Mood Food – Eating for Happiness

The mood food you need for happiness is natural, not man-made. Sure, there are lots of commercial comfort foods. Certainly, chocolate bars and pasta are among them. But while these may bring a surge of dopamine and endorphins, foods that stabilize your mood overall are anti-inflammatory and label-less.

Your Gut Talks to Your Brain

In his landmark book melding neuroscience with gut microbiome research, Emeran Mayer clearly established that the vagus nerve is not the only way the mind and gut communicate. The microbes themselves send signals to the brain about the status of your physiological health. Disturbances in the gut send alarms to the brain that something is wrong. Any sort of trauma, crisis, toxicity, infection, or imbalance will be relayed to the mind. In short, anything that makes your microbes happy helps make you happy. But that which inflames and dysregulates can make you anxious or depressed. Thus, the best mood food is that which feeds those necessary “gut-bugs” and is anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.

Fish Oil and Produce are Good Mood Foods

Vegetable cooking oils – including soy, safflower, corn, cottonseed, and canola – are inflammatory, according to Dr. Cate Shanahan’s research. But swinging the body’s balance in favor of Omega 3 fish oils has the opposite effect. Including 8 ounces of fatty fish in your diet each week is a good recommendation for anti-inflammatory mood food.

Beyond that, your beneficial gut microbes depend on fiber and polyphenols to feed them. In other words, eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. It’s not enough to watch macronutrient ratios: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. You must also provide plenty of plant foods, rich in phytonutrients. When you fill half your plate with produce, you crowd out the high-sugar foods that are so pro-inflammatory and so damaging to a healthy microbial balance. An easy way to do this is to eat sheet pan meals that provide healthy amino acids for your neurotransmitters and an abundance of vegetables for an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant effect.

Light and Oxygen are Nutrients, Too

What you put on your plate is your secondary food. Primary food brings you health in a more primal way. It may include exercise, relationships, and spirituality. Sunlight and fresh air are primary foods because they nourish you without you actually eating them. This time of year, when depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder are high, your time outside is probably at its yearly low. You might consider a daily walk or an afternoon on the ski slopes as mood food. Snowshoeing is certainly mood-boosting for me!

If you can’t get outside, there are still practices you can engage in to nourish yourself through the winter months:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing – Taking time for a few deep inhales and long exhales before each meal and at bedtime is a good way to oxygenate your cells. Also, it calms your gut microbes by putting you in parasympathetic nervous system mode. The gut-brain axis becomes stressed when you spend too much time taking shallow breaths.
  • Light Therapy – In the absence of actual sunlight, a 10,000 lux LED light used for 20 minutes upon waking can help combat the winter blues.

Don’t Forget Sleep

A team at Michigan University studied medical student interns for their sleep quality and resulting moods. They found that those who had variable sleep schedules were more likely to score higher on standardized depression symptom questionnaires, and to have lower daily mood ratings. In addition, those who regularly stayed up late, or got the fewest hours of sleep, also scored higher on depression symptoms and lower on daily mood.

Sleep is the time when the body heals from the daily stresses of the day. A shortage of sleep contributes to greater oxidative stress on the gut-brain axis. Sleep is perhaps one of your most-critical primary foods.

A Recipe for Good Mood Food

  • 2 salmon fillets
  • 1 cup packed basil leaves
  • 2 Tablespoons pine nuts, walnuts, pecans, or sunflower seeds
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2 Tablespoons grated parmesan cheese or nutritional yeast
  • 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Put salmon, skin side down, on a baking sheet and brush with a little olive oil.  Place in a pre-heated 350-degree oven for 10-12 minutes, until the fish is no longer translucent and flakes easily. While the fish is cooking, combine the remaining ingredients in a blender or food processor. With the machine on, add water one tablespoon at a time until desired consistency is reached. Put the pesto on top of the fish and serve with a side of steamed, roasted, or grilled vegetables.