Throughout my life, I've found food to be powerful emotional medicine. I blast through stress by crunching on nuts and reach for a slice of German chocolate cake to put a smile on my face. A fresh burst of citrus leaves me feeling energized, while a glass of warm milk is a surefire way to settle down for sleep.
It should come as no surprise that food can have a noticeable effect on our moods, but it's more than just an association between, say, dessert and happiness—it's chemical. What we eat can trigger the release of neurotransmitters and hormones that influence everything from agitation to anger. So next time you find yourself in an emotional rut, you might just need a trip to the cupboard or fridge. For instance...
If You're Feeling Anxious
You can't always jet off to a tropical paradise when you need to relax, but you can channel some laid-back vibes by snacking on Brazil nuts. These nuts are loaded with selenium (just one ounce contains over 700 percent of your recommended daily intake), a trace mineral that appears to play an important role in the brain. Several studies have shown that low levels of selenium lead to increased anxiety and depression, while greater selenium intake has been linked to lower anxiety and an overall improvement in mood. Brazil nuts aren't the only selenium-rich food, though; you can also try tuna, garlic, or mushrooms when you feel your anxiety rising.
If You're Feeling Stressed
Why scarf down junk food to distract yourself from stress when there are foods that could actually reduce it—and perhaps keep it from developing in the first place? Snacking on vitamin-C-rich bell peppers and citrus fruits may contribute to lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that is released when your body goes into fight-or-flight mode, sending more sugar into the bloodstream. Research suggests that large doses of vitamin C may actually stop stress before it starts by reducing the amount of cortisol released. For maximum intake, stick with raw sources—vitamin C is quite unstable and breaks down during cooking.
If You're Feeling Agitated
If your mind is running like a motor even when it's time for bed, tart cherry juice might help. In a recent study, eight ounces of the juice in the morning and before bedtime proved an effective sleep aid in older adults. One possible reason: These cherries are high in melatonin, the hormone that initiates your sleep cycle. While the exact mechanism by which melatonin works isn't entirely clear, we know the hormone is intricately tied to our biological clocks and circadian rhythms. It's also strongly linked to darkness and light, with levels rising after the sun goes down. An increase in the hormone tells your brain it's time to wind down and settle in for the night.
If You're Feeling Foggy
Dazed and confused? Snack on colorful fruits like pineapple, cranberries, and plums. These fruits contain antioxidants that fight off free radicals known to damage neurons in the brain (and potentially harm your memory); aim for several servings a day. For sharper focus, fill your plate with omega-3-fatty-acid-rich fish like salmon. The medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology recently reported that low levels of omega-3s not only decreased problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities but were linked to lower brain volume as well! Omega-3s are an essential component of our cell membranes—the more we have, the better our neurons function. Three servings a week should do the trick.
If You're Feeling Angry
When you're angry, annoyed, or irritated, blame your serotonin. A small study involving brain scans of subjects with decreased serotonin suggests that low levels of the neurotransmitter inhibit the brain's ability to regulate anger, while normal levels can lead to calmer, more controlled responses. To keep cool, try a plantain. These tropical treats have one of the highest serotonin concentrations around (30 micrograms per gram). Their cousin, the banana, also packs a powerful serotonin punch.
3 Things to Avoid If You Want to Feel Good
According to a recent study published in PLoS One
, eating trans fats may have a significant link to greater aggression and irritability. Research suggests that trans fats may prevent the formation of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to improve mood.
It may give you a quick jolt of energy, but it won't last. And when your blood sugar levels inevitably crash, you'll be left feeling irritated and exhausted.
According to a small study in The Journal of Nutrition,
being just over 1 percent below optimal hydration levels can result in headaches, loss of focus, and fatigue.
Next: 3 ways to beat emotional eating