You are what you eat

Bananas, berries and chocolate are all examples of good-mood foods. Image: Gregory Gerber/Shutterstock.

Avoid the blues with certain food flavours.

We all know there are many things that can affect our mood, from stress at work, the weather, or even what’s for lunch. Researchers are now suggesting that the effect food has on our mood is more complicated than simply feeling uninspired by lunchtime leftovers.

Research developed at the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies, in collaboration with Robertet Flavours, Inc. (US), has shown how specific flavours in good mood foods”“such as chocolate, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries”“bear a chemical similarity to valproic acid, a prescription mood-stabilising drug. Sold under brand names that include Depakene, Depakote and Stavzor, valproic acid is used to smooth out the mood swings of people with manic-depressive disorder and related conditions.

“The tendency to depression in its many forms has increased due to our stressed society,” says Karina Martinez-Mayorga of Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies and research scientist at the Chemistry Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “Antidepressants are effective for only 50-60 per cent of patients. Moreover, these antidepressants have slow onset of action and negative side effects. All this suggests the need for creative and new strategies.”

Martinez-Mayorga points out that the research team’s primary interest is in the flavours for enhancing mood in healthy people during their “down times,” rather than people with clinical depression. She emphasises that factors including staying fit, proper patterns of sleeping and eating and good quality food all contribute to our well-being.

Martinez-Mayorga and her team selected some molecules from the GRAS (Generally recognized as safe) collection and compared these with known antidepressants in terms of structures and physicochemical properties. Notably, the results were found be similar to valproic acid. From this research Martinez-Mayorga hopes to increase awareness on the need of new and creative ways to enhance mood and to present the different avenues that can be explored for biological pathways that regulate mood.

“The large body of evidence that chemicals in chocolate, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, teas and other certain foods could well be mood-enhancers encourages the search for other mood modulators in food,” says Martinez-Mayorga.

Although the research hasn’t advanced as far as to identify any top food components that are most likely to improve a person’s mood, here are some suggestions:

1. Dark chocolate

Dark chocolate, along with numerous other health benefits, helps our brain produce mood-altering chemicals. According to Dr Lily Stojanovska from Victoria University, Cocoa, the primary ingredient in chocolate, acts on the brain to increase production of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and tryptophan, which increase mood and decrease the rate of depression.Dark chocolate with 80 per cent cocoa or more are the most beneficial. However, it’s important to consume in moderation. For more information on the benefits of chocolate click here.

2. Berries

Whether it be blueberries or strawberries, goji berries or acai berries, they all have their health benefits. Berries are packed with a variety of nutrients, vitamins and other natural compounds that have been claimed to reduce the risk of diseases including cancer and even enhance our memory. Additionally, the flavonoid anthocyanidin, found in strawberries and blueberries, has been linked to a reduction of inflammation, which in turn has been associated with increased depression. More berry benefits can be found here.

3. Tea

The amino acid L-Theanine is found primarily on green tea leaves, specifically known as Camelia Sinesis. This amino acid adds to the structure of a non-protein hindering neurotransmitter known as Gamma amino butyric acid (GAB), which provides a soothing effect on humans. GAB also influences the creation of alpha waves in a human brain which also have enhance a profound state of calmness and improves mental clearness.

4. Salmon

Salmon is one of the richest sources of omega3 fatty acids, heart healthy fats that aid mood and memory. These acids are present in the brain more than in any other part of the body, and several studies have suggested this nutrient can help lift mood, alleviate mild depression, and improve memory. Additionally, fats boost hormone production. A hormone production imbalance can trigger aggressive behaviour, which is often related to depression. Oily fish, including salmon, is also rich in vitamin B12. This vitamin is believed to help in production of serotonin, one of the neurotransmitters responsible for mood.

5. Bananas

Besides being a rich source of potassium, eating bananas adds a hefty amount of tryptophan to our diets. This amino acid is then converted into serotonin in our bodies, known to make us relax, improve your mood, and generally make you feel happier. In a study at Oxford University, researchers found that women recovering from depression who were deficient in tryptophan had a higher chance of regressing back to depressive states. Bananas are also a great source of vitamins and minerals, natural sugars and carbohydrates.

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