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Healthy Mood-Boosting Foods

10 Mood-Boosting Foods (That Are Healthier Than Your Go-To Pint of Ice Cream)

We've all had those bad days that send us straight to our fridge like we're on an intense mission to stuff our faces with Ben & Jerry's. Don't let a day gone wrong get you down and wreck your health journey in the process! YourTango health expert Lisa Petsinis is here to give us the best tips to stay happy and healthy.

Photographer: Sheila GimNo Restrictions: Editorial and internal use approved. OK for Native and co-branded use.

Eat your way to happiness.

If you're having a bad day, ice cream might seem like the answer. It's sweet, cool, and creamy — just heavenly!

In fact, many women claim ice cream got them through a break-up, a pregnancy, or even just PMS.

When I was in university, my friends and I would hold an ice cream party just before exams. We would get pints of Haagen-Daz delivered to residence from the local pizza place (no pizza, just ice cream) and believe me, that satisfied our cravings and temporarily relieved our stress and anxiety. If I could get my new favorite Cows ice cream locally, I might just succumb and become an ice cream addict once again.

While ice cream may sound like a good choice when you're feeling down or stressed, the truth is: If you really want a mood-boost from food, there are smarter ways to get it.

By eating "happy foods" that involve the right nutrients and neurotransmitters — such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine — you actually can eat your way to happiness.

Here are the key nutrients and neurotransmitters found in food that can help lift your mood:

  • Serotonin is known as the happy neurotransmitter. When serotonin is low, mild depression, anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, and food cravings can result. Antidepressants such as Prozac and Zoloft are specifically aiming to raise serotonin levels. When serotonin is high, you feel calm, relaxed and in control.
  • Tryptophan is an amino acid that is the precursor to serotonin (which isn't actually found in foods) and aids in its creation. It is found in protein-rich food, as well as iron, and B vitamins. Healthy carbohydrates mixed with high tryptophan foods give the most significant boost because they release insulin which promotes absorption.
  • B vitamins, especially vitamins B6, B9 (folate) and B12, are critical for a good mood. These vitamins are instrumental in energy production, mood regulation, and building melatonin (the sleep hormone) and serotonin.
  • Probiotics have been increasingly linked to mental health. Researchers believe that 90 percent of your serotonin is produced in your digestive tract.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids support nerve function and mood regulation.
  • Iron is vital for stabilizing mood, also. It plays an essential role in transporting energy and synthesizing hormones.
  • Zinc is a micronutrient involved in the prevention of depression, as well as an immune booster. Hundreds of enzymes use zinc do their thing.
  • Selenium is important for optimal thyroid function. And this gland is the master of metabolism and has a substantial effect on mental and emotional health; some say anxiety and depression start in the neck!
  • Magnesium, too, plays a vital role in biochemical reactions all over your body. Stress causes you to waste (literally) your magnesium and so to keep it an optimal level is critical, especially when you're stressed.
  • Calcium, protein, selenium, and vitamin D are all key nutrients when you want to get happy, too!

Here are some healthy, mood-lifting foods you can turn to instead of ice cream:

1. Nuts

Nuts are nutrient-dense, often containing high amounts of magnesium, selenium, and folate. Some nuts contain the amino acid tyrosine, which contributes to the creation of the neurotransmitter dopamine that activates your pleasure system. Bring on life's challenges!

Eat just a few brazil nuts a day, and you'll meet your requirements. Alternatively, make up a bag of trail mix of nuts, cherries and dark chocolate with even more good stuff and nibble your way to glee.

2. Bananas

Another quick way to boost your mood is to grab a banana. In addition to its yellow cheeriness, a banana is loaded with vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, potassium, zinc, B6 and vitamin C.

Bananas are full of tryptophan, too. If you're having trouble sleeping, try making banana tea and ease your way into a slumber.

3. Oatmeal

Oatmeal tops the list for power breakfasts because it contains complex carbohydrates that increase the absorption of serotonin, plus iron, B6, magnesium, and chromium.

