5 ways to improve our mood and combat stress with food

When we're feeling down or stressed, many of us immediately start thinking of how much better a bar of chocolate would make us feel. The reality, however, is that the lift the chocolate provides tends to be short-lived, leaving us feeling even worse than before. 

A "quick fix", usually in the form of sugar, is not the answer. We need the nutrients (and good health practices) to provide us with the brain chemicals that will give us a sustained "lift". 

Amp up the 'happy' brain messengers

The four main brain messengers or neurotransmitters that contribute to our feelings of well-being are endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. The neurotransmitter most often targeted by modern medicine is serotonin – for example SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). 

There are, however, natural ways to activate these parts of the brain.   

Low levels of serotonin are associated with mood disorders such as depression. Foods can contribute to increase the natural production of serotonin in the following ways:

1. Include more tryptophan

Aim for small doses of the amino acid tryptophan (1g), as this is converted to molecules which lead to increased serotonin levels. There is 1g of tryptophan in each of the following:

  • 200g soya beans
  • 200g lean protein
  • 200g ricotta cheese
  • 300g fish

Other foods that contain natural serotonin include bananas, avocados and tomatoes.

2. Give back to your gut

As 80–90% of our serotonin production occurs in our gut, improving gut health will contribute to an improvement in mood. You can improve your gut health by doing the following:

  • Drink four to six glasses of water daily.
  • Eat foods high in fibre.
  • Eat fermented foods (yoghurt, mageu, kombucha, kefir), or regularly take a probiotic supplement.

3. Manage your blood glucose levels

When your blood sugar levels go on a roller coaster ride during the course of the day, it will affect your mood. You may feel irritable, moody, tired, struggle to concentrate and experience cravings for sweet foods. Maintain optimal blood sugar levels by:

  • Eating regular meals and avoiding skipping meals.
  • Avoiding foods high in sugar and white flour.
  • Substituting unhealthy refined carbohydrates for healthier ones that are higher in fibre and unprocessed, such as fresh fruit and vegetables (but watch the number of fruits per day), barley, brown rice, quinoa, spelt, lentils, beans, chickpeas, oats, baby potatoes, sweet potatoes and corn. (A starch should have more than 6g of fibre per 100g to be considered "high fibre".)
  • Eating smaller portions.

4. Ease up on the caffeine

Caffeine is a stimulant that can increase anxiety in some poor metabolizers, and can negatively affect sleep and, therefore, mood.  

  • Reduce caffeine in the diet to less than 300mg/day. Common drinks high in caffeine are fizzy cold-drinks (30–40mg), green tea (35mg), black tea (55mg), energy drinks (80mg), instant coffee (76–106mg) and brewed coffee (100–170mg) per 250ml cup. Decaffeinated coffee contains only 3–15mg per 250ml cup.
  • Drink caffeine-free alternatives such as rooibos tea, herbal teas, or infused water in the afternoon and evenings. 

5. Get your omegas

Diets high in healthy omega-3 polyunsaturated fats have been shown to reduce inflammation and therefore certain mood disorders like depression. Omega-3 fats will reduce neuroinflammation and improve the integrity and structural composition of cell membranes. You can increase your intake of these fatty acids by:

  • Enjoying at least 3 x 90g portions of fatty fish a week, such as salmon, trout, sardines, pilchards and mackerel. Practical ideas to increase your intake are to add salmon to scrambled egg, enjoy trout with cottage cheese on whole grain crackers, eat pilchards on toast, top sardines on crackers with raw tomato and onion, enjoying a salmon salad as a light meal in a restaurant or choosing tinned salmon and mayo for a sandwich filling.
  • If you don’t like fatty fish, aiming for a minimum of 1000mg per day of EPA and DHA combined, by taking an omega-3 supplement.

5. Manage your magnesium

Higher levels of magnesium can help support deep, restorative sleep by maintaining healthy levels of GABA. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep.

Having a good night’s sleep has a positive effect on one’s mood. Foods containing magnesium include whole grains such as barley or buckwheat, dried figs, nuts, pulses and green leafy vegetables.

To wrap up

So next time you are looking for a "pick-me-up", avoid a quick fix and go for something that will sustain you. For a mood that remains stable, eat foods that support serotonin, improve your gut health and optimise your blood sugar levels. In addition, slow down on caffeine and increase your omega-3 fats and magnesium intake.

Image credit: iStock

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