Moods are a state of being that reflect how we are feeling – they are different from emotions in that there really are only two different types, good and bad; whereas there are a range of emotions that we all know and experience on a daily basis. Strangely enough, the word mood derives from the Old English word mōd which was a military term used to describe a soldier’s courage and valiance in battle, the meaning evolved to describe any person’s temper or disposition.

The food we put into our mouths has a direct effect on how we are feeling on any given day. Our entire disposition is related to the various nutrients (and non-nutrients) that we let into our gastrointestinal tract and in turn the effect these have on the brain and other parts of the central nervous system.

Happy food equals increased Serotonin in our Gut

The common consensus used to be that our moods are almost entirely affected by varying levels and interactions of certain neurotransmitters in our brain, spinal cord (central nervous system) and peripheral nervous system. But research has shown that most of our mood and happiness is dictated by serotonin levels in our gut and alimentary canal!

It may sound startling but approximately 95% of all the serotonin in our body is produced in our gut, often dubbed the second brain, where it regulates intestinal movements that facilitate nutrient absorption (by passing the mostly digested food over the villi – the finger-like projections that actively absorb the nutrients). Our alimentary canal (fancy word for gut) consists not only of villi but also of nearly some 100 million neuronal sheaths – collectively referred to as the enteric nervous system – amazingly, this is more than the neurons in the peripheral nervous system and spinal cord put together!! The enteric nervous system also appears to operate independently to our brain and spinal cord – which has given rise to a whole new field of research termed ‘neurogastroenterology’.

So happiness or a good mood appears to begin in our gut and then communicates with our brains via the vagus nerve. Interestingly, 50% of all dopamine, the other neurotransmitter responsible for healthy moods, is also  produced in the gut!

Where does Serotonin come from?

Serotonin is made from the essential amino acid tryptophan (essential here means our body can’t make it from scratch, it has to come from our diet). So looking out for foods that have high tryptophan content makes sense.

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and as such protein rich foods such as meats, particularly red meat, have high tryptophan content – although research has revealed that an excessive consumption of protein can actually negatively affect the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin plus the amino acids phenylalanine and tyrosine compete with serotonin for absorption into the blood stream and then again when they are trying to cross the blood brain barrier.

All fruits are high in tryptophan but particularly strawberries and apples seem to have high levels. Vegetables with the highest tryptophan content are legumes such as alfalfa, clover, peas, beans, lentils, soybeans and peanuts are all high in tryptophan.

Breakfast is the Key to a Good Mood during the Day

Having gluten free oatmeal first thing in the morning is supposed to have a net positive effect on mood. The whole grains and fibre combination in oatmeal appears to help stabilise blood sugar levels. It appears a bowl of porridge a day may fend off the dangerous sugar spikes that appear to lead to the development of type 2 diabetes.

Walnuts in the oatmeal can be a good combination as walnuts are high in protein and also essential Omega 3 fatty acids needed for our brain and central nervous system to be maintained and develop optimally.

Berries are also a great addition to oatmeal as they add a nice flavour and have low fructose to glucose ratio compared with other fruits. Fructose appears to be more readily stored as fat and converted to LDL cholesterol – glucose is also more readily used up in the body to make energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which is used as an energy source throughout the body to catalyse and maintain essential reactions to keep the body going. Another reason to try and avoid fruits high in fructose is that the metabolism of fructose appears to tax the liver more than glucose – and a happy liver means a happy mood.

Smiling while you Chew can make you Happy

Neuroscientists using MRI scans have discovered that the simple act of smiling affects the circuitry in our brains – instantly lifting our moods. So if this is really the case – then maybe if we try to smile a bit more whilst in the act of eating, then this will have a net positive effect on the food once it hits our stomach. It sounds weird but science is confirming that the mechanical act of smiling can have chemical effects throughout the body. So smile a little more people! Especially when you eat – even if some food falls out of your mouth!

You’ll also make others happy when you do this. Smiling is infectious!

