You know that your gut health has a huge impact on your psychological state, and that a well-balanced diet is essential for mental health.
But, is there a direct relationship between food and happiness? Can you eat happy foods for depression? The short answer to both: Yes.
Read on to learn how food may elevate your mood, and build a list of the foods that make you happy and energetic.
How Does Food Make You Happy: Nutritional Psychiatry
Here are some of the ways that food makes us happy:
Food nutrients can help the body produce feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects our mood and encourages sleep. Low serotonin has been linked to depression. Dopamine is a pleasure chemical related to rewards and is released in response to eating comfort foods.
Nutritional psychiatry is the use of diet and nutritional supplements to protect and improve your psychological well-being as an alternative to medication to treat mental health.
According to nutritional psychiatry, “you are what you eat.” This appears to be true because there is a connection between food and mood — the gut-brain axis.
When you eat, the body breaks down the food into substances that it uses to make chemical messengers in the brain, such as serotonin and dopamine.
Food also acts as a raw material for stress hormones such as opiates. What you consume plays a vital role in the functioning of the nervous system, including the brain.
Research shows the gut-brain axis is a two-way link between our central nervous system (CNS) and the enteric nervous system (ENS).
The food we eat affects our mental health, and our mental health affects the kind of food we choose to eat.
An easy way to tell is to take note of the energy boost you feel after eating. On the other side, recall a time when you skipped a significant meal of the day and it ruined your entire day by leaving you exhausted.
It is crucial to point out here that mental health does not only refer to the absence of mental illnesses, but also to our emotional, psychological, and social well-being.
Our vagus nerve connects the brain and gut through biochemical signals traveling between the digestive tract and the nervous system. The gut produces many neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin, just like the brain.
Our gut is also home to about 100 trillion microorganisms, which is 10 times the number of all the cells in our body. So, are we harboring them or are they harboring us?
Studies show these gut microbes help the development and growth of our nervous system (CNS and ENS) in the early weeks after our birth.
Anything that affects your digestive tract affects your brain, and vice versa is true. It is for this reason, current research is focusing on various nutritional strategies for the management of mental health.
What Foods Make Us Happier: Best Foods To Eat For Happiness
The health of the digestive system is the key to your emotional well-being. A person with a healthier gut is a happier person.
Here are some foods that can really boost happiness:
1. Healthy Fats
The main sources of healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fats are kidney beans, fish, chia seeds, and walnuts.
Fat makes up over 60% of the brain and forms an essential part of the myelin sheath, the nerve cell coating that allows messages to be transmitted across the nervous system.
We need healthy fats (like olive oil, omega-3 fats found in plants and fish sources, and coconut oil) in our diet for optimal brain and mental health.
The brain has high quantities of omega-3 fatty acids, 90% of which is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
- Low DHA levels in the brain have been linked to learning and memory issues.
- Higher DHA levels in the bloodstream have been related to improved cognition.
Plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids include walnuts, flax, and chia seeds. Animal sources of omega-3 include wild salmon, mackerel, herring, and anchovies.
If you suffer from clinical depression, using fish oil supplements is an appropriate choice.
2. Fermented Products
These are indigestible fibers that serve as food for the probiotics. You can promote the function of the digestive system by having foods that have prebiotics, like garlic, bananas, and asparagus.
4. Organic Products
To reduce exposure to oxidative stress and toxins, consume natural products whenever possible. Get fresh fruits and vegetables as part of your nutrient-dense diet.
To stay happy, you need vitamins, fiber, and proteins. You can manage depression by consuming vitamins from broccoli, leafy vegetables, and lentils.
Proteins raise the level of dopamine to promote energy and maintain a good mood. Sources of protein include tofu, eggs, and beans.
Foods such as Brussels sprouts are rich in fiber and also promote the health of the digestive system.
Scientists have found that having Psychobiotics as food can enhance our mood.
Psychobiotics are the live bacteria (probiotics) that, when eaten, help reduce our anxiety and depression levels.
What Foods To Avoid: “Bad Foods/Sad Foods”
Some experts speculate that most of our psychological issues begin in the gut, and gut problems can lead to anxiety, psychosis, and mental anguish.
Unhealthy food also affects the immune system by producing inflammatory chemicals.
For example, when blood sugar levels are high, the body produces inflammatory substances, like cytokines. Cytokines are small proteins released by the immune system cells that act as cell-to-cell signals.
Too much carbohydrate and sugar also trigger the pancreas to secrete high levels of insulin that can make a person insulin resistant, diabetic, and up to 2 to 3 times more likely to have depression.
Few people are aware that what they eat affects their mood. You need to be conscious of the foods you eat at all times.
Here are some of the ways you can satisfy the chemicals in your body to feel good most times:
- Avoid processed foods — Processed foods are full of sugar, oil, and carbohydrates that will harm your health and mood. Reduce your intake of soda, junk food, fruit juices, and any product that contains sugar. They will only give you more weight and dietary diseases that will leave you feeling low, sad, and depressed. Also, watch out for your alcohol intake because it leads to irritability and insomnia.
- Do not skip meals — Come up with a schedule to set aside time for eating. No matter how busy you are, try to squeeze meals into your schedule. When you skip meals, you will have the urge to overeat later, and this will affect the digestion of food. Research shows that when you are hungry, you tend to have a sad mood. Therefore, make sure your body gets a constant supply of food to maintain that good mood. You can try a three-course diet with snacks and fruits in between.
- Eat frequently — To regulate your blood sugar levels, eat snacks, and food at intervals. Frequent eating will give your body a constant supply of energy, which equals a good mood. You can snack on vegetables and fruits because they are rich in nutrients.
What are comfort foods?
Comfort foods are typically high-carbohydrate foods that we tend to eat when we are under emotional stress. They rapidly release glucose into the bloodstream, where it reaches the brain and provides energy.
Because of this brain-gut axis, we become habituated to consuming easily digestible sugar-laden foods to supply our brains and feel relaxed and joyful. However, comfort foods are not healthy food choices.
Why does food make me sleepy?
Feeling sleepy after eating can be a result of underlying insulin resistance. In such people, carbohydrate-rich foods are not rapidly processed by insulin. As a result, the glucose remains in the blood, unable to enter the cells and provide cellular energy, making the person sleepy.
High levels of glucose in the blood also trigger the liver to convert it into fat, a process that requires energy and causes sleepiness.
Mental health is a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.– World Health Organization 9WHO)
The food you eat determines your mood and mind to a large extent. A focus on healthy food choices will improve your gut health, that in turn will trigger the nervous system to produce mood-elevating hormones.
Unhealthy foods, on the other hand, hinder the efficiency of your body in digesting food. As a result, you end up with inflammation and stress-related diseases.
With healthy food, you get a happy mood. So, ensure you stick to a nutritious diet. The next time you feel moody or depressed, pay attention; it could be your body telling you to eat healthily. Remind yourself then that you can eat for happiness.
• • •
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Author Bios: Jessica Smith wrote an earlier version of this article. Edited and rewritten by Sandip Roy, a psychology writer, happiness researcher, and medical doctor.
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