You're stressed, had a rough week at work, or just had your heart broken, and what do you do? You reach for a bar of chocolate or your favourite starch-filled comfort food. Why do we do this?, you might ask. Well you're in luck, because I'm about to tell you!
Many people are emotional eaters, and there's good reason for it. Foods have the power to elevate your mood by releasing endorphines, and increasing serotonin, among other methods. Deficiencies in certain nutrients can also cause depression symptoms. Here is a breakdown of important mood foods.
Tryptophan is an amino acid that our body uses to synthesize serotonin. When serotonin levels are low, we become depressed, lose focus, and disrupted sleep patterns. Many anti-depressants act on serotonin levels, such as the ever-popular SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) such as Prozak. But you don't need drugs to increase your serotonin, all you need is more dietary tryptophan. Many of you know that turkey is high in tryptophan, but there are many excellent sources as well.
Vegan sources of tryptophan (for a complete list go here):
- Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, mustard greens, swiss chard)
- Soy (beans, tofu, tamari, miso)
- Lentils & Beans (Kidney, black, pinto, navy etc)
- Cauliflower, cucumber, celery, peppers, eggplant
- Seeds (pumpkin, sesame, sunflower) and Nuts (walnuts, cashews, almonds)
- Whole grains (oats, buckwheat, rye, bulgur)
The word "endorphine" comes from the words endogenous morphine, suggesting that it is a morphine-like substance that is produced by the body. They are natural pain relievers that are released when we experience pain and danger, but they are also released by good things such as exercise and orgasms, which is why people tend to feel so great after exercising (the so-called "runner's high"). Essentially, they are released when we experience excitement, good or bad. Eating spicy food is also known to cause the release of endorphins. Who needs morphine when all you need is a hot pepper?
There are 8 B vitamins (oddly named 1,2,3,5,6,7,9,12) but are frequently known by other names: thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), and folic acid (B9). Many of them are known to have effects on mood, energy levels and cognitive function. They are also important for supporting metabolism. Unlike many nutrients, B vitamins can be harder to obtain in a vegan diet. Good sources of B vitamins include:
- Lentils & beans
- Chili peppers
Perhaps the best known go-to mood enhancer is chocolate. It's not just that it makes us feel better by virtue of it's luscious deliciousness, it boasts a laundry list of natural mood boosting chemicals. Chocolate contains tryptophan, theobromine (a stimulant similar to caffeine), anandamide (a cannabinoid- aka similar effects as cannabis), and phenylethlyamine (a neurotransmitter that is a precursor to amphetamine). It's no wonder chocolate makes us feel better.
Think about our favourite comfort foods - bread, pasta, potatoes - all carb heavy foods. Why is that? It's because carbs affect our tryptophan and serotonin. When we eat sugar and carbs, blood sugar rises, triggering the release of insulin, which lowers blood levels of all amino acids except tryptophan. When tryptophan outnumbers the other amino acids, it enters the brain more quickly, where it is converted to serotonin, and ultimately making us feel better (for more details check out this site). When we binge, we're self-medicating. Try to self-medicate with healthy carbs such as fruits, whole grains, and potatoes.
Ok, so sunlight isn't a food, I know, but it can still play an important role in our mood. I'm sure you're all familiar with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) aka the winter blues. Those of us who live in the snowy north have probably felt its effects as the days grow shorter and we spend more time indoors. Tanning releases endorphins, which is why it feels so good to lay out in the sun, or why people become addicted to tanning booths, causing us to engage in these cancer-causing activities against our better judgement. Sun exposure also affects our melatonin and serotonin levels, causing us to sleep better and feel happier. Best of all, sunshine is free and totally vegan. So when the weather permits, get out and enjoy the sunshine, but be smart about it, and wear sunscreen.