As the modern view of health becomes increasingly holistic, today’s health-conscious consumers are seeking products that support wellbeing on multiple levels. Sleep, digestion, metabolism, inflammation, energy – all of these variables help comprise the big-picture understanding of wellness, and, therefore, broaden our concept of what makes a “healthy” choice.
When it comes to the true and total wellness, it’s hard to overstate the importance of mental and emotional wellbeing. That’s because our emotions are intimately connected to our physiology. Stress, anxiety, and depression may affect biomarkers associated with disease risk, or exacerbate symptoms or complications of chronic diseases. Plus, our mood tends to impact other health-related behaviors. Physical activity, social connection, and eating habits are easily influenced by our state of mind and further drive physical health outcomes.
The mood-food connection, however, isn’t a one-way street. In fact, just as certain foods may help reduce cholesterol or improve blood pressure, some foods may mitigate depression or ease anxiety. Many of the foods known to support disease management and prevention also impart emotional health benefits as well. While more research is needed before products can tout official mood-related claims, it’s possible the health foods of tomorrow will not only promise to keep you well, but make you feel better, too.
Here is a look at some of the nutrients offering a comprehensive balance of physical, mental and emotional benefits:
Vitamin D. Well known for its role in calcium absorption and bone health, vitamin D also plays an important part in emotional health. Studies have repeatedly shown a correlation between vitamin D deficiency and depression. Further, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), characterized by feelings of depression typically incurred during low-sunlight months, may stem from vitamin D deficiency. Though the root cause of SAD remains unknown, it is certain that vitamin D is critically involved in the production of serotonin. A neurotransmitter often referred to as the “happy chemical”, serotonin supports feelings of wellbeing and contentment. Without adequate sun exposure or dietary intake of Vitamin D, serotonin levels may drop, potentially resulting in depressed mood and energy levels (1).
Foods for Mood: Vitamin D is found in relatively few foods. To boost your intake, look for fatty fish (like salmon and tuna) and fortified milk and dairy products. You’ll also get small amounts in egg yolks and some mushrooms (2).
Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Most known for their potential power to stave off heart disease and reduce the risk of cognitive decline, omega-3 fatty acids may play a role in mood stability, too (3). It’s unclear how these fats work on a chemical level to influence feelings, and more research is needed. However, several studies have suggested omega-3’s in the form of Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) may be especially effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression (4).
Foods for Mood: Dietary sources of the omega-3’s EPA and DHA are fairly limited, and over-the-counter supplements offer a good alternative. However, since they’re primarily found in fatty cold-water fish, like salmon, mackerel, and tuna, you can get your mood-boosting vitamin D and omega-3s in one fell forkful (5).
Vitamin C. While vitamin C may be seen as a key champion for a healthy immune system, it’s also essential for emotional regulation. It’s required to produce quite a few neurotransmitters – namely serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. While serotonin promotes a sense of wellbeing, dopamine – “the reward chemical” – contributes to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. Meanwhile, low levels of norepinephrine have been linked to decreased drive and motivation and increased depression (6). A 2018 study found that, as vitamin C intake increased, feelings of depression, confusion, and sadness all decreased (7).
Foods for Mood: In addition to citrus fruits, strong sources of vitamin C include bell peppers, strawberries, kiwi, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and tomatoes (8).
Vitamin B6. Required for protein metabolism and hemoglobin formation, vitamin B6 is also involved in the production and functioning of several neurochemicals, from serotonin and norepinephrine to melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone primarily responsible for regulating our sleep-wake cycle, also known as the circadian rhythm. However, studies have also demonstrated a possible link between melatonin levels and anxiety symptoms (9,10). What’s more, because vitamin B6 is so integral in cognitive processing, deficiency can cause feelings of depression, anxiety, irritability, and increased feelings of pain (11).
Foods for Mood: A well balanced diet will ensure adequate intake of vitamin B6, as it’s present in small amounts in a wide variety of foods and food groups. Choose from especially rich sources, like meat and fish, chickpeas, potatoes, and fortified cereals (12).
Zinc. Though this mineral typically gets attention for its immune-boosting properties, it’s actually one of the most abundant minerals in the brain and plays an integral role in neurological health. Zinc deficiency is related to an increased risk of depression as well as increased feelings of anger and aggression (13,14).
Foods for Mood: To keep deficiency at bay, include a balance of protein foods in your diet, from meat and seafood, to nuts, seeda, legumes, and dairy (15).
Complete Carbs. Carbohydrates can be crave-worthy for a lot of reasons, but their mood-boosting effect can be one of them. Carbs in any form will release serotonin – that feel-good neurotransmitter. While white pasta and pastries may be especially enticing, complex carbohydrates that promote more stable blood sugar level after a meal will provide the benefit of both serotonin production and mood and energy stability throughout the day (16).
Foods for Mood: Opt for whole grains and minimally processed fruits, vegetables, and legumes in a variety of forms. These foods will likely offer micronutrient bonus points that further support mood stability (17).
Of course, while dietary choices can have an impact on emotional wellbeing, food is not a replacement for prescribed pharmacotherapy or counseling, and more research is needed to fully understand how nutrition and emotions intersect. However, there is compelling evidence to suggest that food and mood are closely linked, and the food formulations and innovations in the future may play upon this relationship as consumers continue to search for “whole health” solutions.
This article originally appeared in the June issue of The World of Food Ingredients.
Jean Curran Owen, MS, RD, is an Account Supervisor at FoodMinds, a division of Padilla, in the Chicago office