It’s common when we are feeling anxious or low to reach for comfort food—and by comfort food, we mean the fatty, sugary, and processed kind.
Sometimes, without us even realising it, our minds have calculated that the fastest way to move turn any sort of emotional discomfort into a happier place is via a bowl of hot chips or a piece of cake (or three). It probably doesn’t occur to us at the time that we could be doing ourselves a further injustice. The food we eat is intricately linked to our mood, anxious thoughts and behaviours.
The food we eat is intricately linked to our mood, anxious thoughts and behaviours.
When it comes to supporting our health, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the whirlwind of information out there telling you what you should and shouldn’t be eating. However, by making a conscious decision to look more closely at what you consume, you can go a long way to gaining a deeper understanding of how those decisions affect your neurochemistry.
It is imperative to fuel our minds and bodies with the nutrients required to support the overall wellbeing of our whole being. When each body system is nourished nutritionally, it helps promote greater health overall. Eating a diet rich in whole foods is a good place to start when it comes to nurturing your whole mind-body health.
By adding these six mood-boosting foods into your whole food diet, you’ll be supporting your body and your mind with the nutrients you need to build a solid foundation for your mental wellness.
1. Brazil Nuts
Brazil nuts are packed with selenium which is an essential trace element, the precursor to the body's master antioxidant, glutathione. Selenium is required to support a healthy immune system, thyroid function and prevent cell damage from free radicals. It is also critical for the health of the brain and cognitive function.
In fact, it is so important that when selenium is deficient, the brain is the last place that levels drop.
Did you know?
Our dietary intakes of selenium are lower than many other countries because of deficiencies in our soil. It is estimated we get only 10-20% of the Selenium we require to hit our recommended daily intake (RDI) of 60µg per day. So, ensuring you’re eating whole foods rich in selenium is incredibly important for creating a state of wellbeing.
2 Brazil nuts a day can help keep the mood at bay.
2. Pumpkin Seeds
Pumpkin seeds are rich in zinc, a vital mineral involved in over 200 enzymatic reactions within our bodies, which means it impacts how you think and feel every day.
A handful of pumpkin seeds can contribute to your daily recommended intake zinc intake of ~8mg women and ~14mg for men.
Zinc also maintains healthy nervous system function, especially looking after the vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the body, through which messages of ‘calm’ are transported. A healthy nervous system connection can support the easing of anxiety.
When you find yourself feeling overwhelmed with stress or anxiety, your body uses up your zinc stores faster in an attempt to keep the body functioning at its baseline. Avoiding alcohol and coffee can support your body as these compete with and can inhibit the absorption of zinc.
3. Oily Fish - Salmon, Sardines
Oily fish such as salmon and sardines are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Seeing as our brains are made up of 60% fat, it makes sense that consuming good fats – particular anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish – are essential for optimal brain health and can support the reduction feelings of depression.
Oily fish also contain B6 for mood regulation which are involved in the production of happy hormones GABA and serotonin. Through supporting healthy ovarian function, B6 indirectly influences our estrogen and progesterone production. Both of these sex hormones play a role in influencing mood and anxiety.
In New Zealand, research has found that 84% of people are deficient in vitamin D – that’s a lot!
Vitamin D is another essential nutrient when it comes to our mental wellness – you might be familiar with the Winter blues? This low feeling through the winter months is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and while there is no specific cause of SAD, vitamin D deficiency could be a major contributing factor – and we simply aren’t getting any during those Winter months.
Every tissue in our body has vitamin D receptors, making it essential for how we feel on a daily basis. It plays a key role in the production and release of dopamine and serotonin – those trusty ‘happy hormones’. Vitamin D also supports the regulation of our blood sugars, which contributes to balanced mood and energy levels. Consuming eggs on a regular basis is one way we can get a little bit more vitamin D into our diets.
84% of New Zealanders are deficient in vitamin D – that’s a lot!
Also high in mood nourishing omega-3s are walnuts.
Have you ever stopped and noticed some foods reflect certain patterns or appearances found in our natural bodies? For example, a sliced carrot can resemble a human eye, or a tomato looks like the heart. Walnuts resemble a human brain. So it’s no great coincidence that walnuts are loaded with beneficial omega-3s that promote a healthy brain and mood stability!
Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are found in large quantities in the brain, particularly in membranes whose jobs are to protect the nerves there.
Recent research suggests a link between omega-3 levels and mood disorders. Individuals who were low in omega-3s showed higher stress-induced markers of inflammation, and reported levels of high anxiety and perceived stress.
Individuals low in omega-3 showed higher stress-induced markers of inflammation, and reported levels of high anxiety and perceived stress.
There is a reason we turn to chocolate when we are feeling down.
Cacao, the purest form of chocolate, is an incredibly rich source of magnesium and is a natural antioxidant. Magnesium is particularly good for improving mood, as it too, is an essential component in making serotonin and dopamine
Antioxidants are essential for those struggling with anxiety or low mood, as they help to combat biochemical changes that occur when the body is experiencing stress.
Magnesium is the third most abundant mineral in the body and helps fuel over 300 enzymatic reactions in our cells. It supports muscle relaxation and calms the nervous system.
For every molecule of cortisol produced, your body uses one molecule of magnesium, therefore higher cortisol levels mean an increased need for magnesium.
Higher cortisol levels mean an increased need for magnesium.
Magnesium is an important cofactor in the synthesis of neurotransmitters, otherwise known as our ‘happy hormones’ serotonin and dopamine. These two chemicals have multiple functions in our body and can especially impact mood and relaxation. It also supports the brain’s ability to stimulate and respond to the release of stress hormones. Therefore, it turns down the dial on our ‘fight or flight’ response.
As you can see, many individual foods come up time and time again – so it should be easy to start incorporating some of these nutrient-rich foods into your diet.
We are not inferring these foods are going to 'fix' anxiety, however, the accumulative effect of these will be nurturing you on a physiological level, and as we know, the mind and the body are very closely connected.
Managing depression and anxiety is an ongoing journey that can be incredibly frustrating, overwhelming and downright scary, and it requires attention to a multitude of different aspects.
A healthy and varied whole food diet is a simple, straightforward means to nourish your body to nourish your mind. Your body is incredibly complex and intricate, and you will be amazed at the positive effect the right foods and nutrient balance can have on your mind, mood, and happiness.
Please note, this blog is not designed to diagnose, treat or cure. If you have mental health concerns please contact the below:
Please see your GP if you have concerns regarding your mood and anxiety.
If your situation is an emergency, or if you or someone is at risk, call 111.
For support, you can contact:
Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 anytime for support from a trained counsellor.
Lifeline 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland