Depression affects at least 350 million people around the world. Although susceptibility to low mood can run in families, the good news is that a diet rich in mood boosting nutrients may reduce your risk of depression. Indeed, research shows that the Mediterranean diet appears to promote feelings of well-being. This recent study found that people eating a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, pulses, nuts and olive oil, all characteristic of the Mediterranean diet, were much happier. So what is it about these foods and other elements of Mediterranean cuisine that make them good for your mood?
Omega-3 fatty acids
Although this study didn’t specifically look at fish intake, eating patterns that include more fish, such as that in the Mediterranean, contain more omega-3 fatty acids. These essential fats play an important role in your brain’s function, helping your brain cells to communicate with each other, which is vital for mood boosting brain chemicals to exert their positive effects. Studies show that increasing intake of omega-3 improves mood significantly and although research mainly focuses on using supplements to enhance intake, including extra seafood in your diet each week may have a similar effect. If you don’t eat fish walnuts, green leafy vegetables and flax seeds offer an alternative source. However, eating oily fish also offers a good source of vitamin D, another nutrient linked to better mood. While the Mediterranean provides plenty of sunshine, which is the best way for you to get enough vitamin D, for people living in other parts of the world, eating vitamin D rich foods is a useful way to top up your levels of this vitamin.
A diet rich in fruit, vegetables, pulses, nuts and whole grains, which provides moderate amounts of protein, offers a range of B vitamins. Vitamin B6, B12 and folate are especially important B vitamins when it comes to your mood, as they may help to improve blood flow to your brain, which is essential to supply all the nutrients your brain needs. As times of stress your body needs extra B vitamins and certain medications also increase levels within your body, so making sure your diet contains plenty of B vitamin rich foods at these times is advisable.
Brightly colored fruit and vegetables provide lots of antioxidants, including vitamins C, E and beta-carotene. These micronutrients protect the health of your brain cells, as they counteract the effects of the free radicals your body is exposed to every day, which otherwise damage your cells. While you can’t stop this damage totally, getting a good dose of antioxidants from your diet each day is an easy way to minimize its impact. Eating a range of different fruit and vegetables helps you to maximize your intake of these protective nutrients.
Slow release carbohydrates
As the Mediterranean diet includes whole grains and pulses, both of which release their sugars far slower than refined carbohydrates, this is beneficial for blood sugar control. It’s not just people with diabetes who have to consider blood sugar levels, as keeping these constant also helps your brain function too. Your brain’s preferred source of energy is glucose, so making sure your brain has a regular supply of this fuel is crucial to keep your mood balanced. This avoids blood sugar spikes and crashes that can play havoc with your mood.
Mood enhancing proteins
Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids and one of these, known as tryptophan, is important for controlling your mood. Tryptophan forms serotonin, which is a chemical messenger that promotes feelings of well-being. Low levels of serotonin are linked to low mood, which sometimes can trigger an unhealthy relationship with food, with eating disorders frequently accompanying depression.
Poultry, which is the main type of meat in the Mediterranean, contains high levels of tryptophan. However, if you follow a vegetarian diet, cheese and beans are also a good source of tryptophan. A diet rich in plant-based foods additionally helps your brain to take up tryptophan, as carbohydrates aid this process. Eating a diet rich in tryptophan and healthy carbohydrates is a natural way to boost serotonin levels, though this may also enhance the effects of antidepressant medication.
Although a range of factors contribute to depression and other conditions affecting your mood, by following a Mediterranean-style diet, taking plenty of exercise and getting a daily dose of sunshine these are all positive steps you can take to naturally enhance your mood.