“Chocolate contains the pleasure-inducing chemicals dopamine and serotonin. See more pictures of chocolate.©iStockphoto.com/Osuleo
Everyone wants to be happy, but that doesn’t mean everyone is happy. It can be a struggle for many of us to continually remain in good spirits. There’s an entire pharmaceutical industry based on chemically inducing feelings of contentment, but what if there were a way to naturally perk up a person’s moods? What if, instead of popping a pill, you could get an emotional pick-me-up from the foods you eat? The truth is, you can, and you’ve probably already eaten, or are at least familiar with, many of the foods that will help you do it.
Like any drug, these provisions aren’t about to do away with all your woes, but they can and will provide an emotional pick-me-up when you need it. In fact, research indicates that the majority of people’s moods could be positively influenced by a simple change in diet, and many people may find that food does a better job of keeping them happy than anything put out by pharmaceutical companies.
In this article, we’ll take a look at a few foods that will make you happier. From a South American nut you can snack on for an immediate mood boost to a classic sweet treat that can help you relax, you’ll learn what to eat to keep wearing that happy face.
Keep reading to find out which leafy green will keep you smiling.
- Brazil Nuts
- Oily Fish
Unless you’re Popeye, spinach probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of "happy foods." There are plenty of people who enjoy munching these leafy greens, but most of us would rather devour an ice cream sundae or a slice of chocolate cake than order up a spinach salad to boost our moods. However, unlike the temporary pleasure that comes from decedent desserts, spinach actually contains compounds that actively work to keep your brain happy.
Spinach and other leafy greens, such as kale, are high in folate, the natural form of folic acid found in food. Folate is a natural B-vitamin that helps the brain create serotonin, a neurotransmitter closely liked to happiness. There have been numerous studies linking low folate and serotonin levels to depression, and evidence strongly suggests that these chemicals play a pivotal role in mental health [source: Men’s Health, Bouchez]. Spinach may not spontaneously transform you into a muscled hero like Popeye, but it will help you maintain a positive outlook and a happy attitude.
Spinach is extremely easy to incorporate into your diet — it can be used in place of lettuce in a salad and can make a tasty, healthy addition to just about any food, including hamburgers and eggs. Many people believe the tastes of spinach and onions complement each other, so try adding spinach to any dish that contains onions.
The brain uses neurotransmitters to communicate with and control the body. Two different types of neurotransmitters dictate mood: Excitatory neurotransmitters act as stimulates, and inhibitory neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, work to calm the mind and counteract their excitatory counterparts.
4. Brazil Nuts
If you’re down in the dumps and looking for a quick pick-me-up, try eating a couple Brazil nuts. They’re a great source of selenium, which, aside from helping ward off depression and maintain a good mood, is also thought to help prevent heart disease and certain types of cancer. Although scientists still aren’t exactly sure how selenium effects our mood, it’s clear this little mineral plays a significant role in our mental happiness and well-being [source: Men’s Health].
Our bodies and minds need selenium, but if you get too much of it, this helpful mineral can quickly become a toxic substance [source: See, et al]. Selenium is rarely fatal, but Brazil nuts contain more selenium than any other food — just six nuts contain 100 percent of the recommended daily selenium intake — so eat these mood-enhancing treats in moderation [source: Men’s Health].
Brazil nuts are easy to incorporate into your diet. They have a taste similar to almonds, so they’re a great salad or dessert topper, but they can also be eaten by themselves.
Selenium merges with proteins to create selenoproteins, which are important antioxidant enzymes that protect cells from free radicals, unstable compounds that attack human cells and damage DNA. Selenoproteins are found throughout the body; however, their most important role is in the brain where they support neuronal growth [source: Chen].
You may think of turkey as just a Thanksgiving dish — it’s something we eat once a year that many of us associate with family, friends and football. However, turkey is a nutritious, affordable food that can help keep us happy year-round.
Turkey contains high amounts of phenylalanine, an essential amino acid the brain uses to create dopamine, a neurotransmitter that activates several of the mind’s pleasure centers. Dopamine can almost immediately elevate your mood, but it also helps prevent depression and can even increase motivation [source: Men’s Health]. Phenylalanine is so powerful, in fact, that research has found it to be as effective in combating depression as some prescription drugs [source: Men’s Health].
As anyone who’s ever been stuck eating Thanksgiving leftovers can tell you, turkey is an amazingly adaptable meat. It’s great by itself or in sandwiches, salads or stews. And you don’t have to buy an entire bird to enjoy turkey’s benefits. You’ll find many different turkey products at your local supermarket — it comes ground or in packages of legs, thighs and breasts, so it’s easy to incorporate into your diet.
The Turkey Myth
An amino acid called tryptophan is a precursor for the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which has a sleep-inducing effect on the brain. In fact, it was once believed that eating turkey, a food high in tryptophan, could make you sleepy, causing that Thanksgiving slump. However, for tryptophan to have a sedative effect, it must be taken on an empty stomach — an unlikely outcome after even a modest Thanksgiving meal [source: Stoppler].
