Eat your way to happiness

Healthy food from Shutterstock
Healthy food from Shutterstock

Many factors come into play in our pursuit of happiness, and diet is often a forgotten aspect. Dietary factors should always be addressed when managing mood problems as they play a key role and provide a wonderful tool with which we can be empowered.  

Unhappy? It's an important exercise to first rule out and deal with possible contributing factors, e.g. hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar), hypothyroidism (low thyroid), food allergies and addictive substances, as well as more severe nutrient deficiencies, when dealing with a low mood.

Read: Malnutrition

Once these medical issues are identified, you can profoundly influence how you feel by giving yourself the ideal quantity and quality of food you need.

Neurotransmitters, foods and nutrients

Neurotransmitters (chemical messengers that enable brain cells to communicate with each other) are made from amino acids, the building blocks of the protein we eat. For example, endorphins promote euphoria and bliss, serotonin is our “happy” neurotransmitter that maintains mood balance and wards off depression, while dopamine and noradrenaline are also feel-good neurotransmitters.

Read: Fine-tuning treatments for depression

Serotonin is made from tryptophan, an amino acid and a normal constituent of food. Tryptophan is our source of a natural high and studies show that dietary additions of tryptophan-enriched foods improve mood. It therefore makes sense to ensure optimal tryptophan stores by continually topping up on good sources:

  • Fish – sardines and anchovies tend to feature highly but any fish contains tryptophan so mackerel, snapper, salmon, tuna and pilchards are all winning choices.
  • Chicken and turkey are especially rich in tryptophan.
  • All meats contain a full spectrum of amino acids and thus certainly assist in building neurotransmitters. Choose good quality “clean” meats or wild meats to minimise hormone and toxin exposure. Beef extract e.g. Bovril also holds value.
  • Dairy – all dairy, but especially cottage cheese and whey are rich trytpophan sources.
  • Soy (e.g. miso, tofu)
  • Eggs – remember to include the yolk.
  • Peanut butter (make sure it's sugar- and salt-free), and walnuts.
  • Pumpkin seeds – as well as being a good source of tryptophan, they also contain high levels of both the amino acid tyrosine and the essential element zinc. These increase the synthesis of serotonin in the brain, alleviating depression.
  • Avocado contains tryptophan-infused good fats.
  • Banana - they provide a slow, constant release of sugar, fibre and tryptophan.
  • Durian fruit – raw food nutrition spokesman David Wolfe strongly advises eating this south-east Asian fruit for its high levels of tryptophan.

Phenylalanine is another key amino acid that converts to tyrosine as well as dopamine and noradrenaline. Phenylalanine is linked to the feeling of being rewarded, and a lack can be linked to cravings for stimulating foods such as sugar, coffee and alcohol. It excites the nervous system, creating a feeling of bliss, similar to the feeling of being in love.

Cravings and even addictions can be reduced and natural bliss feelings enhanced by increasing food sources of naturally occurring phenylalanine. Major sources of phenylalanine include:

  • Chocolate, cocoa. Cocoa beans are also rich in sulphur and magnesium, which help balance brain chemistry. They also contain aromatic substances, which are highest in the unfermented, unroasted beans as a large portion is released during the roasting process. Use the cocoa bean in its raw unsweetened/pure dark form rather than along with the extra sugar, caffeine and fat that accompanies conventional processed chocolate.
  • Blue-green algae (spirulina)
  • Seaweeds, kelp
  • Spinach

Good mental health also requires proper neurotransmitter activity and re-uptake at nerve synapses. Several antidepressants work by blocking the neuron re-uptake of serotonin so that there’s more of the neurotransmitter available, resulting in mood elevation.   

Essential fats are necessary to ensure optimal neurotransmitter connection. There seems to be a strong link between happiness and the consumption of oily fish. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found predominately in oily fish (e.g. herring, salmon, mackerel, sardines and tuna) as well as flax seeds, chia seeds and some nuts (e.g. walnuts). Don't overdo consumption of omega-6 (found in most vegetable seed oils), as this can have a negative effect on mood.  

Stress has a major impact on our ability to stay optimistic. It's vital to support the stress-coping responses by keeping B-vitamin stores up and ensuring intake of only unrefined foods. Helpful B-vitamin sources include wholegrain cereals, yeast extracts, brewer’s yeast, brown rice, oat flakes and fresh wheatgerm. The fibre in unrefined wholegrain allows serotonin to be released slowly, keeping you feeling happy and relaxed for longer.

