Change your food, change your mood

By Lisa Cossey, LCSW


At some point in time, I’m sure it’s safe to say we’ve all heard the phrase, “You are what you eat.” Recent research into food and its effects on the body and mind may have us saying, “Change your food, change your mood.”

Our brains comprise many neural pathways, neural transmitters and neural chemicals that make up and regulate our thoughts and moods daily. Serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter, makes us feel happy. When Serotonin levels drop, one may feel sad or depressed. Serotonin is directly linked with an amino acid found in food, tryptophan. Diets consisting of foods with low or no tryptophan levels leads to depleting serotonin in the brain which, in turn, leads to irritability, aggression, lowered mood and impaired memory. Diets including foods with high levels of tryptophan can provide the opposite effect and raise serotonin levels naturally. Turkey is one food that is high in tryptophan, so don’t just relegate turkey only to Thanksgiving if one needs a mood boost. Nuts and seeds such as almonds, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds are also foods to eat to get a mood boost from tryptophan.

Another way to lower risk for depression, especially in women, is to drink coffee regularly. Coffee boosts dopamine and norepinephrine, which are also feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain. A National Institute of Health study tracked women over a 10-year period (1996-2006) and found women who drank coffee regularly throughout the week had lower reported depressive episodes than non-coffee-drinking women.

How about a sweet treat to go with one’s coffee? Dark chocolate also has been found to increase serotonin levels naturally, leading to improved mood. Bananas can also be included on a list of foods that will decrease negative mood-related symptoms thanks to their high vitamin B6 levels. Vitamin B6 also helps your body create and maintain serotonin and dopamine. Beans and lentils, while perhaps not a sweet treat, also are great foods to eat to boost vitamin B intake.

Other amino acids, such as L-theanine and Omega-3, a fatty acid, minerals such as magnesium and zinc, and antioxidants can reduce anxiety symptoms. Salmon is a great source of Omega-3 and can also alter one’s dopamine and serotonin levels – packing a double advantage to reduce anxiety and improve mood.

Fermented foods like kimchi, yogurt, kombucha and sauerkraut are good for your gut biome. Research is ongoing regarding how one’s overall gut health impacts mood; however, the probiotics created during the fermentation process may support and increase serotonin levels in the brain.

Dark leafy greens like spinach and Swiss chard contain magnesium, which can lower anxiety. Blueberries are another food with the potential to alter one’s mood. Flavonoids, an antioxidant found in blueberries, assist in regulating mood – in addition to the other health benefits eating fresh fruit provides.

The foods listed above are not an exhaustive list; and if one is considering a major change to their lifestyle, or has food allergies or other monitored health issues, please consult a physician and/or nutritionist. Changing one’s food, even making small changes, such as eating a banana for a snack or swapping out the lettuce in a salad with dark, leafy greens, can impact overall health and mood for the better.

Lisa Cossey, LCSW, serves as Youth First social worker at Good Shepherd School and Annunciation School’s Christ the King Campus, both in Evansville.