We spend more time than we like to admit seek happiness. We try new things like therapy, exercise routines and meditations bring peace and joy into our lives. And when we think about the things that make us happy, our diet isn’t usually at the top of the list.
However, the foods we eat play a major role in how we feel. Studies linking nutrition and mental well-being have emerged over the past decade, and certain foods are associated with increased serotonin in our brain. Serotonin, also known as the “happiness hormone,” is a chemical that plays an important role in regulating our mood. Low levels of serotonin can cause mood instability.
For more mental health resources, try these simple ways to improve your mental health without therapy and see our list of ways to manage anxiety without medication.
7 foods that make you happy according to science
Here are our favorite foods that make you happy.
1. Dark Chocolate
You know the typical scene in movies where a girl is sitting on her sweaty couch, eating a tub of chocolate ice cream. Turns out Hollywood was onto something. A systematic review found that dark chocolate may have a positive effect on mood. There are three main compounds found in chocolate that are associated with feelings of happiness: tryptophan, theobromine, and phenylethylalanine. Tryptophan is an amino acid that the brain uses to produce serotonin. Theobromine is a weak stimulant that can improve your mood. Meanwhile, phenylethylalanine is another amino acid used by the body to produce dopamine, which acts as an antidepressant.
If there was ever such a thing as “good mood food”, bananas probably are. But maybe not the way you think they are. Although bananas contain serotonin, it is unable to cross the blood-brain barrier (think of the BBB as a wall that filters out what can and cannot enter our bloodstream and make its way to our brain). But bananas can play a crucial role in regulating your mood in more indirect ways. Your body needs vitamin B6 to create serotonin, and bananas are particularly rich in this nutrient. A single medium-sized banana contains up to 0.4 mg of vitamin B6, which is about 25% of the recommended daily intake.
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If you have the winter blues and dream of warmer days, coconut can transport your taste buds and mood into a tropical state of mind. Coconut is loaded with medium-chain triglycerides, which can help boost your energy. Another reason coconut is considered a mood food is that a 2017 animal study found that coconut milk MCTs can reduce anxiety. More research is needed to fully understand the link between anxiety and coconut in humans.
This one is for the one billion coffee drinkers in the world. Now you can justify your coffee consumption (in moderation, of course) since coffee makes the world happier, one sip at a time. A 2016 meta-analysis concluded that coffee consumption is significantly associated with a decreased risk of depression. Another small study concluded that coffee – both caffeinated and decaffeinated – significantly improved the mood of subjects compared to those who ingested a placebo drink.
Other generations might say avocado toast is to blame for millennials who don’t own a home, but one thing’s for sure: avocados make us happier. This smooth, creamy fruit is packed with nutrients, including choline, which your body uses to regulate your nervous system and mood. A 2020 study found that the healthy fats in avocados are associated with lower anxiety in women. Another good reason to eat more avocados is that they are high in vitamin B, which has been linked to lower stress levels.
Did you know that consuming more fruit is also associated with better mental health? A 2016 meta-analysis found that fruit and vegetable consumption was strongly associated with better mental health. Berries, in particular, are rich in antioxidants, also called flavonoids, which can reduce symptoms of depression. Another study where subjects were given blueberry juice showed promising results that linked blueberry consumption to slower cognitive decline associated with aging.
7. Fermented foods
Foods that undergo a fermentation process like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha, and yogurt help you maintain a healthy gut and can also help improve your mood. The fermentation process creates probiotics which, in turn, support healthy bacteria in your gut. Now, what does your gut have to do with your mood? A lot. Up to 90% of the serotonin produced by your body is created from intestinal cells. Thus, eating fermented foods promotes better production of serotonin.
Read more: 8 Anxiety Myths You Can Stop Believing Today
Too long, didn’t you read?
When you’re not feeling your best, your first instinct may be to grab the packet of cookies or sugary foods. While these may give you some satisfaction, they are unlikely to improve your long-term mental health. Instead, opt for nutrient-dense foods like the ones on this list to give you a boost of happiness.
More mental health advice
The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical or health advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.
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