For the first time, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans acknowledges what many researchers have suggested for years: Diet can affect mental health. This is not a huge surprise to those who know they always get “cranky” when they skip meals or become lethargic from a “sugar crash” after eating one too many sweets. What has remained a source of confusion is trying to figure out which foods we should be eating to help us feel happier, as well as less stressed and anxious.
High-protein foods like poultry, fish, grass-fed beef, shrimp, and sunflower and pumpkin seeds are among the best sources of tryptophan, an essential amino acid that creates the serotonin to boost our mood.
“Most people are being derailed by high-carb foods, either sweet or starchy. Protein is still taking a backseat, and that’s part of the reason our moods are deteriorating,” says Julia Ross, psychotherapist, best-selling author and director of the Nutritional Therapy Institute Clinic in Mill Valley, California, which she founded in 1988. “Most of us are going from one stressor to the next, and some of those stressors never stop. We aren’t fueling the brain.”
Ross has spent the last three decades researching the right brain “fuel” for her patients, studying the connection between the nutrients in foods, how they can improve your mood, and the process behind it.
“The brain is where all our mood-regulating neurotransmitters, including serotonin, operate,” Ross says, “and the messages of happiness require proteins, amino acids, and certain fats to interact with the protein content in the cell. It’s like building our emotional muscle.”
For example, tryptophan, which creates the serotonin that boosts our mood, is an essential amino acid you can only get from food. A healthy dose of tryptophan is found in fish (halibut, tuna), poultry, grass-fed beef, shrimp, and sunflower and pumpkin seeds.
“Tryptophan is the one we need the most and we’re the most lacking in, when we feel pessimistic, worried, anxious, or irritable,” says Ross, noting this essential amino acid requires a partner, vitamin B6, to convert it to serotonin. “You can only make so much serotonin out of tryptophan without an appropriate amount of B6. So if there’s a lot of B6, the sky’s the limit on the amount of serotonin you can make,” she says. While vitamin B6 is not the only nutrient involved, Ross points out that it is a critical one for making serotonin, as well as other major mood-regulating brain chemicals. For example, B6 is required to create the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which calms us down, and the catecholamines (neurotransmitters commonly known as dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine), which serve as our natural energizers.
|Vitamin B6 is needed to help the body make serotonin, as well as other mood-regulating brain chemicals. The foods that are the best sources of B6 include spinach, avocados, chickpeas, red bell peppers, bananas, yellowfin tuna, salmon, hazelnuts, peanuts, and sunflower seeds.|
Foods rich in B6 that also offer a bonanza of other nutrients to support brain health include yellowfin tuna, salmon, red bell peppers, chickpeas, spinach, bananas, avocados, hazelnuts, peanuts, and sunflower seeds.
A third vital component of our diet that significantly affects mood is fat, specifically omega-3 fatty acids, which are known as champions not only for heart health but also mental health. “In terms of fats, that’s the one for mood. It’s absolutely essential,” Ross says. “The brain cells that produce the neurotransmitters, like serotonin and GABA, require omega-3 to function optimally.”
In fact, omega-3 fatty acids appear to be more potent than antidepressants in reducing depression, based on a systematic review of more than 54 studies of omega-3 and depression, according to Joe Hibbeln, a nutritional neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health, who has been researching omega-3 and its effect on mental health for more than two decades.
Dark-fleshed oily fish—especially Atlantic and sockeye salmon, sardines, and albacore tuna—are the richest in omega-3 fatty acids. If you prefer white fish, such as swordfish, you’ll still get some omega-3s, but on average it’s only up to half the amount you’d get from fatty fish. Hibbeln recommends eating fish at least three times a week for optimal brain health, and don’t forget shellfish. “Even though shellfish don’t have high concentrations of omegas-3s, they are high in vitamin B12, zinc, and other micronutrients that support brain health,” he says.
|Dark-fleshed oily fish, as well as olive and macadamia nut oils, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Shellfish, which are high in vitamin B12 and other micronutrients that support brain health, are also touted as a good-mood food.|
When it comes to oils, Hibbeln points to olive oil and macadamia nut oil as the best sources for omega-3s, since they have the least amount of omega-6 fatty acids, which can create and accelerate inflammation in the joints, skin, and brain. Omega-6s are commonly found in processed foods, margarine, and corn and soybean oil, ingredients that show up in a wide variety of bottled salad dressings, for example.
Inflammation can be triggered by food allergies as well, and that can take you from happy to sad or irritable without you ever realizing the cause of it, says Dr. Pamela Hughes, who operates the Hughes Center for Functional Medicine in Naples.
“Not unlike the pain you feel from an ankle sprain, a similar inflammatory response can happen in the body with certain foods,” says Dr. Hughes, who points to gluten and dairy as common culprits. “While we might not know we’re allergic to food, when we eat certain things we’re sensitive to, our gut will release that undigested protein into the body, which can cause inflammation and affect the brain negatively.”
Probiotic foods like kimchi (above), kefir (below), and sauerkraut are loaded with “good bacteria” that can help reduce inflammation, improve digestion, and may, in turn, boost your mood.
One possible remedy is to consume more probiotics to help keep your gut healthy. Hughes recommends fermented foods like kimchi, kefir, and sauerkraut, which are loaded with “good bacteria” that can help reduce inflammation, improve digestion, and may, in turn, improve your mood.
Bottom line: Simple changes in diet can make a difference, experts say. By paying attention to inflammatory foods and focusing more on the nutrients that nurture the brain, “you’ll be able to tolerate stress without getting burnt out, and you’ll have more mental strength,” Ross says. “It’s literally brain strength.”
Anna Bjorlin contributed to this report.