If you’ve ever felt the need to eat your feelings, there’s actually a much better approach: Eat to beat those feelings. The nutrients (or lack thereof) we put in our bodies can have a major effect on our emotions, and the foods we choose when we’re feeling stressed, anxious, or downright depressed can either help pick us up or keep dragging us down.
Next time you’re in a rut, trade the Ben & Jerry’s for one of these eight proven mood-boosters.
1. Dark Chocolate
The oft-touted benefits of dark chocolate as the ultimate pick-me-up are legit. Dark chocolate is full of polyphenols, “micronutrients with antioxidant and immune-boosting properties that may help manage anxiety and promote overall calmness,” says Keri Gans, R.D.N, author of The Small Change Diet. Research published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology backs this up, suggesting that polyphenols can actually decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety—a feat Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of Ancient Nutrition and DrAxe.com, credits to their contributions to your gut and immune health. “Research shows that gut health is closely linked to mental health and cognitive function,” he says. “In fact, the beneficial bacteria in your gut play a key role in the metabolism of several amino acids and neurotransmitters involved in mood, like tryptophan and serotonin.” (The amino acid tryptophan helps synthesize the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is often called the ‘feel good hormone.’) So not only does eating polyphenol-rich foods like dark chocolate support gut health, but it influences your overall sense of well-being, too.
2. Wild Salmon
Fatty fish like wild salmon, trout, and sardines are full of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which one scientific review suggests may help protect us from mood and anxiety issues. Like polyphenols, omega-3s in salmon have anti-inflammatory properties—and while more research is needed, inflammation seems to be a component of conditions like depression and mood disorders, says Axe. In fact, low levels of omega-3s have been linked to a higher risk of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
Basic as it may be, avocado toast can truly brighten your day. “Avocado is a good source of folate, which may help to lower levels of homocysteine in our bodies,” explains Gans. (Too-high levels of this amino acid—common in meat- and animal protein-laden diets—can affect our mood by interfering with our production of serotonin.) Folate helps convert homocysteine into the amino acid methionine, which can then be used to create several of the neurotransmitters involved in brain function and mood regulation, including dopamine and serotonin, says Axe. “Studies also suggest that a deficiency in folate may be associated with a higher risk of depression and other mood disorders,” he adds.
4. Wholesome Carbs
We like to demonize carbs, but one study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that people on low-carb diets reported more depression, anger, and anxiety throughout the course of a year than those on higher-carb diets. “Carbohydrates help to boost levels of tryptophan, the key ingredient for making serotonin,” says Gans.
Not just any carbs will do, though: “While whole grains have been associated with a variety of health benefits, refined carbs may actually trigger inflammation, which can contribute to mood disturbances,” says Axe. You see, refined carbs lack fiber and trigger your body’s production of insulin, which has been linked to inflammation. Whole grains, though, contain fiber to save you from that insulin spike and provide a wealth of other micronutrients. If you’re craving sweet carby goodness, try a bowl of homemade oatmeal made with milk and topped with peanut butter, banana, and chia seeds. For something savory, try quinoa or buckwheat tossed with diced red onion, cucumbers, tomatoes, olive oil, and fresh lemon juice.
5. Reishi Mushrooms
Reishi mushrooms, known as ‘the mushroom of immortality,’ have been used in holistic medicine for over 4,000 years. Often touted as a superfood, these ‘shrooms have adaptogenic properties, “which means that they help combat the negative effects of stress, such as decreased energy,” says Axe. “Although clinical studies about the effects of reishi mushrooms on mood are limited, one animal study did show it to exhibit mood-boosting effects.” You won’t find these mushrooms in the produce aisle of your grocery store, but you can enjoy their benefits by sipping on a reishi tea, like Four Sigmatic’s Reishi Mushroom Elixir.
6. Swiss Chard
This leafy green is packed with magnesium—a nutrient that’s essential for increasing your energy levels and well-known for its mood-boosting abilities, but one that most Americans are deficient in. “Magnesium helps relax the muscles and support brain function. Plus, it plays a vital role in nerve transmission, insulin metabolism, and blood pressure regulation,” says Axe. One study published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry identified an association between higher magnesium intake and lower depression scores—while other research has linked low magnesium intake with up to a 22-percent higher risk of developing depression. Other quality sources of the mineral include spinach, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, and almonds.
7. Greek Yogurt
Calcium plays a major role in in releasing feel-good neurotransmitters from your brain, and it can have far-reaching effects on mood and brain function. “In fact, some of the hallmark signs of a severe calcium deficiency include depression, mood swings, anxiety, and irritability,” says Axe, who recommends regularly eating plenty of foods high in calcium, like Greek yogurt, sardines with bones, kale, and almonds. Craving something calcium-filled and comforting? Axe recommends blending Greek yogurt into a delicious berry smoothie or a smoothie bowl topped with healthy ingredients like berries, nuts, and seeds, or whipping up his dark chocolate almond butter cookies or crunchy seasoned kale chips.
These green stalks are a great plant-based source of the amino acid tryptophan (which you now know helps produce serotonin, the neurotransmitter that helps stabilize mood and regulate sleeping patterns). “Studies show that following a diet low in tryptophan can decrease levels of serotonin, which may play a part in the development of depression and anxiety,” says Axe. Not only does asparagus provide this amino acid, but it’s also high in folate, the same mood-supporting B vitamin found in avocado.