Diet and mood have a very close relationship. This may be surprising for some, yet quite logical when considering the physiology of the human brain and how this determines our feelings of joy and excitement or feelings of sadness, despair and hopelessness. There are many mood enhancing foods out there to give the brain all that it needs to function optimally, whilst also supporting the structure of the brain. Food can affect your mood considerably; nutritional deficiencies resulting in physiological imbalances in the brain can lead to low mood and possibly even depression in severe cases.
The feel good brain chemical messengers
Brain chemical messengers (known as neurotransmitters in the science world) function in the brain to allow us to feel happy and relaxed, and promote sleep. Without a good production of neurotransmitters in the brain such as serotonin (the happy neurotransmitter) and dopamine (the relaxing, pleasure, reward, sleep promoting neurotransmitter), low mood may result. Low serotonin and dopamine levels may also result in anxiety, difficulty in sleeping, reduced attention span and difficulties in learning. When considering foods that improve mood, it is most beneficial to concentrate on those that support production of neurotransmitters as well as mood lifting foods which optimise the function of neurotransmitters.
The building blocks of brain chemical messengers – serotonin and dopamine
Protein-rich foods are among the most effective mood enhancing foods, as amino acids derived from protein are the actual building blocks of neurotransmitters. Without protein in your diet, your body would struggle to synthesise neurotransmitters such as serotonin, and a result of a low protein diet may result in feeling ‘down’. Eat protein-rich foods that improve mood including meat, fish, dairy, eggs, pulses, nuts and seeds to ensure a healthy production of the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Vitamin B6, zinc and magnesium for serotonin and dopamine production
In addition to adequate protein for healthy production of neurotransmitters, certain vitamins and minerals are required for serotonin synthesis. Vitamin B6, zinc and magnesium are required by enzymes in the body to convert amino acids in protein-rich mood enhancing foods to the neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, allowing us to feel happier and more relaxed.
If you want to choose the most effective mood lifting foods, opt for those which contain good levels of vitamin B6, zinc and magnesium. This is particularly beneficial for mood during times of stress, which can deplete our B vitamins, requiring higher intake from the diet. If periods of stress correlate with feelings of low mood, consider your B vitamin intake. Supplementing with B vitamins has been shown to significantly improve dejected mood, reducing stress. (1)
Below is a list of some of the foods that improve your mood, containing the most important vitamins and minerals for brain health, so try including these mood lifting foods on a regular basis.
- B vitamins – seeds, nuts, fish, yeast extract spread (Marmite), herbs and spices, brown rice and wheat bran
- Zinc – oysters, wheat germ, liver, beef, pumpkin seeds, watermelon seeds, dark chocolate
- Magnesium – dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale), nuts, seeds, fish, beans and lentils, whole grains, avocados
Serotonin and dopamine help to keep us in a good mood
Once you have optimised the production of neurotransmitters in the body, next to consider is the actual functioning of the transmission of these messages between cells in the brain. Mood enhancing foods must therefore promote an easy flow of neurotransmitters. Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are essential for promoting and maintaining fluid cell membranes, allowing serotonin and dopamine to increase positive emotions (happiness) in the brain.
Omega-3 EPA and DHA are found in oily fish such as mackerel, anchovies, salmon and herring. Consuming 1-2 portions of oily fish per week would be a good start, and up to 3-4 portions is ideal if you are consuming small fish which are naturally low in heavy metals and other contaminants. A diet providing adequate omega-3 fatty acids from seafood has been shown to effectively boost mood, correlating with stabilised mood and even reduced levels of bipolar disorder. (2)
If oily fish is not regularly consumed, this may result in an unfavourable ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. With high levels of omega-6 in the diet from meat, grains and vegetable oils and lower levels of omega-3 due to low intake of fish, this can lead to excess inflammation in the body. Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids can also have a detrimental effect on mood by leading to destruction of serotonin. (2) Studies have shown that a state of chronic inflammation alongside a high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is associated with increased incidence of depression. (3,4)
As the UK’s oily fish intake is far below recommended levels, it is clear that advising on increasing fish consumption is pointless for those who dislike the taste of oily fish. If you do not eat fish, an omega-3 EPA and DHA supplement may help to enhance your mood. The quality and effectiveness of fish oils varies so considerably, we recommend choosing a highly concentrated fish oil (above 70% concentration) in order to obtain a high dose of the active ingredients omega-3 EPA and DHA. For significantly reducing depressive symptoms, supplementing EPA and DHA at a ratio of 2:1, or over 60% EPA is considered ideal. (5,6) Choose a supplement providing a dose of at least 400mg EPA and 250mg DHA.