2. Oily Fish
It’s common knowledge that fish is low in calories and saturated fats, but eating fish isn’t just good for your health — it can also help you kick that persistent, depressive funk. Oily fish, such as mackerel, salmon, trout, tuna and eel, are fish that typically live near the surface of the sea. They’re rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which play a crucial role in brain function, and have numerous mood-boosting benefits. In fact, one study found that daily doses of the omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish were more effective at reducing typical depression symptoms, including sadness, insomnia, pessimism, lack of motivation and low libido, than many prescription antidepressants [source: Lawson].
However, oily fish aren’t always straight swimmers, at least as far as your health is concerned — they’re often contaminated with environmental pollutants. Additionally, most oily fish are extremely high in mercury, which can be especially harmful to unborn children. In fact, the British government advises women of child-bearing age not to consume more than two servings of oily fish per week. However, oily fish are still important for developing infants in the womb — the same governing body also stresses the importance of expectant mothers consuming fish several times a month [source: Food Standards Agency].
Oily fish can be baked, grilled or fried, and they can be eaten solo or served in salads or sandwiches.
The omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish and fish supplements also help prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease and are believed to play a beneficial role in children’s early cognitive development. There is also evidence that these helpful fatty acids can delay or prevent cognitive decline in older people [source: Cooney].
Anyone who’s ever gorged on a box of Valentine’s sweets by their lonesome or eaten a candy bar to make themselves feel better knew this one was coming. Chocolate is beloved across the world for its sweet, rich taste, and it can often help perk up your mood. But, believe it or not, the pleasure you receive from eating chocolate may have more to do with narcotics than the high you may get from consuming a sweet dessert.
Chocolate contains unique fatty acids called cannabinoids, which are also found in marijuana, or cannabis. Cannabinoids affect the parts of the brain responsible for memory and movement and can cause a person to feel extremely relaxed. But don’t worry, the Feds aren’t likely to issue a crackdown on chocolate bars anytime soon. Although chocolate contains these chemicals, they’re found in only trace amounts.
You probably know a variety of ways to add chocolate to your diet, but you can’t just eat any old candy bar and instantly find yourself in a better mood. The more natural the chocolate, the better its pick-me-up potential, so try nibbling on a few pieces of sweetened, dark, all-natural chocolate — just a few ounces should boost your mood without increasing your waistline.
For more information on foods that can make you happier, check out the links on the following page.
Dopamine & Serotonin
Chocolate is a true, all-natural blue-mood buster — it contains the pleasure-inducing chemicals dopamine and serotonin.
Lots More Information
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- Bouchez, Colette. "Serotonin: 9 Questions and Answers." WebMD. 2009. (12/09/09)http://www.webmd.com/depression/recognizing-depression-symptoms/serotonin
- Chen, J. "Selenium and Selenoproteins in the Brain and Brain Diseases." (12/16/09) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12807419
- Cooney, Elizabeth. "Fishing for Facts." Boston Globe. 12/14/09. (12/14/09)http://www.boston.com/lifestyle/food/articles/2009/12/14/conflicting_reports_raise_health_quandary_for_consumers_of_fish/?page=1
- Food Standards Agency. "FSA Issues New Advice on Oily Fish Consumption." 06/24/04. (12/14/09) http://www.food.gov.uk/news/pressreleases/2004/jun/oilyfishadvice0604press
- — "What’s an Oily Fish?" 06/24/04. (12/14/09)http://www.food.gov.uk/news/newsarchive/2004/jun/oilyfishdefinition
- Lawson, Willow. "Omega-3s For Boosting Mood." Psychology Today. 01/03/03. (12/14/09)http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200301/omega-3s-boosting-mood
- MedicineNet. "Definition of Selenosis." 2009. (12/10/09)http://www.medterms.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=39069
- Men’s Health. "Mood-Lifting Food." 2009. (12/09/09)http://www.menshealth.co.uk/Health/Mood~lifting-food/v2
- O’Connor, Anahad. "The Claim: Chocolate is an Aphrodisiac." NY Times. 07/18/06. (12/14/09)http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/18/health/18real.html?_r=1
- Science Daily. "Oily Fish." 2009. (12/14/09) http://www.sciencedaily.com/articles/o/oily_fish.htm
- See, Katharine A., Peter S. Lavercombe, Jasmine Dillon and Riesa Ginsberg. "Accidental Death from Acute Selenium Poisoning." MJA. 2006. (12/10/09)http://www.mja.com.au/public/issues/185_07_021006/see10169_fm.html
- Stoppler, Melissa, MD. "Holiday Turkey…Can It Really Make You Sleepy?" (12/16/09) http://www.emedicinehealth.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=55219
- Ursell, Amanda. "Eat Your Way to Happiness." 11/07/09. (12/10/09)http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/food_and_drink/article6904660.ece
- Walling, Elizabeth. "Learn Which Four Amino Acid Supplements Can Improve Energy and Mood." Natural News. 10/02/09. (12/11/09) http://www.naturalnews.com/027145_glutamine_mood_depression.html