If you’ve ever sat down with a full tub of ice cream planning to eat the whole lot you’ll know that eating yourself happy can be a tricky undertaking. Sure it tastes nice, but you ultimately end up feeling gross and cranky, and hating yourself for even doing it in the first place. That’s because eating a tub of ice cream (or a slab of chocolate) doesn’t actually make you happy: all it does is trick your body into releasing dopamine and endorphins (which work kind of like opioids), followed by a sugar crash.
Actual happiness happens inside your brain via a complex cocktail of chemical and physical processes which all – when working well, and in concert – will leave you better able to deal with anxiety or stress, and exhibiting less depressive symptoms.
Actually, let’s pause for a second. For the sake of this post, happiness means what you think it means. The debate has raged for millennia, since well before Aristotle wrote about hedonia and eudaimonia. We’re not going to settle the “What is happiness?” debate here, so let’s just side-step it.
What to Eat?
It stands to reason that this chemical cocktail needs ingredients to work at its best, so we’ve concocted a breakfast (recipe below) which gives your brain many of the ingredients it needs to get your chemical cocktail going each day. It breaks down as follows:
Brazil nuts are the best plant-based source of selenium, an essential trace mineral which plays a number of important roles in your body. Selenium deficiency has been linked with depression and anxiety, but be careful to not overdo it. Too much selenium can also be bad for you, so stick to two or three Brazil nuts per day. Selenium can also be found in spinach, mushrooms, brown rice, and a number of other foods so don’t be too worried if it’s been a while since you last ate a Brazil nut.
Pumpkin seeds, for breakfast? Yes, they taste pretty good and are a great source of Zinc – another trace mineral which is used in a host of important internal bodily functions related to mood and anxiety, but also related to immune system functioning. Keep pumpkin seeds around, they work great as an any time snack too.
Fresh (or Dried) Figs
Figs are a good source of magnesium, another micronutrient (the lack of) which has also been linked with mood disorders. To meet your recommended daily intake of magnesium only using figs you would need to eat about four cups of dried ones, so don’t rely on this breakfast to meet your target! Luckily it’s also found in plenty of other foods you may already be eating, like baby spinach, kale, or quinoa.
Little black nutrient bombs, we just added these because they taste great. They can be hard to find though, so really add any kind of berry – the nutrient profile of most berries are quite similar, rich in antioxidants, vitamin C, and other essential nutrients.
Soy milk is a pretty good source of tryptophan, an amino acid your body uses to build serotonin. You may have heard of serotonin, it’s basically your very own mood stabilizer. The most common form of antidepressants today (SSRIs, like Prozac and Zoloft) are designed to increase the amount of serotonin in your body.
Luckily a normal diet usually gets more than enough tryptophan, as it’s commonly found in high protein foods. A 100g of tofu, for example, will easily meet your recommended daily intake of tryptophan.
Steel Cut Oats
Besides tasting great, steel cut oats are high in fibre and complex carbohydrates, which will help you feel fuller for longer, and allow your body a good amount of slow release energy to keep you going for longer too. Complex carbohydrates also elevate your insulin levels (a good thing, if you’re normally healthy) which will let your body effectively absorb the tryptophan mentioned above.
It’s not just about eating though…
Food on its own cannot make you happy though. You’re more complex than that. We are all different, and we all respond to different things in different ways but – when it comes to happiness – there are a few common denominators you really should take seriously, if you’re not already.
People who eat breakfast every day show significantly less symptoms of depression and anxiety. Every day. The positive effect of breakfast on mood does not show for those who “sometimes” eat breakfast.
You probably know this one already, as the science has been settled and well-understood for quite a long time. Exercise acts as a mood stabilizer and antidepressant. The key here is to not be a hero. For the sake of mood, regularity is more important than intensity. In other words, a daily brisk walk would do more to improve your mood than a weekly session of brutal exercise.
The effect of sunshine on mood is quite well-known too. If you are able (and if it doesn’t break any quarantine rules), try combine sunshine and exercise and go for a brisk 30 minute walk when the sun is out! Remember to apply sunscreen before you head out.
The link isn’t fully understood yet, but there is clear evidence suggesting a link between good gut bacteria and mood. While scientists figure it all out all we can do is try optimize our gut health by eating plenty of fibre, possibly supplementing with a probiotic, or regularly eating fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and miso.
Everyone is different. The suggestions above probably won’t lead to you skipping joyously through the house if you weren’t skipping around already. What they do aim to do is give your body its best chance of behaving optimally on its own.
And that may not be enough. These are trying times for us all, so remember to be kind to yourself – it’s ok to be anxious and down sometimes, just try not to stay there for too long. And check in on your friends from time to time, especially the quiet ones!
Mood Lifting Overnight Oats
- 1 cup Steel Cut Oats
- 2 cups Almond Milk unsweetened
- 1 Tbsp Chia Seeds
- 1 Tbsp Pure Maple Syrup
- 1/2 tsp Ground Cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp Vanilla Extract
- 1 pinch Salt
- Fresh or Dried Figs chopped
- Brazil Nuts chopped
- Berries chopped
- Place all ingredients into a large container. Mix well and cover.
- Place in the fridge overnight.
- Eat chilled topped with figs, berries, and brazil nuts.
Gabrielle is an evidence-based vegan coach who believes that health transformation begins when you switch to a plant-based diet. Her mission is to help midlife women eat in alignment with who they are and what they value so that they can lead a happier, healthier and more fulfilling life.
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Written by Gabrielle (hi!), these e-mails will help you on your plant-based journey with useful tips, tricks, facts and inspiration – and perhaps the occasional inappropriate joke thrown in for good measure.