Hippocrates famously (and supposedly) said some 2400 years ago, “Let food be thy medicine and let thy medicine be food.”
If you have a serious case of depression or anxiety, food shouldn’t ever be considered a replacement for a medicine. And unfortunately, when most people are feeling the blues, they reach for ice cream and other not quite so healthy foods to self medicate.
But there are certain foods that have the backing of research to influence brain function and mood. And these foods don’t make you happier simply because they’re loaded with sugar or chocolate (well, one food on the list does include chocolate). After all, the positive vibes you feel from a sugar buzz are most often short-lived.
Rather, these foods work on the brain by influencing neurotransmitter activity. Neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers that affect the body’s nervous system, have three main physiological functions on neurons (cells in the brain that receive sensory input from the external world): they either excite, inhibit (relax) or modulate.
The most common neurotransmitters in humans that food can profoundly influence are:
- Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
Foods That Boost Acetylcholine
Using a 2018 article written by an Italian group of neurological researchers that was published in the journal Nutrients as a reference, here are the best mood-uplifting foods for each neurotransmitter. (And whom better to guide us as to what the best foods to make you happier are than a group of Italians?)
Low levels of acetylcholine may be partly to blame for neurological conditions that affect memory and cognitive function, such as Alzheimer’s Disease. Now, you don’t want to necessarily eat the foods that stimulate the most acetylcholine (ACh). That’s because increased signaling levels of this neurotransmitter could actually trigger depression and anxiety. The key, then, is to consume the best foods for regulating ACh.
According to the Italian researchers, the best foods for ACh regulation, to support cognitive function, and by extension, mood are the following:
- Bitter oranges
- Mung beans
- Wild strawberry
Best Foods to Balance Glutamate Levels
The most abundant neurotransmitter in our noggin, glutamate is also an amino acid that the journal of Neuropsychobiology hypothesizes might be critical for regulating psychiatric distress. Like ACh, too much glutamate, because it is an excitatory neurotransmitter, could lead to mood disharmony. GABA, the next neurotransmitter below, calms the brain, while glutamate can stimulate neuronal activity. So the name of the game is picking foods with just the right balance of glutamate.
Processed foods, no surprise here, contain the highest levels of excitatory glutamine and its derivatives such as MSG (monosodium glutamate).
The healthiest foods for balancing GABA and glutamate, which is the key to a more stable mood, are, according to the Italian researchers:
- Fermented beans
- Tomatoes/tomato products
Best GABA-Boosting Foods
Many of us have brains operating at warp speed. By activating levels of GABA neurotransmitter, these foods can help us feel more calm:
- Cruciferous veggies like broccoli
- Adzuki beans
- Wild rice
- Sweet potato
- Wild celery
Don’t Smoke Dope, Eat Foods To Boost Dopamine
Dopamine is known as the reward neurotransmitter. When you’re engaged in pleasurable activities, your brain releases this feel-good chemical. Anybody who has experienced a “runner’s high” knows the feeling of a killer dopamine rush. One thing that you shouldn’t eat, if you want to keep dopamine levels steady, is eating a lot of saturated fat. While saturated fat has been falsely accused of causing cardiovascular disease, research shows a diet high in this nutrient may cause dopamine levels to decline.
So eat these foods instead:
- Plantains/banana (eat green-tipped ones as they are higher in resistant starches)
- Velvet beans
Dopamine and serotonin are often confused or used interchangeably. While they both regulate mood, one main difference is that dopamine is stored in the brain while serotonin is found mostly in the gut. Hence, another reason to focus on gut health.
Fruits, vegetables and seeds, say the researchers, are rich in a precursor to serotonin called 5-HT. Another chemical that gets metabolized into serotonin is tryptophan, which is an amino acid. Turkey is famously high in tryptophan. But too much turkey, especially if it’s not organic/humanely raised, may do more harm to your health than good.
So eat these foods to boost serotonin activity instead:
- Passion fruit
- Green onion
- Chinese cabbage
And last but certainly not least on the best foods to boost serotonin: chocolate! But not any chocolate will do. Choose extra-dark chocolate with a minimal number of ingredients.
Histamine: Limit Amounts Of This Allergy-Inducing Neurotransmitter In Food
Obviously, you can’t be in a good mood if you’re sneezing all day or develop a headache, which are just two of the symptoms associated with histamine sensitivity. Some people are more sensitive to histamine in foods than others. Especially if they lack an enzyme called diamine oxidase (DAO) that breaks down the neurotransmitter. If that’s you (and only an elimination diet can reveal that), consider eating the lowest histamine foods, which include:
- Fresh, organic meat and fish
- Gluten-free grains
- Bananas (but not overly ripe ones)
- Sweet potato
Best Foods For Overall Mood Support
Perhaps instead of the standard food pyramid that calls for 6-11 servings of grains per day, the federal government should revise its nutritional guidelines to include neurotransmitter balancing. Of course, that’s unlikely to happen. So if you’re looking for an easier food shopping list to elevate your mood, here are other foods that have shown promise in research studies:
- Salmon (and other cold-water oily fish high in essential Omega-3 fatty acids.)
- Foods high in zinc (cashews, oysters, hemp seeds, grass-fed beef, lentils)
- Green tea (like this one)
What healthy foods make you happy? Let us know below.