In the never-ending pursuit of happiness, we’re always on the lookout for new ways to boost joy naturally. As it turns out, the foods we eat have a lot to say about our overall happiness. Here are 14 foods that boost serotonin, endorphins and other happiness chemicals in the body naturally.
As one of the top plant-based sources of tryptophan — that amino acid found in turkey that makes you sleepy — asparagus helps boost serotonin levels in the body. The body naturally synthesizes tryptophan into serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps maintain a positive mood and keeps depression at bay. The high levels of folate in asparagus can also help boost your happiness; research shows that about half the people who live with depression also have low levels of folate.
Avocados pack a hefty punch of serotonin-boosting vitamin B3. Not only that, but Zoe Copsey, managing director of Lomax Food & Nutrition Planning, states that avocados also contain omega-3 fatty acids. These have been linked to brain health and mood regulation. So, while the fatty acids don’t directly produce happiness hormones, they naturally support them.
3. Blue potatoes
Potato skins contain the best nutrients in this vegetable. For blue potatoes, the skin contains ample iodine, which helps regulate the thyroid gland. This little gland is responsible for many functions of the body, not the least of which is mood regulation. Dr. Drew Ramsey, co-author of “The Happiness Diet: A Nutritional Prescription for a Sharp Brain, Balanced Mood and Lean, Energized Body,” calls the thyroid one of the body’s “master mood regulators.” Keeping the thyroid happy can help keep you happy.
4. Cherry tomatoes
All tomatoes contain lycopene in their skins, but the increased amount of surface area on cherry tomatoes — as opposed to larger varieties — means they pack a bigger punch of the phytonutrient. One of lycopene’s largest benefits is the prevention of buildup of pro-inflammatory compounds that researchers have linked to depression. Olive oil helps increase the amount of lycopene the body can absorb, and organic is definitely the way to go for cherry tomatoes. UC Davis researchers have found higher levels of lycopene in organic tomatoes.
5. Dark chocolate
Antioxidant-rich dark chocolate boosts mood naturally, but its added punch of N-acylethanolamine group of chemicals stimulates the brain to release endorphins. These neurotransmitters help to reduce pain. They can also help induce a feeling of euphoria, release sex hormones and boost the immune system. Dark chocolate contains less sugar than milk chocolate, making it a better choice when you’re feeling down; you’ll be less likely to experience a sugar slump.
Eggs help boost your happiness thanks to their level of L-tryptophan. The choline content of eggs also helps to improve mental acuity and your overall outlook on life. Studies at Harvard have linked carotenoids — the chemical that gives yolks their yellow color — to optimism. Try baking an egg in half an avocado for an extra happy breakfast.
7. Grass-fed meat
With its high concentration of vitamin B12, grass-fed beef is a great way to make sure you get brain-protection benefits from your meal. One lean grass-fed strip steak contains around 45-percent of your recommended daily intake (RDI). Grass-fed meat is also a good source of iron, which has been shown to promote happiness. An article published in the British Medical Journal revealed a positive correlation between iron deficiency and unhappiness. The results are stunning: non-anemic children in various places around the world report being happier than anemic ones. Animal studies also found that reduced iron levels lead to reduced amounts of serotonin.
8. Greek yogurt
Proper calcium levels help keep anxiety, irritability and depression at bay. Greek yogurt is more calcium-dense than regular yogurt or milk. The more calcium you consume, the more your body receives the signal to release feel-good neurotransmitters, according to Dr. Drew Ramsey.
Mussels are another thyroid-nourishing food. They contain trace minerals — zinc, iodine and selenium — that keep the thyroid running properly. Iodine deficiency has been correlated with depression and fatigue, likely because it fuels the thyroid, a major mood regulator. Mussels are also loaded with vitamin B12, which protects the brain from inflammatory damage.
10. Nuts and seeds
Did you know that all nuts and seeds contain tryptophan, a precursor for serotonin? Nuts also deliver antioxidants, which can lower your risk of depression. Pumpkin seeds are rich in tryptophan and may even help you sleep better when eaten one or two hours before bed. Sesame seeds can help lower your blood pressure, which also helps your body move from a stressful state to one that’s more restful.
There’s nothing quite like a juicy pineapple. Not only does the fruit contain bromelain, a protein that can help suppress a cough and lessen the effects of chemotherapy, but it also boosts natural serotonin through its high serum concentration.
Rich in tryptophan, salmon helps the body produce serotonin. Consuming the fish also helps reduce inflammation through its omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. Plus, 3.5 ounces of wild salmon contains 51-percent of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of vitamin B12, as well as 47-percent of the RDI of vitamin B6. Together with other B vitamins, salmon gives you a mood boost while protecting the nerves in your brain.
13. Spicy foods
Capsaicin, the chemical that makes chili peppers spicy, actually sends a sensation of pain to the body. That’s right — you’re experiencing pain, not taste when you bite into a red pepper. In turn, the brain releases endorphins to try and help the body cope with that pain. A byproduct of endorphins is a sense of relaxed happiness.
Among its nutrients, spinach boasts phenylethylamine, which “can reduce monoamine oxidase break down in the same way that old-fashioned pre-Prozac anti-depressants did,” says nutritionist Ian Marber. It also delivers a healthful amount of magnesium to the body, which helps boost energy, a must-have when you’re feeling down in the dumps.
What’s your favorite happiness-boosting food on this list?
— Megan Winkler