Can Some Foods Scientifically Make You Happier?
Edited and published by Wellness Monster Dina
There is a big difference between eating foods that make one feel happy and eating foods that scientifically promote feelings of happiness and well-being. For example, while eating a candy bar, delighting over a huge bowl of ice cream, or wolfing down a decadent plate of mom’s homemade macaroni and cheese may provide an enjoyable, if not somewhat fleeting, nostalgia it will not make an individual a happier person in the long run. They are simply eating comfort foods. Eating foods to actually feel happier depends on eating certain foods that contain specific nutrients that promote balance in the body and the brain.
Scientifically speaking, throughout the body and brain are junctions and synapses between nerve endings that could be compared to tiny, microscopic bridges between nerve endings. One of the ways the brain regulates mood is by way of releasing neurotransmitters across these junctions and synapses. Neurotransmitters are chemical substances that are released at the ends of nerve fibers. These chemical substances are triggered by nerve impulses (messages going back and forth from the body to the brain and vice versa). In other words, these chemical substances known as neurotransmitters have to cross “bridges” to deliver the message to the nerve at the other end of the bridge and when they do it causes the transfer to be sent across the next and so on. This is, basically, how the body “speaks” to itself. Neurotransmitters retrieve information from the body and execute the brain’s commands concerning them.
There are several types of neurotransmitters, including adenosine triphosphate (ATP), dopamine, GABA, norepinephrine, epinephrine, serotonin, and substance P. Some neurotransmitters are excitatory, such as norepinephrine, and are meant to stimulate alertness while others, such as serotonin, are inhibitory, which counteracts excitatory neurotransmitters and helps to promote feelings of calm. Feelings of happiness can be arrived at when excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters are in balance with one another. Exercising, spending quality time with family and friends, investing energy into creative tasks, and taking time out for relaxation, as well as a good night’s sleep all contribute toward achieving this balance. However, one of the easiest ways to achieve “chemical balance” is through nutrition and diet.
Certain nutrients work very well for balancing neurotransmitters in the brain and creating a sense of calm and happiness. The main nutrients responsible for creating better mood stability and the foods containing them are as follows.
Calcium: Asparagus, yellow string beans, milk (organic), ice cream (only all natural will do), spinach, eggnog, cheddar cheese (and most other aged cheese), soymilk, kale, baked beans, pink salmon, tuna and sardines (canned is fine), Swiss cheese, goat’s milk, oranges, sweet potato, parsley, peppermint, watercress, bok choy, collard and other leafy greens.
Vitamin A: Pumpkin (canned is acceptable), red pepper, sweet potato, beet greens, fish, eggs, winter and butternut squash (baked or broiled), cantaloupe, enriched bran or wheat flakes, carrots, swordfish, kale, spinach, mangoes, yams, tuna, and turnips.
Vitamin B6 and B12: Foods containing B-6 are poultry (the white meat of chicken, turkey, etc.), free range eggs, crab meat, bananas, artichokes, tomato paste, sweet potatoes, sunflower seeds, pork chop, medium or slice of loin, tuna, sole, sardines, cod, mackerel or haddock, beef, Brewer’s yeast, wheat germ, oats, avocado, brown rice, cabbage, dried fruit, and molasses. Foods containing B-12 are salmon, tuna, sole, haddock, cod, herring, oysters (cooked), clams, Kings crab, yogurt (organic), lean beef, ham, lamb, chops, leg or shoulder, macaroni and cheese, enriched bran or wheat flakes, eggs, Camenbert, gorgonzola cheese, blue cheese, milk (organic), and liver.
Vitamin C: Leafy greens, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupe, cauliflower, cranberries, kiwi, mango, papaya, peppers (green and red), raspberries, spinach, kale, and strawberries. Vitamin also C enhances the absorption of Iron.
Vitamin D: Atlantic mackerel and cod, eggs, sardines, salmon (salt water fish), mushroom, herring, mackerel, liver, cod liver oil, evaporated milk, corn flakes, milk (fortified), raisin bran, granola, leafy green vegetables, Vitamin D fortified dairy products.
