Although Hippocrates once said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” it was once thought that food had no affect on the brain or feelings of well-being. Caffeine, alcohol, carbohydrates, and fats all directly affect how you feel. There’s a reason that soups and stews in the winter months make us feel content, or eating watermelon on a hot summer’s day can make us feel refreshed. All these foods release certain brain chemicals that elicit feelings of happiness and excitement.
Here are some of those foods that release “happy” brain chemicals. Incorporate these foods into your day to boost your mood and feel more energized.
These long, green stalks are excellent plant-based sources of tryptophan, which increases serotonin levels. Serotonin regulates brain functions such as mood, appetite, sleep, and memory. Low levels of serotonin can cause anxiety, depression, or moodiness. So, if you’re feeling “not like yourself,” grill, steam, or sauté some asparagus into your next meal.
Both are loaded with B vitamins, which are responsible for mood and increased energy levels. There are a wide variety of B vitamins in produce: B2 is found in spinach and mushrooms, B3 is in avocados, B6 is in bananas, and B9 is in broccoli, to name a few. Anti-oxidants keep cells healthy and ward off disease. A healthy body is a happy body.
Salmon, sardines, tuna, and shrimp all contain omega-3s. Our bodies don’t make omega-3 fatty acids on their own, so it’s important we get them from foods. They help raise serotonin levels—the happy brain chemical. Dopamine levels also increase with omega-3s. The brain releases dopamine in times of excitement or pleasure (like after an orgasm).
Medium chain triglycerides (MCT oils) provide a quality source of energy that’s utilized immediately rather than being stored as fat. The natural scent of coconut oil has been shown to alleviate the “fight or flight” response in stressful situations. That scent can either be from a coconut-based moisturizer or the oil that you cook with.
It’s no surprise that caffeine increases alertness. When you feel sluggish or unmotivated to head to the gym, sip some green tea, which has many health benefits due to its anti-oxidants, or a cup of black coffee, which will give you a boost. It will add a little zip to your step. Be careful not to overdo the caffeine, as it can also have a “crashing” side effect. It’s best to enjoy your beverage with a meal to avoid the “let down” feeling. The extra calories will keep you going after the caffeine buzz wears off.
Nosh a square of at least 70% cacao chocolate for a happiness boost. Dark chocolate is a great source of tryptophan—which aids in serotonin production, and feelings of elation and excitement. It also increases circulation to the brain resulting in alertness, improved reaction time, and problem solving. It’s even been shown to improve short-term memory. So, enjoy a square of dark chocolate when the craving arises.
Carbs increase mood and feelings of well-being in the cold winter months. Enjoy some toast and jam with tea or coffee as an afternoon snack, or with your eggs for breakfast. Enjoy a bowl of oats or some high-protein pasta. Capitalize on the slow-digesting eats—sweet potatoes, oats, brown rice, and whole grain pasta—that will keep you moving strong for hours.
Not only is quinoa a complex carb, it’s also a complete protein. It’ll keep your blood sugar levels in check and help you avoid the dips, which can cause irritability, moodiness, and low energy. (That feeling of hangry.) It’s also gluten-free should you have allergies to other complex carbs. Quinoa is even better when paired with vegetables to add even more mood-boosting anti-oxidants and vitamins.