Change Your Food and Mood


By Lisa Cossey, LCSW – October 27, 2021

I’m sure it’s safe to say we’ve all heard the phrase, “You are what you eat” at some point in time. Recent research into food and its effects on the body and mind may have us saying a new phrase: “Change your food, change your mood.”

Our brains are made of neural pathways, transmitters, and chemicals that make up and regulate our thoughts and moods. The foods we eat impact the balance of these chemicals. Something as simple as our lunch choice could have the power to impact our feelings and emotions, for better or worse.

For example, serotonin, the feel good neurotransmitter, makes us feel happy. When serotonin levels drop, one may feel sad or depressed. Serotonin is directly linked with an amino acid found in food, tryptophan. Diets consisting of foods with low or no tryptophan levels lead to depleting serotonin in the brain. This in turn then can cause irritability, aggression, lowered mood, and impaired memory.

Diets including foods with high levels of tryptophan can provide the opposite effect and raise serotonin levels naturally. Turkey is one food that is high in tryptophan, so don’t just relegate turkey to Thanksgiving dinner! Nuts and seeds, such as almonds, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds are also foods to eat to get a mood boost from tryptophan.

Another dietary tweak that could lower risk for depression, especially in women, is to drink coffee regularly. Coffee boosts dopamine and norepinephrine, which are also feel good neurotransmitters in the brain. A National Institute of Health study tracked women over a ten-year period (1996-2006) and found women who drank coffee regularly throughout the week had lower reported depressive episodes than non-coffee drinking women.

How about a sweet treat to go with your coffee? Dark chocolate has been found to increase serotonin levels naturally as well, leading to improved mood. Bananas can also be included on a list of foods that will decrease negative mood-related symptoms thanks to their high vitamin B6 levels.

Other amino acids, such as L-theanine and Omega-3, a fatty acid, minerals such as magnesium and zinc, and antioxidants can reduce anxiety symptoms. Salmon is a great source of Omega-3 and can also alter dopamine and serotonin levels, packing a double advantage to reduce anxiety and improve mood.

Dark leafy greens, such as spinach and Swiss chard, contain magnesium which can lower anxiety. Blueberries are another food with potential to alter one’s mood. Flavonoids, an antioxidant found in blueberries, assist in regulating mood, in addition to the other health benefits eating fresh fruit provides.

The foods listed above are not an exhaustive list. If you are considering a major change to your lifestyle, please consult a physician and/or nutritionist. Changing your diet, such as eating a banana for a snack, or swapping out the lettuce in a salad with dark greens, can impact overall health and mood for the better.