Protect the brain against damage with antioxidants
With stress and inflammation associated with low mood, at such a time your brain is in need of an array of protective antioxidants. Antioxidants help to protect the cells in your brain against oxidative damage, which may be increased during stressful times. Antioxidants will help to equip your body to deal with stress more efficiently, and will also keep your immune system fighting strong. Mood enhancing foods rich in B vitamins, zinc, magnesium and antioxidants will give your brain the nutrition it needs to help you get through strenuous periods. Mood lifting foods rich in antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium include nuts, seeds, fish, shellfish, liver and oat bran.
Feeling down in the winter months?
If you feel particularly gloomy in the winter months, you may be suffering from SAD (seasonal affective disorder). It is very common for people to feel low in mood towards the end of winter; this is considered to be in part due to our need to obtain the majority of our vitamin D from skin exposure to the sun. Low mood and depression have been associated with vitamin D deficiency, with extremely low levels of vitamin D correlating with severe depression (7), highlighting the importance of getting out in the sun. During the months of October to March when we are unable to synthesise vitamin D in the UK, we can obtain small levels of vitamin D from oily fish, seafood and eggs. A holiday abroad around January would be perfect if you can manage it, otherwise supplementing with vitamin D is a practical way to ensure you are maintaining healthy levels throughout the entire winter.
Additional support to really boost your mood
If you feel that you have followed all advice so far and you still feel that your mood could do with an extra boost, you may also want to consider supplementing a particular amino acid called 5-HTP at around 100mg. 5-HTP is the amino acid which is converted directly to serotonin in the brain, so directly supplementing this amino acid enables your body to efficiently produce adequate serotonin to enhance your mood.
- Stough C, Scholey A, Lloyd J, Spong J, Myers S, Downey LA. The effect of 90 day administration of a high dose vitamin B-complex on work stress. Hum Psychopharmacol2011 Oct; 26(7):470-6.
- Noaghiul S, Hibbeln JR. Cross-national comparisons of seafood consumption and rates of bipolar disorders. Am J Psychiatry2003 Dec; 160(12):2222-7.
- Conklin SM, Manuck SB, Yao JK, Flory JD, Hibbeln JR, Muldoon MF. High omega-6 and low omega-3 fatty acids are associated with depressive symptoms and neuroticism. Psychosom Med2007 Dec; 69(9):932-4.
- Pottala JV, Talley JA, Churchill SW, Lynch DA, von SC, Harris WS. Red blood cell fatty acids are associated with depression in a case-control study of adolescents. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids2012 Apr; 86(4-5):161-5.
- Rondanelli M, Giacosa A, Opizzi A, Pelucchi C, La VC, Montorfano G, et al. Effect of omega-3 fatty acids supplementation on depressive symptoms and on health-related quality of life in the treatment of elderly women with depression: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial. J Am Coll Nutr2010 Feb; 29(1):55-64.
- Sublette ME, Ellis SP, Geant AL, Mann JJ. Meta-analysis of the effects of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in clinical trials in depression. J Clin Psychiatry2011 Dec; 72(12):1577-84.
- Milaneschi Y, Hoogendijk W, Lips P, Heijboer AC, Schoevers R, van Hemert AM, et al. The association between low vitamin D and depressive disorders. Mol Psychiatry2014 Apr; 19(4):444-51.