There are two nutrition-based approaches a person can take when trying to improve their mood naturally—without drugs or drugs. One way is to use individual supplements and nutrients to adjust the specific neurotransmitters that help determine our mood. We can think of the three major mood-related neurochemicals—dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine—as primary colors that combine in different concentrations to create what we interpret as our mood. They all mix and mingle and interact.
But trying to modulate each specific neurotransmitter to the perfect level using certain nutrients and supplements is harder than you might think. Top-down orchestration of complex neurochemistry is unreliable and prone to side effects. Just look at how the pharmaceutical's singular focus on serotonin to combat depression has failed. Do you think you can do the same by taking supplements and doing it right?
Another way, a better way, is to look food which have been shown to elevate mood without overly worrying about their specific effects on individual neurochemicals. Turns out there's been a ton of research on the topic and we have a pretty good idea of what foods can boost and support our mood.
- Dairy products
- Fermented food
Now, this is not medical advice. The information contained in this article should not be construed as a substitute for consultation and treatment with a medical professional, especially if you have a serious mood disorder. This is simply a post describing foods that have been shown to elevate mood—to make people feel better and happier.
How Meat Improves Mood
The first basic food of a mood enhancing diet should be meat. There is some evidence to suggest that meat is an important mood food.
First, observational evidence suggests that vegans, vegetarians and other plant-based dieters are more likely to experience mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. In fact, among the studies compiled by the recent literature review, it was the highest quality studies with the best methodology that found the strongest association between meat avoidance and mood disorders. “The more rigorous the research, the more positive and consistent the association between meat consumption and better mental health.”
Second, meat contains many different nutrients that have been linked to elevating mood or shown to directly elevate one's mood. Let's discuss some of them:
Carnosine: In many Asian countries, a chicken-derived carnosine supplement called “chicken extract” is a popular mood enhancer and stress reliever. Studies show that it can elevate mood, reduce anxiety, and improve mental fatigue. Recently, direct supplementation with carnosine has had a rapid antidepressant effect in people with clinical depression. The speed with which the supplement improved mood in depressed patients surprised the researchers so much that they are conducting further research at this time.
Creatine: Creatine is only found in animal foods, especially fish and red meat. Research shows that the more creatine a person eats, the lower their risk of depression. This has not been proven to be a causal relationship, but there is also mechanistic evidence: depression is characterized by poor energy function in the brain, which can be reversed by creatine.
Zinc: In human trials, zinc supplements have been shown to reduce anger and improve mood. Zinc is most commonly found in animal foods, especially meat (and shellfish).
If you want to be specific, the best sources of carnosine are turkey breast and pork loin. The best sources of creatine are red muscle meat and fish. The best source of zinc is red meat.
How Fish Improve Mood
Seafood is another class of animal foods with strong observational mechanistic evidence and plausibility as a mood enhancing food.
On the observation side, consumption of fish and seafood is almost always associated with improved mood, reduced anxiety, and reduced risk of depression.
One proof of the causality of the relationship is that the relationship is not linear. That's a U-shaped curve. The lowest and highest intakes of fish and omega-3 fatty acids were less protective, while fish and moderate doses of omega-3 fats were the most protective against mood disorders.
Another piece of evidence is that giving DHA directly to people suffering from mood disorders improves their mood. People who received DHA supplements experienced reduced anger and improved mood scores.
Plus, seafood is also a great way to get creatine and zinc, two mood-enhancing nutrients already established as culprits in the previous section. For example, herring has the most creatine of any food and oysters are the richest source of zinc—more than even the reddest red meat.
How Milk Improves Mood
Nearly every observational study has found a link between low dairy intake and depression, anxiety, and other negative moods.
Among Jordanian college students, low milk intake predicts depression and anxiety.
Among Fins, higher intake of full-fat dairy products predicted a lower likelihood of experiencing depressive symptoms.
Among Chinese children, dairy consumption habits were a strong predictor of lower levels of anxiety and depression.
Time and time again, we see that the more people consume dairy, the better their mood and lower risk of mood disorders. Is it causal? What could have happened?
Eliminating milk from the diet increases parathyroid hormone. Women who eat a low-dairy, plant-based diet see their parathyroid hormones skyrocket. This adversely affects their bone density, and can also increase their risk of depressive symptoms. In severe hyperparathyroidism—where parathyroid hormone levels skyrocket—anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation are common. Milk is a powerful source of calcium, a known modulator of parathyroid hormone. More calcium, lower parathyroid, better mood. Less calcium, higher parathyroid, worse mood.
How Fermented Foods and Prebiotics Improve Mood
Several years ago, a study reported that the more fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, or sauerkraut a person ate, the lower their risk of social anxiety. This association was strongest in people with a genetic predisposition toward neuroticism, suggesting that neuroticism is not a foregone conclusion but a fermented food deficit. While there have been studies looking at certain types and moods of probiotics, I recommend eating them instead fermented food and if you want to take supplements, take a broad-spectrum probiotic like Primal Probiotics which consists of commonly encountered strains that have been shown to improve markers of overall health.
Other Study found that feeding gut bacteria with specific prebiotics—fermentable fibers that convert gut bacteria into short-chain fatty acids—reduced negative emotional biases and lowered cortisol (the stress hormone). People taking prebiotics (Bimuno-galactooligosaccharides, or BOS) focused more on positive stimuli and were able to ignore negative stimuli in emotional bias tests. For me, the ability to focus on the positive, to be optimistic, is a hallmark of a “good mood.”
How Coffee Improves Mood
Dopamine is the ultimate mood-enhancing neurotransmitter, increasing motivation, increasing excitement, and just making a person feel good. That's actually one of the mechanisms that make many of the most popular drugs like tobacco, cocaine, and opioids so addictive: they increase the dopamine response. Coffee is one of the most reliable and most legal ways to increase dopamine function, increasing dopamine release and dopamine receptor density.
Many people use coffee the wrong way: to “fight” a bad night's sleep. It keeps your head above water but it doesn't really lift your mood. A better way to consume coffee is to get enough rest after a good night's sleep. Coffee on a well-rested break, when you “don't need it,” is a completely different experience. A mood boost whose results can only be described as productive optimism. You can literally feel the dopamine and feel compelled to create, do, act in the world. You feel good and you feel like building something great.
How Blueberries Improve Mood
Blueberries are the most powerful berry, almost a true superfood. They can improve cognitive function in both children and adults, improve performance acutely on memory tests, and can also improve your mood. Blueberry-based drinks can quickly lift the mood in both children and adults.
The compound responsible appears to be anthocyanins, the blue/purple pigments that give blueberries their characteristic color. To really get that mood-enhancing effect, choose berries that stain your mouth in blues and purples. Smaller berries are better because they have more surface area per gram and therefore more pigment. Other plants that carry the same purple/blue pigment can provide the same mood-enhancing benefits, such as purple yams. One study even found that purple cauliflower reduced depressive symptoms in rats.
The beauty of using food to boost your mood is that there is no risk involved. You only eat foods that are already nutritious, already good for you for reasons that have nothing to do with mood swings.
What foods do you use to boost your mood? Does this list match your experience?
Let me know below!