It’s vital to control blood sugar levels: people who are overweight or have poor glucose control often find that by making small changes, their overall state of well-being can be greatly influenced. By simply avoiding sugar, caffeine and refined carbohydrates and eating small meals 4 - 6 times daily with a focus on a balance of healthy proteins, fats and complex carbohydrates, blood sugar levels can be brought under control, weight can be lost and a better frame of mind established. Apples (with a few almonds) can help improve mood problems associated with low sugar conditions.

Ensure sufficient alkalising vegetables: Green leafy vegetables are one of the key sources of magnesium and a potent alkaliser. They’re also a rich source of folic acid, which helps maintain normal levels of mood-boosting serotonin.

A study in the Journal of Nutrition showed that people who consumed the least folate were 67% more likely to suffer from depression than those who took in the most. Spinach is one of the best sources of folate but feel free to add other folate-rich foods like asparagus, brussel sprouts, cabbage, peas, broccoli and green beans to your diet too.

Sufficient water aids a happy state of mind. Also incorporate water-based mood stimulating foods such as cucumber, watermelon and melon into your diet.

Avoid “fake high” foods

Too much of the wrong substances is just as damaging as failing to get enough of the right ones. Don't be fooled by cravings and the temporary highs offered by “quick fix” substances. These are often narcotic highs that influence the brain reward pathways.

Sugar, alcohol and stimulants such as caffeine top the list. These negatively interfere with the functioning of important neurotransmitters. Wheat, gluten, sugar and dairy can have strong opiate-like effects. Ongoing stimulation with the associated temporary high soon down-regulates the brain and leaves you with insufficient feel-good chemicals. If these foods give you a lift, it may indicate that you’re low in serotonin.

Read: Brain chemistry uncovered

Other foods to avoid are “diet” foods and those containing the artificial sweetener aspartame. They make the body crave more sweetness and block the formation of serotonin.

More pleasure-boosting foods

There are a few other positive natural pleasure boosters that deserve a mention:

  • Hot chilli releases natural painkiller endorphins. They contain morphine pain blockers that induce feelings of pleasure and a natural high and clarity. A little cayenne on the tongue is an age-old remedy to help lift depression.
  • A teaspoon of honey in vinegar water (preferably unpasteurised apple cider vinegar) helps banish bad moods. Liquorice and honey is another good combination.
  • Saffron: in the past this spice was drunk as a tea to enhance a pleasant high. In fact, it was thought that one could die of excessive joy by consuming too much! Use saffron in your cooking and add a touch of flavour, colour and potential euphoria to meals.

“Happy meal” examples:

  • Oat porridge, soy milk, banana and peanut butter
  • Scrambled egg with avocado, spinach and smoked salmon
  • Chicken, avocado and cottage cheese salad with flax oil/apple cider dressing
  • Shaved biltong and cottage cheese salad
  • Melon and cottage cheese
  • Chilli-grilled sardines with avocado salad
  • Raw cabbage, apple, banana, avocado coleslaw with toasted salted cayenne pumpkin seeds
  • Pea and ham soup sprinkled with cayenne pepper
  • Cocoa, avocado and banana pudding
  • Chicken paella with saffron, brown rice and mixed green vegetables

Other lifestyle factors

The importance of feeding your mind and soul with correct nutrition is unquestionable. However a holistic approach is best to attain a happy disposition. Don't forget these other factors that also play a huge role:

Keep active. Aerobic exercise pulls the mind away from negative thoughts and allows new, positive experiences to enter. Studies show that exercise alone is as effective as medication for relieving depression. Try exercising outdoors to receive sunlight: this activates skin hormones to create a source of vitamin D, which generates major positive mood changes.

Keep an active mind. Do what you love to ensure your drive and motivation levels remain high and your stress levels low. Dance, meditate, laugh – feel the world around you!
A well-nourished body and mind allows you to better cope with life's challenges. Remember, you can change how you think and feel by changing what you put into your mouth – so keep topping up those brain chemicals to keep on a natural high.

Read more:

Mood food

5 nutrients you need right now

Could Vitamin C therapy cure a cold?

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