Vitamin E: Almonds, apple, hazelnuts, peanut butter, sweet potato, avocado, wheat germ, mango, sunflower seeds, spinach, asparagus, nut and vegetable oils (soybean, corn, and safflower), green vegetables, whole grain products, wheat germ.
Folate: Folate is included in the Vitamin B family and contributes toward many functions in the body, including healthy cell turn over. Foods containing folate are asparagus, beets, citrus fruit, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, almonds, flaxseed, beef liver, papaya, wheat germ, legumes, bananas, avocado, and fortified grains.
Iodine: Iodine is critical for maintaining proper thyroid function. The thyroid gland, located at the bottom of the throat and attached to the esophagus, is one of the glands in the body responsible for proper hormonal balance. As such, it is a major influencer of emotions and demands iodine to positively influence energy and mood. Foods containing iodine are as follows but it is important to note too much iodine can work against the thyroid and create more emotional and physical problems than good which is why iodine content of the food items below have been included.
- Saltwater fish and sea vegetables, such as Wakame (seaweed)
- Kelp (a whopping 415 mcg per 1/4 cup), Arame, and Hijiki seaweeds.
- Potato (60 mcg, 1 medium with skin)
- Shrimp (35 mcg per 3 oz.)
- Turkey breast (34 mcg, per 3 oz.)
- Navy beans (32 mcg, per 1/2 cup)
- Eggs (24 mcg, 1 boiled)
- Tuna (17 mcg per 3 oz.)
- Strawberries (13 mcg per cup)
- Low-fat yogurt (87 mcg per cup)
- Milk (56-58 mcg per cup)
Iodized salt (like Morton’s) contains little to none of the minerals that natural sea salt contains and is known to cause hypertension. Its use is not suggested. Instead, natural sea salts should be used for cooking and flavoring purposes, which are an excellent source of the precise minerals the body and brain need for health and happiness.
Iron: Spinach, red kidney beans, lima beans, prunes (and prune juice), pretzels, rice, red meat, pork, pumpkin seeds, blackstrap molasses, soybean nuts, raisins, chicken, fish, eggs, fortified cereal. Iron is not as easily available from cereals or beans.
Magnesium: Magnesium deficiency is a number one cause of low serotonin levels in the brain and the first mineral of choice to relieve anxiety-related disorders. Magnesium can be found in almonds, avocado, bananas, black-eyed peas, cashews, kidney beans, lentils, oatmeal, peanuts, peanut butter, pinto beans, potato (with skin), raisins, soybeans, kale, and spinach.
Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids: Fish oil, walnuts, flax seeds, walnut oil, flaxseed oil, soybeans, hempseeds, soybean oil, herring, sardines, mackerel, salmon, purslane, and cold water fish.
Omega 6 Essential Fatty Acids: Corn oil, peanut oil, cottonseed oil, poultry, evening primrose oil, safflower oil, grape seed oil, sesame oil, meat, soybean oil, sunflower oil. Too much Omega 6 without Omega 3 can be unhealthy.
Probiotics: The link between gut bacteria and brain health cannot be denied. Poor gut bacteria can lead to mood disorders, such as irritability, anxiety, and depression. Probiotic-rich foods are kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut. Probiotic supplements may also be taken.
Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin. Meaning, it helps the body to manufacture serotonin. Foods containing tryptophan are proven to, both, prevent and relieve mood disorders, anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, and depression. Foods containing tryptophan are as follows.
- Fowl (turkey, game hen, chicken, duck, etc.)
- Meat (90% lean, grass-fed, red meat, including pork and lamb)
- Fish, cold water (4-12 oz. per week)
- Albacore tuna (up to 6 oz. per week)
- Eggs (the whites)
- Heated regular milk, dry non-fat milk, and soy milk
- Cottage cheese (low fat, 1%), gruyere, Swiss, mozzarella, Colby, parmesan, and cheddar (low-fat) cheese
- Almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, peanuts, soybean nuts
- Pumpkin seeds (roasted), sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, Chia seeds
- Baked potatoes (with their skins)
- Beans (winged, kidney, mung)
- Cooked oat bran
- Spirulina (raw)
- Pumpkin seeds and leaves
- White mushrooms
- Turnip greens
- Chicory greens
- Red leaf lettuce
- Amaranth leaves
- Tofu, soy protein
- Tabasco sauce
- Soy sauce
- Brewer’s yeast
Zinc: Chicken, Eggs (free range fed), oysters, red meat, poultry, dairy (organic milk and yogurt, aged cheese), and fortified cereals.
