Ever meet one of those people who, no matter how much suckitude surrounds them, they still have a smile on their face?
Some people are just naturally cheerful. Others have to work a little harder for it. But here’s the thing…no matter where you fall on the life-is-good spectrum, you can hike a little higher by putting the right things into your body.
Experts still have a way to go to discover exactly how diet affects mood. But we do have an awful lot of information that we can use.
To cut to the chase: What we put in our mouths travels through the digestive system, sending a whole host of interacting signals to the brain on the way down. That ultimately affects how we feel, not just physically, but mentally as well.
Of course, much more goes into your mindset than just nutrition. Even the highest-quality diet by itself may not treat serious depression or other mood disorders. But filling up with premium food will help nourish the brain so it will, at the very least, have a fighting chance to work at its peak.
And make you feel peppier in the process.
So, what are the most important nutrients you need to make your way to the sunnier side of the street?
Let’s take a look at 7 of them.
Feel-Good Nutrient #1: Probiotics
As we’ve already said, the gut and brain are closely linked. In fact, the gut’s been dubbed 'the second brain.' This is because it includes a bundle of nerve cells (yes, pun intended) that help to create a superhighway of chemicals and hormones that the gut and the head shoot the breeze through.
Because so many neurotransmitters (including serotonin, dopamine and GABA, all of which play a key role in moderating mood) are made in the gut, their home has to be pristine.
What does this have to do with probiotics? We’re getting there …
The gut is teeming with microbes. Yes, there are over 100 trillion bacteria in your little body, most of which are located in the intestinal tract. While that might sound kinda gross, it’s really not.
Bacteria can be bad, when, say, it invades the fluid in your ears and causes an infection. But not all bacteria are bad guys. Bacteria on our skin, for instance, are the first line of defense when foreign invaders attack with an infection.
Both kinds of bacteria set up shop in the gut, and the goal is for the good to outnumber the bad.
But, if something is awry and the balance of bacteria goes kerflooey, it’s going to be a bumpy ride along that gut/brain superhighway.
And happiness will likely elude you.
Probiotics, whether they come from fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, or miso, or nutritional supplements, can help keep the bugs in your bowel in better balance.
Feel-Good Nutrient #2: Vitamin D
You probably hear a lot about vitamin D in terms of bone health. For good reason. Without enough D, you can’t form ample amounts of its derivative, calcitriol, which stimulates your intestine to absorb calcium.
What’s bones got to do with happiness? Absolutely nothing, it’s just that bone health is what gives D most of its street cred.
But D also has another talent that doesn’t get the airtime it should…it can help put a smile on your face.
Researchers aren’t quite sure how vitamin D promotes a positive mood, but Vitamin D activates tyrosine hydroxylase, a tongue-twisting enzyme that helps the body produce serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These three neurotransmitters play an important role in mood.
It also helps curb inflammation and oxidative stress. Several studies report inflammation plays a role in depression by regulating the brain’s ability to reorganize and adapt to what’s happening around us.
With all that in mind, here’s the good news and bad news when it comes to vitamin D.
The good news: It’s one of the rare vitamins that your body can actually produce itself – when the sun hits your skin, the body can convert the UVB light into Vitamin D3.
The bad news: excessive sun exposure can also cause skin damage. And because America has been slathering on the sunscreen, we’re woefully D-deficient.
More bad news: Vitamin D is tough to get in food. You can find it in fatty fish like salmon, fortified milk, but that’s about it.
Even more bad news: Over 90% of Americans fail to consume enough vitamin D.
So, it would be wise to find out where you’re at, D-wise.
Speak to your doctor about testing blood levels of a form known as 25-hydroxyvitamin. If you’re deficient, your doctor may prescribe a prescription Vitamin D to get levels up quickly. The pharma form of D comes in the D2 form, which is not as long-acting as the D3 form used in over-the-counter supplements.
