Feeling blue? Many people seek comfort from favorite foods like chocolate kisses, salty chips, and pillowy pastries when they're feeling down. But if you really want to boost your mood, make different choices, nutritionists say. Although clinical depression is a serious illness that requires treatment beyond nutrition, changing what you eat can help beat garden-variety blues caused by stress, and will boost low energy, too.
"We reach for what we think will make us feel better, but we too often wind up making ourselves feel worse in the long run," says Beth Reardon, director of nutrition at Duke University's Duke Integrative Medicine. The wrong foods can cause physiological reactions that intensify symptoms such as lethargy, irritability, and cravings. Meanwhile the right foods -- like the following five -- can stabilize blood sugar, eliminate mood swings, and boost neurotransmitters in the brain, all factors that influence your emotions.
Try these smart choices when your mood needs a little boost:
1. An omelet -- just don't skip the yolk
Eat it for: The B vitamins and protein. Egg yolks are the vitamin-B-rich part of the egg.
Other examples: Lean beef, wheat germ, fish, poultry
Why they help: A diet rich in B vitamins can help lessen the severity of depression symptoms. B vitamins, especially B-6 and B-12, can help improve neural function -- the way the neurotransmitters of the brain send signals, which helps govern mood. There's also a growing link between vitamin B deficiency and depression. A 2010 study of 3,000 older adults followed over 12 years found that those with lower intake of these vitamins had a higher risk of depression, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The protein in eggs (as with lean meats) helps you feel satisfied longer, stabilizing blood sugar. And eggs can be consumed in a variety of ways, from scrambled to used as a French toast batter to boiled and chopped up as a salad topper -- so long as you go easy on the accompanying animal products that are high in saturated fats, like bacon or butter.
2. Nuts and seeds
Eat it for: The magnesium
Examples: Pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, cashews, almonds, peanuts. (Green leafy vegetables and whole grains are also high in magnesium.)
Why they help: Magnesium, a mineral found naturally in nuts and seeds, influences production of serotonin, a "feel-good" brain chemical. Magnesium also affects overall energy production.
Bonus: Nuts are also a good source of protein and healthy fats. And as a whole food, they make a healthy alternative to processed snacks, provided you choose unsalted and unsweetened varieties. Salt and sugared coatings don't add any health benefits and may make you overeat because they set up cravings in the brain for more and more salt or sugar.
More foods to eat when you're depressed
3. Cold-water fish
Eat it for: The omega-3 fatty acids
Examples: Wild salmon, herring, sardines, anchovies, tuna (not more than once per week), rainbow trout, mackerel. Fish-oil supplements are a practical alternative for those who don't eat these cold-water fish at least three times a week, Reardon says.
Why they help: There's a reason fish is known as "brain food." Fatty fish such as wild salmon contain the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, which has been shown to increase the membrane quality and nerve function of gray matter in the brain. Twenty percent of the gray matter in the brain is composed of DHA. Some studies have found that DHA consumption especially increases gray matter in the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the cingulate, three areas of the brain associated with mood. People with severe depression have less gray matter in these areas.
Fish is also a great source of lean protein, which stabilizes blood sugar. Eating small amounts of protein with meals can help keep your mood on a more even keel.
4. Ancient grains
Eat it for: The complex carbohydrates
Examples: Quinoa, millet, teff, amaranth, spelt, barley
Why they help: Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest, which means they don't cause spikes in blood sugar that can create roller-coaster moods. Complex carbs also increase levels of serotonin in the brain.
While any whole grain is good, so-called "ancient grains" are even better, according to Reardon, because they're less likely to be man-modified and processed. Packaged, processed, and refined foods made with wheat flour and sugar, in contrast, tend to be digested quickly, causing cause blood sugar to spike. When this happens, the body responds with an oversecretion of insulin, which winds up moving too much sugar into cells -- and blood sugars plummet. The end result: poorer concentration, fatigue, mood swings, intense cravings, and overeating.
Ancient grains are increasingly available at mainstream grocery stores and big-box stores such as Costco and Sam's Club. Look where rice products are shelved. Many ancient grains can be cooked like pasta or rice and served in their place as side dishes, in casseroles, or as a base for fish or chicken.
Bonus: Some ancient grains are a whole-grain alternative for those who are allergic to wheat or have gluten intolerance. (Barley, though, contains gluten.)
5. Green tea
Drink it for: The amino acid L-theanine
Examples: Hot green tea, brewed iced green tea -- including flavored varieties like jasmine green tea or berry green tea
Why it helps: L-theanine is an amino acid found mainly in tea leaves; it's been shown by EEG tests to stimulate alpha brain waves. This can improve focus while also having a calming effect on the body.
"Despite the caffeine, the L-theanine in green tea seems to be profoundly relaxing, with effects that last up to eight hours," Reardon says. L-theanine is easily absorbed and can cross the blood-brain barrier, adding to its effectiveness.