On days when the sun is shining, you’ve had a good night’s rest and you’re not weighed down by stress, you feel like you can take on the world and the world will surrender. Your sunny disposition radiates on everyone around you and they all want to be your friend.
Want more days like this? I can’t do much about the weather, but I can offer a few tips for managing restless nights and somber moods. You guessed it – it’s all about food.
What we consume has a huge impact not only on our physical health but also our mental health. Essential amino acids and nutrients go to work on the brain to produce feel-good substances (serotonin and dopamine), but only if we consume the foods that contain these amino acids and nutrients.
In a previous article we talked about foods that help build immunities to protect against viruses. It may come as no surprise that many foods that help build immunities and keep you physically healthy are the same foods that support good mental health.
Below are six food tips to guide you when you’re feeling down, lethargic, and/or you’re not getting enough sleep. They’ll help put the spring back in your step and a smile on your face. Watch out, world.
1. Carry an orange wherever you go. When you hit that mid-afternoon crash where a candy bar seems like the answer to all of life’s problems, peel your trusty orange instead. An orange provides instant happiness and energy because the Vitamin C helps circulate oxygen throughout your body, thereby recharging your system. Bonus benefits include portability, ease of preparation and the fresh orange-y scent that is a natural breath cleanser.
2. Eat fatty foods when you’re feeling down, but only ‘good’ fatty foods. A half-pound burger and fries might taste good, but the longer-term effect will be to weigh you down and darken your mood as you digest. For lunch or dinner a piece of salmon or tuna are great options, and for a snack try a handful of walnuts. You’ll get the same satiated feeling that you’re craving without the mind-dulling effects of eating a greasy, high calorie meal.
3. Have a bowl of soup. I once thought the whole chicken soup thing was an old wives’ tale, but soup actually does have healing properties. Try one that includes a lean protein (such as chicken or beans), vegetables and a water-based broth. Orange vegetables like carrots and squash are terrific mood-improvers, as are dark green leaves, so include those in your soup recipe. For those looking to shed a few pounds, a soup such as this is a great meal choice because it will fill you up (and hydrate you!) before you consume more calories than you need.
4. Eat like a bird and snack on seeds. Foods that are rich in magnesium are natural stress reducers and seeds from sunflowers, sesame, flax, squashes and pumpkins are great sources of magnesium. Other snack foods that can ease the tension include almonds, cashews and peanuts. A dinner of halibut (very high in magnesium) and brown rice will not only wash all of your worries away, it will help you get a good night’s rest (see more on that below.)
5. Take a lesson from Popeye. Depression, insomnia / fatigue and general grumpiness are often related to a deficiency of serotonin. A diet that includes foods rich in folic acid (such as spinach) and tryptophan (such as eggs and turkey) will naturally raise the level of serotonin affecting the brain. There are many foods that can help in this area, but a diet that includes lean proteins, whole grains and lots of fruits and vegetables is the best thing to shoot for. Stay away from the white bread and pasta – they provide a quick boost and a long crash. Here are a few ‘good mood foods’ to get that serotonin going:
- Lean red meat (try bison or grass-fed beef), poultry, fish, eggs, cottage cheese
- Broccoli, spinach, chard, kale
- Oats, brown rice, bran
- Chickpeas, lentils, quinoa
- Walnuts, sunflower seeds
6. Don't let your food keep you up at night. Tryptophan also contributes to the release of melatonin, a naturally occurring sleep-inducing substance. If you are in need of a good night’s sleep, the best choice for dinner or a bedtime snack is complex carbohydrates with only a small amount of protein. Complex carbohydrates are found in fruits, vegetables, legumes (e.g., beans) and whole grains. If you need a late night snack have a small bowl of whole grain cereal with whole milk.
A glass of red wine can also improve your health and your heart. Pair it with the foods above and toast to your good health. Bon appétit!