Getting your Vitamin D from sunlight may have mood benefits other than those provided by supplements. This is still being studied. In the meantime, shamelessly exposing naked skin to sunlight for brief periods (5 -10 minutes) regularly may offer much needed mood boost. More here.
Feel-Good Nutrient #3: Magnesium
Magnesium’s one of our favorite minerals. The body needs it to perform over 300 biochemical functions. Without magnesium, we can’t produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the fuel that gasses every cell in the body.
Magnesium has been dubbed “nature’s chill pill” for a reason.
Geek alert: Magnesium helps regulate glutamate, one of the most plentiful amino acids in the brain. One of glutamate’s roles is to unlock N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptors.
An impeccable balance of NMDA activity is crucial for keeping convivial— too much or too little causes the mind to race and ramble.
A surefire happiness buzzkill.
Higher magnesium intakes are also associated with lower levels of an inflammatory protein, as well as its precursor inflammatory cytokines. Inflammation in the brain can alter the way it works. Magnesium may also prevent the release of certain hormones, including cortisol, which many call the “stress hormone.”
Thanks to magnesium’s superpower to regulate emotions, it’s commonly used in homeopathic remedies for balancing mood.
Sadly, we are magnesium lean in this country.
One government survey found about half of all Americans fall short of the recommended amount of magnesium. And older Americans fare even worse. Roughly 70% of those over 70 don’t meet their daily requirements.
You can find magnesium in foods like:
- Green leafy vegetables
- Dairy products
Alas, today’s produce is depleted of much of the vitamins and minerals of yesteryear due to industrial farming methods. So even with a stellar diet, you may not be getting the magnesium you need and you may want to consider supplements.
Feel-Good Nutrient #4: Omega 3s
There are several types of Omega 3s, including alpha linolenic acid (ALA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), but the type that keeps the pep in your step is eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
We’re not discounting the other types of Omega 3s, but research shows that they key to happiness may lie in EPA.
In a study done at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, researchers analyzed 15 double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials (the “gold standard” of studies) and found that when their daily supplement contained 60% or more EPA, people felt less anxious and angry and far happier than they did before they started supplementing.
Why? Again, the science isn’t sure.
But we do know that low-grade inflammation and depression go together.
EPA can be described as a sort of therapist for the cells — it helps with cell membrane fluidity and helps the cells communicate better amongst themselves. It also helps reduce inflammatory processes in the brain.
You can score EPA in your diet by supping on plenty of fish, particularly Atlantic herring, mackerel, and salmon, sardines, trout, and oysters.
Important to note: Because EPA and DHA have similar structures, they fight each other for binding sites and essential enzymes. So the secret to making your EPA a happy pill is the amount of “unopposed EPA.” The sweet spot is between 1000 mg and 2200 mg of unopposed EPA per day. (mg of EPA – mg of DHA = unopposed EPA in your fish oil pill.)
EPA-only supplements are available.
Feel-Good Nutrient #5: Curcumin
This yellow-colored spice packs a one-two punch, acting as both a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Since your brain relies on plenty of oxygen, it’s more vulnerable to oxidative stress. Curcumin’s antioxidant action helps the brain neutralize those pesky free radicals that can drain the brain of its brawn.
Studies have shown that folks who get more antioxidants in their diet walk around with more grins than frowns.
One study even found that curcumin may change the area of the brain associated with mood and memory. Participants in a UCLA study took either a placebo or 90 mg of curcumin twice a day. After 18 months the curcumin group experienced significant improvements in memory and attention, as well as improvements in mood. And PET scans of the brain showed significantly less amyloid and tau signals in the amygdala and hypothalamus than those who took placebos.
Feel-Good Nutrient #6: B Vitamins
Eight different water-soluble vitamins make up the Bs. They include:
- B1 (thiamine)
- B2 (riboflavin)
- B3 (niacin)
- B5 (pantothenic acid)
- B6 (pyridoxine)
- B7 (biotin)
- B9 (folate)
- B12 (cobalamin)
These hard-working nutrients tackle everything from DNA production and repair to keeping your immune system humming. B vitamins also help transform food into the form of energy your body uses (called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP). Without enough B, the body can’t perform this process properly, and your get-up-and-go will be gone.
