There's plenty of evidence to suggest that activities like exercise and spending time outside during the day can lift your spirits, and as it turns out, what you eat can also have a big impact on your mood.
While no one food is a cure-all, and you should certainly consult a doctor if you think you're exhibiting symptoms of depression, there are several foods that have been scientifically proven to give people a happiness boost. Some of these foods, like Brazil nuts, contain compounds that stimulate the production of certain feel-good hormones, while other foods, such as coffee, can actually block compounds that may make you feel lousy.
As you may notice, many of the foods on this list are also considered superfoods and come with a myriad of health benefits that extend far beyond promoting a good mood.
Salmon and Albacore Tuna
Fatty fish, like salmon and tuna are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for your heart and your mind. The abundance of omega-3 fatty acids in fish like salmon and albacore tuna may contribute to improved mood and mitigation of depression through the impact of omega-3 fats as anti-inflammatory signaling molecules, and in their structural role in the brain. It's important to remember that 60 percent of our brain tissue is made of fat, so the choices of fat we incorporate into our diet have a large impact on both the structure and function of our brains.
Two specific omega-3s—docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)—have been associated with lower levels of depression. According to a 2016 review of scientific data, DHA and EPA help modulate the mechanisms of brain cell signaling, including the dopaminergic and serotonergic pathways. In other words, they can boost your mood. If you're not a fan of salmon or tuna, get your omega-3 fatty acids from foods like flaxseeds or tofu.
Yes, a chocolate bar can really help improve your mood! Studies have shown that dark chocolate consumption is associated with lower odds of clinically relevant depressive symptoms, with individuals consuming the highest amount of dark chocolate having 57 percent lower odds of depressive symptoms than those who reported no dark chocolate consumption. This may be related to chemicals in dark chocolate called cocoa polyphenols, which are potent antioxidants, and may improve inflammatory profiles. There are also psychoactive ingredients in chocolate, which may produce positive feelings.
However, when shopping for your mood-boosting chocolate, cocoa content is key. It's ideal to get the darkest chocolate you can find, as this will have the least sugar and the most cocoa mass (excess sugar and subsequent spikes and crashes can lead to mood lability), I opt for 85 percent or above.
In addition to supporting good gut health, fermented foods, like sauerkraut, yogurt, and kimchi, may also have a positive impact on your mood. These foods contain probiotics, which, according to numerous studies, may boost serotonin levels. This is especially important because serotonin—sometimes called the "happy hormone"—is responsible for lifting your mood.
The positive impact of fermented foods on mood may be related to the close relationship between gut function and brain health, with a fascinating bidirectional relationship existing between the two. One study showed that individuals with the highest intake of probiotic foods had significantly lower odds of depression severity and self-reported clinical depression. These effects were stronger in men.
There are several proposed mechanisms of why this might be the case, including the impact of fermented foods on blood sugar control and metabolic health, which impacts mood and the brain. Additionally, the enriched chemicals in fermented foods—unique flavonoids—may positively impact the microbiome to mitigate inflammation and oxidative stress, both of which can negatively impact the brain.
Brazil nuts are one of the most potent sources of selenium, which has several functional roles in the body, including in the generation of key immune and antioxidant proteins called selenoproteins, as well as in the healthy production of thyroid hormones. Per a 2021 study, high selenium intake is associated with a lower prevalence of depression, even after adjusting for several variables. The inverse is also true, as selenium deficiencies are common in people with depression.
Healthy thyroid function is closely implicated in mood, as both hyper and hypothyroidism can have significant mood effects. Optimal antioxidant and immune function are fundamental to mood status by ameliorating oxidative stress (which the brain is very sensitive to) and chronic inflammation, both of which can have negative effects on the brain.
Kale and Spinach
Dark leafy greens (kale, spinach, Swiss chard) are rich in B vitamins. According to the Mayo Clinic, these vitamins play a role in producing brain chemicals that affect mood and other brain functions. Additionally, low levels of B12 and other B vitamins, such as B6 and folate, may be related to depression. If you're not a fan of dark leafy greens, you can get your fill of B vitamins by eating foods like bananas and eggs.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, drinking a cup of coffee can help pull you out of a funk. While caffeine might make some people feel jittery or anxious, it can also stop a naturally occurring compound called adenosine from attaching to brain receptors that encourage tiredness. This, in turn, increases alertness and attention, thus having a positive effect on your mood.
Caffeine has also been scientifically proven to increase the release of mood-boosting neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine, but there's evidence to suggest that coffee's mood-boosting properties extend beyond the stimulant. In fact, a 2018 study of 72 adults found that both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee significantly improved people's mood, compared with a placebo beverage. This suggests that coffee may have other compounds that positively influence mood as well.
Beans and Lentils
Beans, legumes, and other complex carbohydrates that are slowly absorbed by the body can reduce cravings for less healthy carbs that can often lead to volatile blood sugar spikes, which can cause moodiness and irritability. These complex carbs also provide microbiome-enhancing fiber and resistant starch, which helps keep your blood sugar stable and limits the likelihood of mood swings.
Need another reason to stock up on beans and lentils? Both foods are also good sources of tryptophan, which the body uses to make serotonin.