May is Mental Health Awareness Month. While millions of Americans suffer from depression, anxiety, and countless other mental disorders, there are powerful tools that we don’t utilize nearly enough in treatment and prevention – food and nutrition. Natural mood enhancers in the form of food choices can boost four different “happy hormones” to help regulate our mood and alter our brain’s functioning. Village dietitian, Jamie Miller, shares with us top mood boosting foods and recipes to nourish our body and transform our mental health.
The hormone dopamine is used by the brain to activate a sense of pleasure, while it also increases alertness and concentration. Foods high in B vitamins (low fat meats, yogurt, beans), vitamin D (fatty fish, mushrooms, egg yolks), and tyrosine (nuts and seeds), along with fruits like bananas and apples, all help the body naturally boost its dopamine levels.
Endorphins are the feel-good hormones used by our body to block pain sensors and create a sense of calmness and bliss. Foods rich in fat and high in sugar naturally boost endorphins (but can also cause energy slumps). Instead of reaching for a low-nutrient choice like a brownie or chips, there are also healthy foods that increase endorphin levels. Spicy foods such as chili peppers, strawberries, and chocolate all stimulate the production of these feel-good chemicals.
Serotonin is a mood stabilizer neurotransmitter synthesized by the amino acid tryptophan. This hormone also is connected to good sleep, memory, learning, and regulated appetite. By eating foods rich in tryptophan, we can naturally boost our serotonin levels to feel our best. Top tryptophan choices include high protein items like salmon, turkey, eggs, and cheese. But research shows the body best produces serotonin when tryptophan-containing foods are consumed alongside a source of carbohydrates. Examples of serotonin boosting combinations include a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread, salmon with quinoa, eggs with roasted potatoes, or cheese with crackers.
Oxytocin, often called the “love hormone” is the neurotransmitter that creates a sense of connection, trust, and calmness. Research shows that sharing food, cooking with loved ones, and eating with others all help the body produce oxytocin. This is a wonderful incentive to schedule regular mealtimes with those you love. Too often, we often eat on the go or by ourselves in front of the television. But by altering where and with whom we eat, we can easily change our mood.
Maintaining optimal gut health is crucial not only for physical health, but also for our psychological well-being. Our microbiome directly impacts mental functioning, so much so that the gut is often called “the second brain.” The gut-brain connection can clearly be seen when an individual feels excited and experiences “butterflies in their stomach” or becomes anxious and gets a stomachache. Our gut influences neural development, emotional behavior, regulation of stress response, and the production of our “happy hormones.” More than 90% of our body’s serotonin and 50% of dopamine are produced in the gut. If the gut isn’t functioning properly, there can be a shortage of these feel-good hormones which has shown to impact mental health disorders. To maintain gut health, eat a diet full of anti-inflammatory foods that are also rich in prebiotic fiber. The prebiotic fibers act as fuel to stimulate growth of beneficial probiotic bacteria in our gut. Foods highest in prebiotic fibers include fibrous produce such as artichokes, green bananas, apples, onions, and asparagus, along with whole grains like oatmeal and barley, nuts and seeds, and legumes. It’s also important to feed the gut probiotic rich foods such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and other fermented foods. These all help the gut to maintain ample and various types of beneficial bacteria to keep us healthy. If these aren’t common foods eaten, it can be wise to take a supplemental form of probiotics. A happy gut leads to a happy mood!
Dopamine Boosting Banana Maple Yogurt Parfait
- 6 oz plain, non-fat Greek yogurt
- Drop of maple extract
- Natural sweetener to taste like stevia, monk fruit, honey, or maple syrup
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 small banana, sliced
- 2 tbsp chopped walnuts
In a small bowl, mix the plain Greek yogurt with a drop of maple extract, sweetener of choice to taste, and cinnamon. Take a small glass or mason jar and spoon in half the yogurt, then top with ½ the banana slices, and 1 tbsp chopped walnuts. Repeat by layering the rest of the yogurt, then banana slices, and walnuts. Add a sprinkle of cinnamon on top. Enjoy immediately.
Endorphin Boosting Mexican Chocolate Bark
- 9 oz dark chocolate
- 1-2 tsp coconut oil
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp cayenne
- 1/4 tsp sea salt
- 2 tbsp unsalted pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
Line a baking pan with parchment paper. Coarsely chop the dark chocolate, and place in a microwave-safe bowl with 1 tsp coconut oil, cinnamon, and cayenne. Microwave at 30 second intervals, stirring in between, until the chocolate is melted and smooth. If needed, add ½-1 tsp more coconut oil to smooth out the chocolate. Spread chocolate out on parchment paper, using a spatula. Sprinkle with sea salt and pepitas. Place in the refrigerator to cool for 1-2 hours. Cut into pieces and store in a sealed container in the refrigerator.
Serotonin Boosting Turkey Asparagus Stir Fry & Brown Rice
- 1 cup matchstick carrots
- 4 green onions, thinly sliced
- 1 pound asparagus, woody ends trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tsp sesame oil
- 1-pound 93/7 ground turkey
- 1/4 cup coconut aminos or low sodium soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons all fruit apricot jam
- 1/2 teaspoon sambal oelek chili paste or sriracha, or more to taste
- 1/2 cup packed fresh basil leaves
- 3 cups cooked brown rice, quinoa, or soba noodles to serve
- Sesame seeds to serve
Heat sesame oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Stir in the minced garlic and cook for about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add in the ground turkey, using a spatula to break up large clumps as it cooks. Cook about 5 to 8 minutes, until most of the pink color has left. Add the carrots and scallions and stir to incorporate. Cook for about 2 minutes, then add the coconut aminos, apricot jam and chili paste or sriracha (to taste). Stir to mix all the ingredients and cook for 2 minutes to form a sauce. Then stir in the asparagus and cook for another 3 minutes, so that the asparagus is just starting to soften, but still crisp. Remove the pan from the heat. Stack and roll the basil leaves, then cut crosswise into ribbons. Add basil over the stir-fry mixture and mix gently to incorporate. Serve the stir fry mixture over a whole grain of choice, such as brown rice, quinoa, or soba noodles, with a sprinkle of sesame seeds on top. Add extra chili paste or sriracha to desired spiciness level.
Happy Gut, Happy Mood Probiotic Breakfast Bowl
- 2 cups cubed sweet potatoes, cut into ¼-inch cubes (about 1 large or 2 small potatoes)
- 2 tsp avocado oil
- ½ cup thinly sliced red onion (about ½ small onion)
- 4 cups kale, tightly packed, washed, stems removed, and chopped (about 1 bunch)
- Sea salt and pepper to taste
- 4 eggs
- 1 small avocado, sliced
- 1/2 cup sauerkraut
- Optional: hot sauce or sriracha
Heat oil in a large skillet placed over medium-high heat. Add cubed sweet potato and red onion. Sauté, stirring occasionally, for 5-8 minutes or until onions and potatoes start to soften a bit. Add garlic and cook for an additional 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add 2 Tbsp. water and cover with a lid. Cook for 4-5 minutes or until the potatoes are just about done. Add kale, toss well and continue to cook for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally, until kale is wilted and tender. When the vegetables are done cooking, turn off the heat. Cook two eggs in a separate skillet to your liking- fried, poached, or scrambled. Divide the sweet potato and kale mixture into 2 separate bowls. Top each with 2 eggs, half of the avocado slices, and ¼ cup sauerkraut each. Top with sriracha or hot sauce if desired.