-to-day basis.
But, as you can imagine, coffee and comfort foods aren’t necessarily the best way to nourish your mental health.
A nutrient-rich diet does the opposite. It actually protects you from stress. (And those damaging free-radicals!) The right foods reduce anxiety and alleviate depression.
In just a minute, you’ll learn 13 foods you should be eating to beat stress and feel great. But first, here’s the science behind the “Mood Diet.”
Your Gut Needs Help
It impacts the body in a number of ways: stiff or sore muscles, headaches, anxiety, depression, or a lack of energy or motivation.
With about 18% of us struggling with anxiety, it’s clear we need some relief.
The gastrointestinal tract is particularly vulnerable to a poor mood. A third of stressed-out folks say that their stomach and digestion are affected by stress. Stress can make your body crave fatty or sugary foods, since these foods offer a temporary energy boost. But those foods are harmful in the long run and can even damage the gut’s lining.
You’re not going to get rid of stress. But you can help your gut deal with it a little better.
The Brain-Gut Connection
The brain and digestive system “talk” to each other, which means that what’s happening in your gut is communicated to your brain.
Eat poorly, and your brain can suffer. Ever noticed that you feel irritable, angry, or have mood swings after you haven’t been eating well?
If something is going wrong in the gut, such as irritable bowel syndrome, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, or candida, then you may find your mood becoming even worse.
Of course you want to manage stress and exercise regularly. But you also want to eat well to heal your gut and feed your brain. These 13 foods are a great place to start.
Healthy fats, like those present in avocado, have been trending in recent years, and for good reason.
Monounsaturated fats contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which can help decrease inflammation and boost brain performance.
Over half of our brains are made up of fat, meaning that healthy fats are crucial to thinking clearly and performing at our best.
Avocados also contain a wide range of B vitamins, such as thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin. B vitamins directly affect the nervous system, helping us stay calm and cool.
Throw an avocado into a smoothie, cut it into chunks and sprinkle on a salad, or go Hollywood with some gourmet avocado toast. Rumor has it that avocado toast is a Meghan Markle favorite!
2. Fermented Foods
Fermentation is an ancient process of preserving food, which relies on bacteria known as probiotics.
Probiotics are essential to balancing out the good and bad bacteria in the digestive system. They’re great for those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome or other digestive disorders, as they help the body efficiently break down and absorb the food we eat. They’re also great for mood.
Two of the most common strains of probiotics (Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum) have been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The most common fermented foods are sauerkraut, yogurt, kimchi and kombucha. Watch out for fermented foods with added sugar and salt. You’ll want natural fermented products with no additives to get the most benefit.
3. Green Tea
Although green tea contains caffeine, which is an anxiogenic (anxiety-inducing) substance, it’s also high in L-theanine, which has been shown to decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
L-theanine blunts the body’s typical response to stress, like an elevated heart rate. Green tea also contains epigallocatechin gallate, which contains anxiety-reducing brain chemicals dopamine and serotonin.
If you need your caffeine but hate getting the jitters, try swapping your morning joe for green tea. Don’t like the taste? Add a bag of green tea to your favorite fruity herbal blend.
Your brain needs sleep. It’s not just kids who get grumpy without a good night’s sleep.
Try eating kale before bed to help you wind down. Kale contains glycine, an amino acid that helps calm the nervous system. Kale lowers your body temperature, too, which sends a signal to your body that it’s time to rest.
Dark, leafy greens like kale do more than help you sleep. Kale is naturally rich in vitamin E and beta-carotene, an antioxidant that helps to decrease inflammation and protect the body from free radicals.
If you don’t like raw kale, massage kale leaves with oil or steam it before eating to help your body digest and absorb it more easily.
5. Wild Salmon
Some types of seafood, including wild-caught salmon, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s help reduce cortisol levels and balance out adrenaline spikes that often occur during panic attacks or stressful events.
Salmon also has high levels of vitamin D, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Swap your fish oil supplements for a few servings of brain-boosting salmon a week.