“Happy Foods”: The Most Popular & Why
Apples: Apples contain a calming effect and more energy at the same time. They can be placed on counters and tables for handy snacking or tidied away in purses, briefcases, and desk drawers at work. An apple a day creates more calm, more energy, and increases overall happiness. This is likely due to its high Vitamin C content. An apple also contains Vitamins A, B-12, D, and Magnesium.
Bananas: Bananas, like apples, are super simple to grab as a snack. They are filling and often help to regulate mood. The reason for this is that bananas contain high amounts of B vitamins, potassium, and tryptophan which are all known to positively affect neurotransmitters in the brain.
Coffee: Coffee is linked to both comfort food and as having health benefits. Having a cup of coffee is often a pleasurable activity shared among friends, family, and colleagues which, for that reason, can bring about a feeling of happiness. In addition, scientists have known for some time coffee can increase cognitive function and reduce mental fatigue causing better mood when consumed in moderate amounts (1 -2 cups per day). This is due to its caffeine content. However, too much can cause anxiety.
Dark Chocolate: Chocolate is a favorite “turn to” when people are feeling a little down. Not only is dark chocolate found by some to have a great taste which places it in the category of comfort foods, but dark chocolate has some potential health benefits. This is likely due to its high antioxidant and magnesium content. Unique compounds in chocolate can also trigger a sense of euphoria. However, not just any chocolate will do. It has to be high-quality dark chocolate.
Green Tea: Drinking tea, like drinking coffee, is a happiness booster because it is something that is usually related to sharing pleasurably with others. However, it can also be an individual experience. A cup of warm tea can definitely be considered a comfort food. However, tea is packed with natural compounds, whether it’s caffeinated or decaffeinated. Those who drink 4-5 cups per day reduce mental and emotional stress by up to 20 %. This is likely due to green tea’s high Epigallocatechin Gallate (EGCG) content which helps to reduce inflammation in the body and brain and is known to treat various diseases.
Pasta: Many people consider pasta comfort food especially those living in Mediterranean countries, such as France, Italy, Spain, and Greece. Pasta contains two important amino acids, L-Phenylalanine and Tryptophan, which serve to increase serotonin in the brain. However, it has to be whole-grain pasta in order to reap the benefits.
Walnuts: Walnuts are often used as snacks. While not quite credited as a “happiness food” all on their own, walnuts are often added to comfort food recipes, such banana or zucchini bread, oatmeal cookies, or used as a topping on desserts. Walnuts contain high amounts of alpha-linolenic acid and plant-based omega 3 essential fatty acids. They also contain large amounts of protein and fiber, as well as antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Walnuts make the “happy food” list largely due to a combination of healthy fats and the minerals, magnesium, and phosphorus, which help to stabilize mood.
It is clear that foods have the ability to create feelings of happiness whether they are eaten as comfort foods (psychological reasons) or eaten specifically for supporting a better balance of neurotransmitters responsible for creating a physiological sense of happiness. However, there is a difference between being happy to consume a food and a food causing happiness. According to Edgar Cayce, what we think and what we eat make us what we are physically and mentally.
Science backs the idea of eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, gut protecting probiotics, and adequate protein in order to have any long-lasting results where happiness is concerned. It is generally agreed that fruits and vegetables guarantee next-day results which is why they should be eaten on a daily basis when an individual’s goal is to achieve a greater sense of happiness.
Body Into Balance, 2016. Pages 63, 169-181.
Doctor’s Favorite Natural Remedies, 2016. Page 43.
The Edgar Cayce Handbook for Health Through Drugless Therapy, 2008. Page 62.
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