If you've looked into ways to boost your mood even a little bit, you've probably heard about serotonin, aka a neurotransmitter in the brain that's linked to better mood and overall satisfaction. Serotonin is a chemical made by nerve cells and communicates with other cells in the body. While it's certainly not the only chemical connected to mood regulation (dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins all do too), it is an important piece of the feel-good puzzle. And get this: There are ways to boost your serotonin naturally through what you eat.
Neuroscientist and Cleaning Uo Your Mental Mess ($17) author Caroline Leaf, PhD, explains that serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan. (Yep, the same amino acid that can make you sleepy after eating Thanksgiving turkey.) "Tryptophan is found in many foods and may support the production of serotonin," she says, adding that more research needs to be done to really solidify the connection between diet and mood. (Although the research that does exist is extremely strong.)
With this in mind, there are five serotonin foods that are high in tryptophan that can easily be worked into your meals, according to Dr. Leaf.
5 serotonin foods to eat during winter and always
Eggs top Dr. Leaf's serotonin foods list not only because they contain tryptophan but also because they're high in choline (a B vitamin) and protein. Choline is directly linked to supporting brain health, including mood, and protein gives the body energy. (Feeling run-down and sad often go hand-in-hand.)
Watch the video below to learn more about the health benefits of eggs:
If you're the type of person who likes to put cheese on, like, everything, you're probably thinking it's common sense that eating something cheesy can boost your mood. But it's not just because of the taste; cheese is another food that contains tryptophan. Cheddar is the type of cheese highest in the chemical. Bring on the cheese-topped comfort food!
3. Tofu (and other soy products)
There are plant-based ways to up your serotonin through what you eat too. Dr. Leaf says soy products (like tofu, edamame, and soy nuts) also have tryptophan and protein. One study, which tracked postmenopausal women over the course of two years, found that regularly consuming tofu was linked to a decline in depressive symptoms. Another study, of both pre- and post-menopausal women, saw the same results. So you definitely don't have to depend on animal products for a natural serotonin boost if you don't want to.
4. Tuna, salmon, and other fish
Similar to eggs, fish checks off a lot of brain health boxes. Besides being high in tryptophan and protein, the omega-3 fatty acids also directly benefit the brain (including supporting mood regulation). Fish also contains vitamin D, a nutrient that's harder to get in the winter and is also linked to mood. Tuna, salmon, and other fatty fish have the most tryptophan and omega-3s.
5. Nuts and seeds
Dr. Leaf says nuts and seeds are other great, plant-based serotonin foods. While all nuts and seeds bring other nutritional benefits to the table, walnuts in particular are well-known for being good for brain health because they're especially high in omega-3s.
Just like there are foods that are linked to improving mood, Dr. Leaf says it's also important to be mindful of the fact that some foods can have the opposite effect, more strongly linked to depression and anxiety. "Foods that are highly processed and contain unhealthy amounts of ingredients like sugar may impact your mood by affecting the way the brain functions and our ability to think clearly and manage stress," she says. So when you're using these serotonin foods with the intention of supporting your mental health, it's important to think about what not to include in your meals, too.
Dr. Leaf says besides the actual foods you're eating, your emotional state while you're eating is an important factor too. "Our mind literally runs our digestive system, so, if we are worked up and in a highly emotional state when eating, this will negatively affect how the digestive system and even the microbiome works to digest food and assimilate nutrients," she says. If you're feeling anxious and are about to eat, take a moment to take a few deep breaths. This can also be why getting out of the habit of eating at your desk while you work can be helpful.
It bears repeating that serotonin is only one factor when it comes to mood. Also, there is no substitute for professional help—and no shame in asking for it. But the connection between food and mental health continues to be linked and that's important to know too. After all, you are what you eat.
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