by J. Quinlan
We all love our comfort foods: bread, ice cream, mashed potatoes with lots of gravy. There is, in fact, scientific research that indicates what it is about comfort foods that can make them so, well, comforting. Many of these types of foods contain sugars and carbohydrates that give a temporary mental and physical lift. The downside of staving off the blues with these foods is that the lift is always followed by a crash, which can take us even lower. A better option: regulate your sleep, exercise, and watch your diet. You may be surprised at the results.
Nutrients, like antidepressants, work by releasing chemicals in the brain such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinepherine, and endorphins. These chemicals send messages between neurons, or nerve cells, and affect the functioning of neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters need amino acids, vitamins, and minerals to function properly. UCLA professor of neurosurgery and physiological science, Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, suggests opting for a good multi-vitamin isn’t your best attack against mood issues. “In most cases, a balanced and varied diet is the best way to influence brain chemistry,” he explains. Good brain nutrients work best when in whole-food form, because the nutrients work together for optimal absorption. In addition, you’re much less likely to overdose on a certain vitamin or mineral in your regular diet; though this is not always the case with a supplement. Overly high doses of something in supplement form can cause negative side effects. For example, too much iron in a fortified vitamin supplement, can cause problems with painful constipation and digestive discomfort. Too much folate can result in cardiovascular problems and increased risk of certain cancers. Simply put, Gomez-Pinilla says it’s best to just eat whole foods with brain-nourishing nutrients.
What foods, specifically, can help boost even the nastiest moods? National magazine Natural Solutions provides this list you’ll want to stick on your fridge for regular reference.
These help the body naturally produce neurotransmitters which affect your mood. Think turkey, cheese, chicken, fish, beans, almonds, avocados, bananas, and pumpkin seeds.
The brain needs zinc in order to produce GABA, an amino acid that eases irritability and anxiety–both symptoms that can exacerbate the effects of depression. Think oysters, crab, turkey, lentils, yogurt, barley, and pumpkin seeds.
Also often found lacking in sufferers of depression, magnesium is essential in the synthesis of serotonin and other neurotransmitters. It is also said to help relieve anxiety and insomnia. Good sources of magnesium include oat bran, halibut, spinach, barley, pumpkin seeds, beans, and artichokes.
B6 helps convert amino acids into neurotransmitters; without this vitamin, the conversion process isn’t as strong and may not produce the desired mood-elevating serotonin levels. Go for beef, tuna, chickpeas, bananas, turkey, and prunes.
This B vitamin helps in the conversion of aminos into serotonin and norepinephrine. It also helps the body make SAM-e, a compound involved in neurotransmitter production and function. Pick up some clams, oysters, chicken, crab, salmon, turkey, tuna, milk, or eggs for your B12.
Folate doesn’t just help the neural tube development in the fetus of pregnant women. It is also said to help form SAM-e and the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine. Research shows low levels of folate are almost always evident in depressed and anxious people. Lack of folate has even been linked to schizophrenic behavior. Stock up on turkey, lentils, pinto beans, spinach and other leafy greens, asparagus, and black beans.
This antioxidant keeps nerve cell membranes flexible, allowing neurotransmitters to travel as they should. Go for sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, tomato sauce, turnip greens, sweet potatoes, and hazelnuts.
These heart-healthy fats also help protect nerve cell membranes, plus they boost oxygen levels in the blood. This helps the body convert amino acids into neurotransmitters and get those good brain chemicals into the blood. Find omega-3s in foods like salmon, sardines, walnuts, flaxseed, and tuna.
Still Don’t Know What to Eat?
Margaret Adamek, PhD, suggests these “mood-mending” meal ideas.