To start your day off right, trying to have a bowl topped with banana slices and nuts for added benefit. This meal will stabilize your sugar levels and raise dopamine. You'll be full longer, and your mood will be on an even keel. Oatmeal is especially helpful if you're prone to mood swings (hint: eat some after you've indulged in a pint of ice cream to recover).

4. Fish

Fatty fish is full of omega-3 fatty acids, as well as vitamins D, B6, and B12. The omegas in particular release dopamine that some say similar to having sex. If you want to feel good tonight, try cooking a salmon steak or be adventurous and try some Portuguese mackerel.

5. Lamb

While the sound of a juicy steak might make your mouth water, you'll get even more of a mood lift from a leg of lamb. The source of iron is ideal, more easily absorbed by the body than other red meat. Grass-fed lamb is super rich in zinc, B6, B12, and magnesium, too.

It also contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which counteracts the effects of the stress hormone cortisol. If you're not yet a lamb connoisseur, here are 47 lamb recipes to try now.

6. Greek Yogurt

Mimic the taste and sensation of eating ice cream by enjoying a cup of Greek yogurt. Available in many flavors, this wonder food contains calcium, protein, CLA, and of course, the star, probiotics. Make it a daily treat, and you'll notice a difference in your gut and your mood.

Fermented foods such as kimchi and kefir are natural probiotics, too. Add a spoonful of sauerkraut to your meals and see how you feel!

7. Spinach

This leafy green is high in zinc, magnesium, folate and other B vitamins, which makes it your ideal go-to in the fridge. Saute it, add it to an omelet or soup, or give it the starring role in a salad. Toss in some mushrooms to give yourself a vitamin D boost at the same time.

8. Fresh Cherries

Life is a bowl of cherries! And you will feel that way after you devour a dish of these delicious treats. Containing a variety of vitamins and minerals, cherries are also said to improve headaches and boost your libido.

Red tart cherries are well known for their melatonin content. Have a few or sip some pure juice an hour before bed and you'll be whisked off to dreamland. That is one definite way to wake up happy.

9. Espresso

If your head is spinning over whether coffee is good for you, you're not alone. Anything in excess is probably bad for you. That said, an occasional or even daily dose of espresso might just do the trick.

A Harvard study found that drinking coffee was related to 50 percent fewer suicides. The proposed reason is that coffee aids in the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Coffee is packed with antioxidants that prevent cell damage and essential nutrients such as B2, B3, B5, manganese, and potassium. Some say the smell of coffee alone can reduce your stress!

Too much caffeine might make you jumpy, though — not the effect you are going for when you want to ease your anxiety. And take heed of this warning: drinking coffee on an empty stomach can spike your cortisol and keep you spinning throughout the day.

To counter all of that, what you need is a smaller dose of caffeine. Despite popular belief, a shot of espresso has less caffeine than a cup of brewed coffee

If you're new to espresso (and I don't mean the Starbucks variety), learn how to drink espresso like a true Italian. Imagine yourself in a bar in Venice, drink it back, and you'll be sure to smile.

10. Dark Chocolate

Be prepared: always keep a dark chocolate bar on hand. Though you might want to indulge in the entire bar, only one or two squares will do. Eat the square mindfully, savoring each bite. It will taste so fantastic that you won't even realize what you're eating contains antioxidants, fiber, magnesium, copper, iron, selenium, and zinc.

For maximum happiness, go for organic fair-trade chocolate. And why not combine number 8 and 10 and dip your cherries into melted chocolate? Divine!

While a pint of cookie dough ice cream may be very tempting when you're down in the dumps, trying these mood-enhancing foods will be better for you in the long run. Lift your spirits and build healthy habits at the same time.

In addition to infusing more happy foods into your diet, Lisa Petsinis can also work with you to build your resilience and be your best self. Lisa is a certified coach. Contact her for a free breakthrough call and jump-start the changes you want to make in your life today.

Don't forget to check out other amazing stories from YourTango:

Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography / Sheila Gim
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