We all feel low from time to time, and it’s especially common for people living in northern latitudes to feel a dip in their mood as the skies darken for the winter. Luckily, many lifestyle factors can help to boost our mood, including regular exercise, time in nature, and engaging in healthy social activities with friends and family.
In addition, what we put into our bodies can make a big difference in how we feel both physically and mentally. The standard American diet, sometimes referred to as “SAD,” has been associated with an increased risk of depressive symptoms due to its high content of processed foods, simple sugars, and empty calories, leaving us deficient in many important mood-boosting nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, zinc, and magnesium.1 In contrast, eating a whole foods diet has been shown to lower one’s risk of depression and depressive symptoms.1
In general, our mood will fare better when eating a diet rich in unprocessed foods and steering clear of foods the send our blood sugar on a rollercoaster ride (fast food, sweets, soda, alcohol, white rice, etc.). Let’s look at a few more specifics that are worth adding to your dinner plate.
Leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables
Leafy greens, such as spinach, lettuces, watercress, arugula, chard, and kale are rich in folate and magnesium, nutrients that are important in helping to reduce anxiety and boost mood.2 Other cruciferous veggies, like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, bok choy, and brussels sprouts, contain high amounts of chromium, which can increase your body’s levels of brain chemicals related to positive feelings, alertness, and energy.2 These vegetables also contain lots of fiber, which can help balance blood sugar levels and prevent “hanger” or that dreaded blood sugar crash.
Not sure how to eat more veggies? Opt for a side salad instead of that bag of chips next to your sandwich at lunch, stir some spinach into your scrambled eggs, sauté a bunch of chard as a side dish with dinner, or make a quick stir-fry with cabbage and bok choy.
Protein can help balance hormones and also contains many of the precursors to the feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin. Red meat, especially organ meats like liver and heart, is incredibly rich in iron and B vitamins, which are nutrients that can help ward off the blues.1
Opt for wild game like venison, moose, and goat when possible, or lean cuts of beef, chicken, or turkey (bonus points if it’s grass-fed)! Eggs are also a great option, as are lentils, wild fish, and bone broth.
Naturally colorful food
Fresh or frozen fruit like berries, grapes, and cherries, as well as vegetables like carrots, bell peppers, winter squash, and citrus are brightly colored produce that might just cheer you up by looking at them! Their colors mean more than a pretty plate, though. Natural bright colors in food is an easy way to know that it’s rich in antioxidants, which is nature’s way of protecting our cells from damage done by free radicals (free radicals can play a leading role in the development of cancer, heart disease, and other serious diseases). Some studies show that antioxidants can help elevate mood, so look for ways to add naturally colorful fruits and vegetables to your plate.3
Green tea and turmeric also fit into this antioxidant-rich category. Try replacing a cup of your daily joe with a nice warm mug of green tea, or look up a new recipe using turmeric.
Healthy fats help reduce inflammation and promote brain health. They’re also linked with improved energy levels and increased mood.
To boost your intake of health fats, opt for foods rich in omega-3 fats like wild salmon or herring, walnuts, chia seeds, eggs, and flax seeds. Other healthy fats include raw nuts and seeds, avocado, and ghee.
Gut health is imperative to the brain health and mood. Some call our digestive system our “second brain” because so many neurotransmitters are produced in the gut.
To keep our GI system happy, feed it probiotics in the form of fermented foods like unsweetened yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, or sauerkraut.
Note: If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, please consult a mental health provider for professional support. Food can be a complement to mental health counseling or psychiatric services, but they won’t likely be the full antidote to low mood. SEARHC Help Line (1-877-294-0074) is available if you need immediate support. SEARHC also offers outpatient behavioral health and telebehavioral health services for all ages, as well as inpatient programs for youth. Go to searhc.org for more information.