To boost energy
Breakfast – Boiled egg and bowl of oatmeal with cinnamon; breakfast burrito stuffed with pinto beans, salsa and cheese; smoothie with protein powder, milk, cinnamon and fruit
Lunch – Whole wheat bread with turkey and Swiss cheese and carrots on the side; tuna on whole wheat crackers with a spinach salad; smoked salmon on rye crackers with a tossed salad
Dinner – Roast chicken breasts, skin-on mashed red potatoes, and steamed broccoli; stir-fry shrimp with veggies over brown rice
Snack – Handful of almonds with a piece of fruit; cheese stick with a whole-grain bagel; whole apple slices spread with almond-butter
To lift the mood
Breakfast – Yogurt smoothie with whey protein powder and fruit; a bowl of muesli with some flaxseed oil
Lunch – Grilled cheese sandwich on whole-grain bread with a banana on the side; tuna fish sandwich with walnuts and spinach salad
Dinner – Roast chicken or poultry, baked potato and tossed salad with dark leafy greens; grilled salmon with wild rice; grass-fed beef on sprouted wheat buns with broccoli on the side; pot roast with carrots and parsnips or sweet potatoes; buffalo steakkabobs with brown rice
Snack – Cottage cheese on rye crackers; cheese melted over blue tortilla chips and a dab of salsa; raw almond and raisins
To relieve stress
Breakfast – Bowl of unsweetened muesli with a sliced banana and touch of maple syrup plus a a few breakfast sausages, a boiled egg, or scrambled tofu on the side
Lunch – Spinach salad with grilled chicken plus whole wheat crackers on the side; tomato soup with a whole grain roll; fresh fruit like an apple for dessert
Dinner – Bean and cheese enchiladas in whole-grain tortillas, topped with guacamole and salsa; shredded cabbage salad with cilantro and cumin vinaigrette and a slice of fresh melon
Snack – A peach and macadamia nuts; almond butter on rye bread; a cup of chamomile tea with a touch of cinnamon
Foods to Avoid
The diet, brain chemistry, and blood-sugar relationship is now recognized by scientists around the globe. Here are a few things to avoid or completely eliminate from your diet when battling the blues.
Sweets: Sugar has a major effect on the production of neurotransmitters and brain function in general. Simple sugars and carbs create mood swings, since they cause a rapid rise and fall in blood sugar levels. Avoid refined sugars as well as chemical sweeteners like aspartame and splenda. These compounds decrease the efficiency of neurotransmitters in the brain, decreasing their ability to transmit information. Try to limit sweets as well as simple carbs like bread, pasta and cereal; replace them with those proteins and complex carbs instead.
Caffeine: Cola, coffee, energy bars … they’re all loaded with this chemical which can block serotonin. Stimulants like caffeine can also create a constant sense of anxiety and overload the adrenal glands. If you need a pick-me-up to get going, try adjusting your diet a little. Eat more frequently (at the very least, three times a day), starting off by eating something within an hour of when you wake up, suggests Jennifer Brusewitz, an Oregon-based naturophathic physician. She adds that keeping a consistent meal schedule everyday helps your body stay fueled and prevents lulls or shut-downs throughout the day. Also good energy boosters: protein (a deck of cards sized serving) and complex carbs (fist-sized serving).
Alcohol: Even though it’s sometimes the first response when things are going poorly, consuming more than two alcoholic beverages a day can actually worsen symptoms of depression. It’s a central nervous system depressant and slows the functioning of neurotransmitters. It also hampers serotonin production by disrupting the REM stage of sleep. Opt instead for a calming cup of herbal tea or a non-alcoholic drink.
High-fat foods: As you know, there are good and bad fatty acids. Omega-3s are your winner, and they’re found in cold-water fish like mackerel, sardines, tuna and wild-caught tuna. Andrew Stoll, of the Harvard Medical School, says the kinds of oils in cold-water fish not only help boost serotonin levels, but also positively impact stress hormones and electrical functioning of neurons. Instead of a donut, have a bowl of oatmeal with some cinnamon (which can reduce and stabilize blood sugar levels) and flaxseed or walnuts sprinkled on top.