Your body also needs the Bs to manufacture the neurotransmitters, GABA, serotonin and dopamine, all of which pass messages between nerve cells and help to modulate mood.
Bs can be found in proteins such as fish, poultry, meat, eggs, and dairy products. Leafy green vegetables, beans, and peas also have B vitamins.
Luckily, true deficiency in Bs is rare in the United States. But Vitamin D deficiency is surprisingly common among vegans since some Bs are found only in animal products. This study found that 92% of vegans were deficient in Vitamin B12...and depression is a symptom of severe B12 deficiency.
But when it comes to happiness, more Bs may be better. A Swiss study found that supplementing with a high-dose B complex helped healthy people feel happier, more energetic, and less stressed during intense mental processing.
Feel-Good Nutrient #7: Vitamin C
Vitamin C is a great antioxidant. The body uses it to keep pesky free radicals at bay. Research suggests that oxidative stress (which happens when free radicals outnumber antioxidants) may be linked to disorders like depression and anxiety.
Some populations may be perpetually low on C, so take note if you:
- Smoke. Smoking puts a ton of oxidative stress on the body so it’s constantly depleting C to neutralize and counteract the harmful effects of free radicals. (So much so that the Institute of Medicine recommends smokers take an extra 35 mg of vitamin C every day.)
- Are over 60. Many older adults don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables to get their daily allowance of C and even if they are, their body may no longer absorb the nutrient.
- Exercise a lot. If you’re working up a sweat regularly you may be depleting your C to fight the free radicals formed after intense exercise.
- Suffer from heartburn. Proton pump inhibitors mess with the way certain nutrients, including C, get absorbed and metabolized.
Again, we must stress that not all issues can be cured with nutrients. Or supplements.
Sometimes, no matter what you do, you may still feel down. If that’s the case, be sure to see your healthcare provider to figure out what’s causing your funk.
But as cliché as it sounds, you really are what you eat. Nourish your body with the right nutrients and you may just feel lighter, brighter, and more raring to go.
Stuff that must be said:
We sell many of the supplements mentioned in this article on this website. It goes without saying (but we’ll say it anyway) that we do not make claims that taking our supplement will treat, cure or prevent any disease, including depression.
Why? Because your case of depression or anxiety may have nothing to do with nutrition or gut health. Your mood also depends on a whole bunch of factors: what and when you eat, how much you sleep, how often you move, people around you, sun exposure, your hormones, heck...even social media. Nutrition (and supplements) should be a PART of a larger plan.
You may need prescription medications. Most of the supplements discussed above may be taken with prescription anti-depressants. Do not make these decisions by yourself. Talk to your doctor about it.
Supplements may help, but supplements alone will not restore you to complete health. We think supplements are a small piece of the health puzzle. You cannot outrun a bad diet and inactivity with pills. Most of the heavy lifting involved in restoring your health will have to come from you in the form of healthy eating and lifestyle corrections. In these articles, we are merely sharing our excitement about nutritional science and doing our best to translate dense science into easy-to-read English. We geek out on nutrition science and we think you will too. We hope it makes you a more informed consumer. Our Legal Dept. says the same thing in Legalese at the bottom of this page. Enjoy.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
This website is for educational and informational purposes only. The ideas, opinions and suggestions contained on this website are not to be construed as medical advice. If you have, or suspect you may have, a medical condition you should seek advice from a licensed health care practitioner. Readers of this website should not rely on the information provided or contained herein as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment from your doctor for any health condition or problem. Users of this website should not rely on information provided on this website for their own health problems. Any questions or concerns regarding your own health should be addressed to your own physician. You should not start or stop any medications, diet or exercise plan without first consulting with your doctor. We neither encourage you to do so, nor are we liable for the failure to seek medical advice from the appropriate licensed medical health practitioner.
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