Turmeric is a spice that belongs to the ginger family. It’s been a staple in Indian cuisine for centuries.
Today, you can find turmeric everywhere: in supplements, in lattes, even in ice cream!
Turmeric’s main ingredient, curcumin, is an antioxidant that decreases inflammation and improves brain health.
If you are going to take turmeric as a supplement, avoid taking it on its own. Pair it with black pepper to increase its absorption rate by 2,000%.
Almonds are high in magnesium, zinc and vitamin E, which have been proven to both treat and prevent anxiety.
Magnesium levels are particularly important for optimal brain function, since they help to increase the level of the mood-balancing neurotransmitter serotonin.
Almonds also contain a high amount of the mineral selenium. A selenium deficiency can cause exhaustion, depression and anxiety.
Outside of their brain-boosting benefits, almonds are also great for the digestive system. Full of fiber and healthy fats, they help to encourage the growth of good gut bacteria while also maintaining regular digestion.
In addition to snacking on almonds, you can throw some in your smoothies, add flaked almonds to salads, or spread almond butter on your toast. Chocolate-covered almonds, anyone?
8. Dark Chocolate
Milk chocolate is NOT a health food. But dark chocolate? It’s a health-nut’s favorite dessert.
Dark chocolate is low in sugar and high in antioxidants, making it the perfect treat. Flavonols, a specific antioxidant found in dark chocolate, help increase blood flow to the brain.
Since dark chocolate contains the amino acid tryptophan, which helps you feel relaxed, it’s the perfect treat before bed (or any time you want to chill).
Dark chocolate also increases serotonin levels in the brain. But the real power of chocolate may lay in the taste, which most people associate with pleasure and happiness.
Just keep to the proper serving size (1 to 2 ounces), and you’re free to indulge guilt-free!
9. Pumpkin Seeds
Pumpkin seeds, also known as pepitas, are a great source of zinc, an essential mineral that plays an important role in the development of the brain and nervous system.
Pumpkin seeds also contain other nutrients essential to maintaining optimal health, including magnesium, vitamin E, carotenoids, and fiber.
Some people find nuts and seeds difficult to digest. If you’re one of them, try sprouting them beforehand to improve digestibility.
If you’ve got a sugar craving that won’t go away, grab a handful of blueberries. Blueberries offer a sweet-tart alternative for sugar cravings and pack a punch of vitamin C that can boost the immune system, prevent and reduce anxiety symptoms, and decrease inflammation. They also contain flavonoids, an antioxidant that’s great for the brain.
For even more antioxidant power, see if your local grocery store stocks frozen wild blueberries. Wild blueberries are smaller but more potent than the farmed variety.
Asparagus contains folate, which is a building block for the nervous system and is important for your body’s cellular detoxification.
Folate is one of the key nutrients for improved mood and decreased stress levels. It’s also key to the production of dopamine, which controls the pleasure and reward centers of the brain.
Since bananas are a beta-blocking fruit, they help counteract the body’s normal stress response by preventing adrenaline from binding to beta receptors in the brain.
They also contain tryptophan, which helps calm the nervous system and induces relaxation.
But bananas may be best known as a rich source of potassium. Potassium helps slow a rapid heartbeat, brings oxygen to the brain, and regulate the amount of water in the body. Since the body’s normal reaction to stress includes a drop in potassium, bananas are a great way to help support your body during times of high demand.
Eggs are a great source of choline, a vital part of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which helps regulate the portion of the brain responsible for a balanced mood and reduced stress levels.
Choline is especially important for those with chronic anxiety, since studies have shown that those with higher levels of anxiety have lower levels of choline.
Eggs also contain amino acids essential to the production of dopamine and serotonin in the body.
However, if you want the full benefits of this brain-boosting food, egg white omelets don’t cut it. Most of the nutrients are in the yolk!
Good Food for a Good Mood
Beating stress with Starbucks and pizza may sound like a good idea at the time…
But bananas, eggs and almonds will make you happier in the long run.
A diet rich in a variety of whole foods, including ample veggies and healthy fats, is key to maintaining both your mental and gut health.