Healthy Eating Tips

These 4 Foods Naturally Boost Endorphins, According to a Neuroscientist

Photo: Stocksy/Nataša Mandić
Even if your formal lessons about how the body works stopped after tenth grade biology, there's a good chance that you've at least heard about endorphins and the blissful feelings they're known to evoke. If you haven't, all you need to do is strike a conversation with an avid runner, who is sure to tell you about the "high" they get from an endorphin boost mid-run.

Endorphins are neurotransmitters that lead to a positive feeling throughout the body when released in the brain. Yes, intense cardio can lead to an endorphin boost, but so can sex, laughter, and certain types of food. (And hey, feel free to combine all three.)

Can you seriously eat your way to an endorphin boost? While it may not feel as intense as a cardio or sex-induced "high," according to neuroscientist, Cleaning Up The Mental Mess author, and NeuroCycle app founder Caroline Leaf, PhD, there is such a thing as "endorphin foods," aka foods that naturally boost endorphin levels. To be clear, these foods don't contain endorphins—no food does—but they do contain nutrients directly linked to boosting endorphin levels.

Now before we get into it, it's important to know that there's a lot that goes into how you feel that have nothing to do with endorphins. Not only are there other neurotransmitters and hormones that play a role, but life circumstances matter too. If you're going through a hard time, snacking on an endorphin-boosting food won't magically take your troubles away. But that doesn't mean they can't help. They certainly can and here, Dr. Leaf explains exactly how. Keep reading to see a list of foods scientifically linked to releasing endorphins. Consider it your go-to snack list for days when you need a mood boost.

4 endorphin foods to eat when you need a mood boost

1. Dark chocolate

Chocolate lovers will already tell you that this food will boost your mood, and science confirms it. "Chocolate contains several different compounds that can possibly be linked to the stimulation of 'feel good' neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins," Dr. Leaf says. "Some research suggests that chocolate interacts with endorphins. This may mean that, when we eat sweet or pleasant tasting foods, they can stimulate the release of endorphins in the hypothalamus [a part of the brain involved in emotional activity], potentially making us feel better." To really get the maximum benefit, go for dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate; dark chocolate is higher in brain-supporting antioxidants.

2. Citrus fruits

Not a chocolate person? Next time you're in need of a mood boost, snack on a juicy orange. Even just the smell of citrus has been linked to a mood boost. "The typical fresh and uplifting smell of citruses comes from their main chemical component, d-limonene," certified aromatherapist Caroline Schroeder previously told Well+Good. "Studies suggest this component supports the part of the nervous system that's responsible for relaxation. In other words, it can decrease stress."

Besides this, eating citrus also increases endorphin levels, which Dr. Leaf says is due to their vitamin C content. "A number of studies have found that higher vitamin C concentrations are linked or correlated to elevated mood, while other studies suggest that a deficiency in vitamin C is correlated with higher rates of depression and anxiety," she says.

3. Bell peppers

While citrus fruits are notorious vitamin C sources, bell peppers are straight-up full of the nutrient, too. In fact, they have more vitamin C than oranges, which is exactly why it lands on Dr. Leaf's endorphin foods list. "Our body does not produce vitamin C naturally, so we need to get it from external sources like our diet," she says. Some other great sources of vitamin C are broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and strawberries.

4. Chili peppers

Chili peppers are a lot spicier than bell peppers, but scientific studies have also found them to be endorphin boosters, at least in rats. This is specifically because they contain capsaicin, the compound that makes them hot. In fact, capsaicin has been found to be so powerful in inducing a pleasurable feeling that it's been used in scientific studies as a pain reliever. Besides raising endorphin levels, capsaicin is also linked to longevity, another reason it's worth it to bring on the heat.

Besides these specific foods, Dr. Leaf says it's important to make sure your nutrient bases are covered overall. "A deficiency in any important nutrient can have both an indirect and direct effect on our mood due to our psychoneurobiology, aka the mind-brain-body connection," she says. "This essentially means that what we think and do, including our food choices and diet, can impact our mental and physical health. A well-balanced diet can help support a well-balanced mind and brain, including the release of endorphins and mood regulation." Just something else to keep in mind when using food to support your mood.

Okay, so now you know which foods are scientifically linked to boosting endorphins. Need some recipe ideas for how to enjoy 'em? We got you.

4 endorphin-boosting recipes that will put you in a good mood

1. Chocolate reishi muffins

These muffins are made with a trifecta of mood-boosting ingredients. First is dark chocolate, which you now know is an endorphin food. The other two ingredients that lend their superpowers are reishi (a type of mushroom linked to helping the body deal with stress) and coffee (which boosts energy).

2. Orange chutney

If you're looking for a more exciting way to reap the benefits of citrus than simply peeling an orange, this is it. This tangy chutney is perfect for dressing up meat and seafood dishes and is full of anti-inflammatory ingredients.

stuffed peppers
Photo: Well Plated By Erin

3. Vegan stuffed peppers

Typically, stuffed peppers are made with beef but here, lentils are used to give them a plant-based makeover. The end result is just as flavorful and protein-packed as original stuffed peppers—and you'll get plenty of endorphin-boosting vitamin C too.

Get the recipe: vegan stuffed peppers

hot sauce
Photo: The Curious Chickpea

4. Homemade chili sauce

Use chili peppers to make your own homemade hot sauce with this super simple recipe. Besides the chili peppers, all you need is garlic, salt, water, and apple cider vinegar (white wine vinegar or rice wine vinegar works too). Then, you have it on hand to use on tacos, eggs, burgers, and anything else you want to add heat to.

Get the recipe: homemade chili sauce

Now you know exactly what foods can support an endorphin boost and have some yummy ideas for how to enjoy them. Wait until you tell your runner friends that you don't have to get all sweaty to experience a "high." Just be ready with the snacks!

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