The Foods of Mood

Positive mood. Leaves falling.

Maybe you’ve noticed that certain foods and drinks can really turn your mood around (or upside down). For instance, the day you leave home in a rush and forget your cup of coffee, you feel sluggish and are more prone to snap at your coworker. Or that late afternoon cookie break gives you a sudden energy boost but you can barely keep your eyes open a little later. Conversely, maybe you’ve found that Greek yogurt after a work out is the best refuel you can get or chamomile tea before bed really does help you relax into a peaceful night’s sleep.

But are these just patterns observed by individuals or is there real science to back it up? Let’s take a look.

Stress/Emotional Eating

Stress eating, also called emotional eating, is when you reach for that chocolate bar to cheer you up after a fight with your significant other or you gorge on potato chips after a really stressful day at work or school. It is not connected to your body’s actual need for food. You may not truly taste or enjoy what you’re eating.

So, is this a real thing? The science says yes.

When you’re stressed, stress hormones flood your body to help you deal with the situation. Some of those hormones can also increase your feelings of hunger, and not for the healthy stuff. That’s when you may notice a craving for high fat, sugary foods, often called “comfort foods.”

Comfort food is not a misnomer. Eating those foods does actually help dull the stress response and make you feel better temporarily.

However, in people who are chronically stressed, stress eating may become a habit they don’t realize exists. Along with other ways people often use to help deal with stress (vegging on the couch, overindulging in alcohol, smoking), stress eating can add up to some pounds and extra pants sizes, and all the diseases that come with those (for example, heart disease, high cholesterol, or diabetes).

The key is to recognize you’re stressed (which can be difficult in and of itself) and to find other, healthier ways to manage it. Some ideas include exercise, listening to music, getting outdoors into nature, massage, meditation, or hanging out with friends and family.

Vitamin D

It’s a little bit of a buzzword in today’s primary care circles. Perhaps your general practitioner has even tested the levels of it in your blood. Low vitamin D is a chronic problem in modern America. 

Beyond its role in bone health, there have been some interesting studies linking low levels of vitamin D to depression. Remember, just because there’s a link doesn’t mean low vitamin D levels cause depression. It just means that the two seem to go together. 

Conversely, rates of depression fall in people who have vitamin D levels in the normal range.

Here are some foods which contain vitamin D:

  • Salmon
  • Shrimp
  • Canned tuna
  • Oysters
  • Mushrooms
  • Sunshine

Wait, sunshine?

That’s right, your body can make vitamin D from sunlight. You only need a little (15-20 minutes a day should be fine). This is hard for many Americans to achieve, especially those who have office jobs. Also, remember that good skin health means you should wear sunscreen if you’re outside for longer than 15-20 minutes.

Gut Microbiome

There have been some interesting studies recently about whether the gut microbiome (the bacteria, fungi, and yeast normally and naturally found in your gut to help digest your food) may play a part in mood. It’s led some probiotics to advertise they’re good for mood as well as the gut.

The study of the gut microbiome in general is in its infancy and whether it plays a role in mood is far from certain. Right now, we can’t recommend probiotics for mood. They do seem to help gut health for some people, though. Natural sources of probiotics include yogurts and kefirs, which offer other nutritional benefits as well.

The Bottom Line

The study of food’s effects on mood is still ongoing. The best course of action is to eat a varied diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in sugars and high-fat foods to keep yourself as healthy as possible.