Although the concept of “comfort food” is quite common, the science behind it is relatively new. The data proving the mood-uplifting effects of certain nutrients may not date back further than about a decade, but does indeed prove that what we eat can change the way we feel.
Here are some examples of foods that can reduce stess, release feel-good hormones or simply help us relax.
1] Dark Chocolate
For anyony who has grown up with the strong suspicion that the world is wrong about chocolate, and it can’t possibly be all bad – you were right, but only if you meant dark chocolate. Studies have found that eating dark chocolate can lower the levels of our stress hormone cortisol.1, 2 People who like milk chocolates may be a bit disappointed to know that anything less than 70% dark chocolate doesn’t really count here.
Also, let’s not forget that the mood-enhancing effect of dark chocolate doesn’t really negate the calories, which are still very much present – so it’s still probably wise to stick to eating a reasonable amount, based on your target calorie intake.
2] Tea and Coffee
We know that tea and coffee keep us alert and energised, thanks to the caffeine in both. Because of science, we can add feeling good to this list, too.
Studies have associated drinking these beverages with a reduced risk of depression, possibly due to their presence of plant compounds (phytonutrients), which are known to fight free radical damage, which (as indicated by some evidence) plays a role in the biological processes that lead to depression (such as the alteration of certain nerves).3
Tea also has an amino acid called theanine, which generates brain waves (‘alpha waves’) that induce relaxation. It is also believed to improve attention and general cognition, when combined with the tea’s caffeine.4
Our gut and brain communicate far more than we think.
The Gut-Brain Axis is a fascinating phenomenon, where the good bacteria in our gut prevent harmful toxins (which come from the food we eat) from entering our bloodstream. When there aren’t enough good bacteria, these toxins can then reach various parts of our body through our blood – including the brain, where they can then affect our emotional status. 5, 6
Increasing evidence suggests that foods or supplements that boost the good bacteria count can therefore alter the way we process emotional information, and lower our levels of anxiety.
Yoghurt is a great example of ‘probiotics’, which are foods containing live bacteria, and add to the number of good bacteria we have in our gut.
When our body breaks down carbs into sugar, the brain releases a feel-good hormone called dopamine, which triggers the ‘reward and pleasure’ centres of our brain. Researchers believe that they also release serotonin, which induces a feeling of happiness or wellbeing.
A very low-carb diet (of 20 to 40 grams carbs daily), over long periods of time, is believed to lead to anxiety, anger and depression, as shown by a year-long study.7
On the flip side, consuming refined carbs isn’t good either. Other than the fact that it may get your calorie count soaring, it also sends our blood sugar levels on a rollercoaster – a sudden high which is then followed by a rapid crash, leaving us feeling weak and craving for more sugar.
A diet that focuses on whole grains as well as fibre-rich foods (like fruit and beans) has been shown to slow down the absorption of sugar by the body, preventing the blood sugar rollercoaster.
The fibre also promotes the growth of our gut bacteria.
Coconut is already consumed worldwide for various health-related reasons, but has only recently been discovered as a stress buster.
Researchers have attributed its antidepressant qualities to the unique mixture of antioxidants and healthy fats (specifically medium chain fatty acids) that one would find in coconut oil.8
Three servings of fatty fish like salmon and mackerel a week may just be your prescription to a happy mind.
These oily fish are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which are not only imperative for good skin, eyesight and immunity, but also for overall mental health.
DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid that makes up many structures in the brain. Studies have shown that supplementing our diet with DHA, and another omega-3 fatty acid called EPA, improves our resistance to stress, and is also associated with reduced symptoms of depression and an elevated mood.9
There’s more: an amino acid called tryptophan, which is found in protein-containing foods, has been proven to produce serotonin, one of our feel-good hormones. Since fish is a great source of protein, that’s another way in which it helps boost our mental status.10
Those jars of spices on your kitchen shelves don’t just add flavour to dishes; they could also have potent effects on our health, including our mood.
The antidepressant effects of this spice are so powerful that they’ve been compared to drugs like fluoxetine and imipramine.11 These drugs work by making sure our brain gets enough serotonin, thereby uplifting mood.
The bright yellow colour of turmeric comes from a compound called curcumin, which has antidepressant properties and, according to studies, protects us from the damaging effects of long-term stress. Curcumin has also been linked to an increase in serotonin and dopamine, both of which are our ‘happy hormones’.12
A compound called capsaicin in chilli peppers helps release endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers and also help us maintain a good mood.13
All of these foods contain specific nutrients that directly lead to improved moods, but there’s no doubt that a healthy, well-balanced diet in general does wonders for our frame of mind. After all, it isn’t a coincidence that health is so intrinsically associated with happiness.
1. Wirtz PH, et al. Journal of the American College of Cardiology 2014, 63(21): 2297-2299.
2. Martin F-PJ, et al. Journal of Proteome Research 2009, 8(12): 5568-5579.
3. Michel TM, et al. Curr Pharm Des 2012, 18(36): 5890-5899.
4. Haskell CF, et al. Biological psychology 2008, 77(2): 113-122.
5. Schmidt K, et al. Psychopharmacology 2015, 232(10): 1793-1801.
6. Foster JA, McVey Neufeld K-A. Trends in Neurosciences 2013, 36(5): 305-312.
7. Brinkworth GD, et al. Arch Intern Med 2009, 169(20): 1873-1880.
8. Yeap SK, et al. Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine 2015, 9(1): 39-42.
9. Kidd PM. Altern Med Rev 2007, 12(3): 207-227.
10. Young SN. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience : JPN 2007, 32(6): 394-399.
11. Hausenblas HA, et al. J Integr Med 2013, 11(6): 377-383.
12. Kulkarni SK, et al. Psychopharmacology (Berl) 2008, 201(3): 435-442.
13. Rollyson WD, et al. J Control Release 2014, 196: 96-105.