We spend a lot of our lives seeking happiness. Whether it’s trying new things like therapy, exercise routines or meditations, we all want to bring more peace and joy into our lives. But when we think about the things that make us happy, our diet isn’t usually at the top of the list.
However, the foods we eat play a major role in how we feel. Studies linking nutrition and mental well-being have emerged in the past decade, and certain foods are associated with increased serotonin in our brains. Serotonin, also known as the “happy hormone,” is a chemical that plays an important role in regulating our mood. Low serotonin levels can cause mood instability.
For more mental health resources, try these simple ways to improve your mental health without therapy, and check out our list of ways to manage anxiety without medication.
8 foods that make you happy, according to science
Here are our favorite foods for a lift.
1. Dark chocolate
You know the typical scene in movies where a girl sits on her couch in sweats, eating a tub of chocolate ice cream. Turns out Hollywood was on to something. A systematic review found that dark chocolate can positively affect one’s mood. There are three main components found in chocolate that are associated with the feeling of happiness: tryptophan, theobromine and phenylethylalanine. Tryptophan is an amino acid the brain uses to produce serotonin. Theobromine is a weak stimulant that can improve your mood. Meanwhile, phenylethylalanine is another amino acid used by the body to produce dopamine, which acts as an antidepressant.
If there were ever such a thing as “good mood food,” bananas are probably it. But maybe not in the way you think they are. Although bananas contain serotonin, it is unable to cross the blood-brain barrier (think of the BBB as a wall that filters what can and cannot enter our bloodstream and make its way to our brains). But bananas can play a crucial role in regulating your mood in a more indirect way. Your body needs vitamin B6 to create serotonin, and bananas are especially rich in this nutrient. A single medium-size banana contains up to 0.4 mg of vitamin B6, which accounts for roughly 25% of the daily recommended intake.
If you’ve got the winter blues and are dreaming of warmer days, coconut may transport your taste buds and mood to a tropical state of mind. Coconut is loaded with medium-chain triglycerides, which can help boost your energy. Another reason coconut is considered mood food is that a 2017 animal study found that MCTs from coconut milk may reduce anxiety. More research is needed to fully understand the link between anxiety and coconut in humans.
This one is for the 1 billion coffee drinkers in the world. Now you can justify your coffee intake (in moderation, of course) since coffee is making the world a happier place, one sip at a time. A 2016 meta-analysis concluded that coffee consumption is significantly associated with decreased risk of depression. Another small study concluded that coffee — both caffeinated and decaffeinated — significantly improved the subjects’ mood compared to those who ingested a placebo drink.