When you’re in the kind of funk that has nothing to do with James Brown songs, it’s hard to describe how you feel. Blah, gray, numb, blue. In fact, all kinds of artists—from painters to songwriters—have made careers depicting what emotional lows are all about. Feeling down is indeed one of our universal emotions. Even the happiest and most positive people you know can dip into pools of sadness.
This universal emotion has an equally universal response—chowing down in hopes of getting up. We’ve all been there: Things don’t quite feel right, so we self-medicate with something salty or something sweet, something crunchy or some kind of treat (this is not a new wedding mantra, by the way).
We react this way not because we’re rebelling, but because our biology wants nutrients to pick us back up (that’s why we reach for fast-acting sugar).
We need to make clear that depression and feeling down—although very common—operate on a spectrum of severity. Those with serious depression (the kind that interferes with day-to-day life or is so debilitating that it can cause potential harm) need medical and professional assistance to help.
What we’re talking about here are the typical ebbs and flows of mood that we all experience: the kind of blues that can happen as a reaction to specific situations, lack of sunlight (common during winter months), or hormonal changes that alter your mood.
The brain, of course, is the most complex part of our anatomy. It works as a universe all its own; the medical and scientific world have not fully mastered the interaction between its physical structures and chemical parts. We do know, though, that mood is controlled by many things—such as the amygdala (the part of the brain that deals with emotion), as well as levels of various neurotransmitters (like feel-good dopamine and serotonin). This is part of the reason we reach for sugary treats: The immediate rush of juju makes us believe we’re satisfying those parts of the brain.
The tricky part is overriding that instinctual urge to feed our brain with foods that can do the same thing—without the side effects that come with eating a whole jar of icing.
Although many things can help kick your mood up a few levels (exercise is a favorite, as is connecting with old friends), this guide to brain-boosting foods can also help turn your funk into spunk.
In the Moment: Feeling down right now? Take a lesson from the almighty carbohydrate. Its very job is to provide you with energy, but research suggests it can also help boost your mood and handle stress.9,10 But don’t take it in its simple form. Instead, try a piece of 100 percent whole grain toast with all-natural peanut butter (no sugar added). Add a few berries of choice. Best of all, peanuts are rich in an amino acid called tryptophan, which is a building block of serotonin.
For the Long Haul:
To improve your mood and reduce chances of depression, a diet of fish, vegetables, and healthy oils is the way to go. In a recent study of people who were monitored for six years, those who ate more vegetables, fruits, and grains were less likely to have depressive symptoms than those who ate more of a Western meat-and-potatoes (with butter on them) type of diet.
Best Anti-Blues Food:
Fish like salmon and ocean trout are full of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been suggested in some studies (though the jury is still out) to help improve mood and reduce symptoms of depression. This may be because the fat in the fish helps improve the function of neurotransmitters.
An All-Day Crutch:
Keep green tea by your side. It has many health benefits, but one of them is that it includes an amino acid shown to have a calming effect.