Happy Foods and Spices

Salmon and walnuts are high in Omega 3 fatty acids. And as previously discussed, these fatty acids are essential for the integrity of your neurons and to create a balanced nervous system.

Spinach is chocker block with folic acid, one of the B vitamins that appear to improve overall mood. Spinach also has antioxidant qualities that protect your brain’s grey cells from the damaging effect of free radicals, the damage of which can often lead to mood swings and general feelings of lethargy. Lentils also have high levels of folic acid– so just a cup a day will give you the daily recommended allowance of folic acid.

Research has revealed that dark chocolate has a similar effect on the brains' neurochemistry as certain mood enhancing prescription drugs do. So seeing dark chocolate tastes great isn’t the only reason to have a little piece every now and then. Additionally dark chocolate is high in magnesium which appears to reduce anxiety and has a calming effect on muscles. It is also good for the heart and cardiovascular system.

So that’s like a triple whammy of goodness right there.

Chicken contains vitamin B12 which helps stave of stress and give you energy. So a roast chicken every now and then can have a powerful effect on your mood. Christmas dinner anyone?

The vegetarians out there will be happy to hear that tofu also has high levels of magnesium, almost 30mg per 100mg serving – and as mentioned, magnesium is great at calming down our nervous and muscular system – making us less stressed.

Curcumin and tumeric appear to stem brain inflammation and stimulate the formation of new brain cells.

Researchers have revealed that curcumin supports the production of serotonin and also the other neurotransmitter associated with happiness; dopamine, these two  often get imbalanced during periods of low mood. So try out some Indian curries during the week!

Vitamins, Nutrients and Elements that help make us Happy

The conversion of tryptophan to serotonin does not happen on its own. Certain vitamins and elements are crucial for this conversion to happen optimally. Vitamin B6, vitamin C, folic acid and magnesium are all necessary ingredients that promote the healthy metabolisation of tryptophan and its subsequent conversion to serotonin.

Vitamin D is also instrumental in the production of serotonin, so get out in the sun for at least 15 minutes every day.

Selenium is another often overlooked micronutrient when it comes to mood and brain health. Selenium is the precursor to glutathione peroxidase a molecule dubbed “the master antioxidant” in that it protects the plasma membrane surrounding our neurons from becoming oxidised (denatured or useless). In New Zealand our soil is deficient in selenium, so choosing foods rich in selenium makes sense particularly because studies have shown the beneficial effects that selenium has on enhancing mood, especially in pregnant women.

Luckily the foods that are high in selenium are foods that we should be generally eating anyway, such as seafood (oysters and freshwater fish especially), seeds, nuts (particularly Brazil nuts), beans and legumes.

Food and Physical Exercise, enhances a prolonged Good Mood 

It is pretty obvious that food on its own won’t do the trick in maintaining a healthy mood for a prolonged period of time – so if you want some consistency in your moods, you need to do a bit of cardiovascular work to achieve long term stable moods (as well as work on your personal relationships, naturally – as the people around us affect our moods as well but this is a different story)

Another thing people often overlook is their general posture during the day. At night time we all do the same thing, namely sleeping whilst lying horizontally. But during the day when we are standing, the way we hold ourselves has a direct correlation on our mood levels. The more we slouch or allow our backs to be curved, the moodier we apparently become (especially whilst sitting at a desk for long periods of time) – so trying to focus on improving our postures appears to have a beneficial effect on our mood.

Food consumption is more than just a necessity for our body to operate during the day, it is also important for our mind.

So the next time you prepare a meal for you and your loved ones, bear in mind that you are affecting their bodies as well as their brains.

If you really think about it, what organ lies directly between our gut and our brains?

That’s right, our hearts! So cook with your heart in mind.

by Christopher von Roy BSc, MSc, DCP Immunology

King MW. “Serotonin”. The Medical Biochemistry Page. Indiana University School of Medicine. Retrieved 2009-12-01.

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What foods make you happy? Do you pay attention to your moods, particularly after eating a meal? How do you do this, do you keep a food mood journal? Please share your secrets with us..