Eating fresh, whole foods benefits both body and mind. Rather than fixating on what to eliminate from your diet, consider adding “superfoods” that may help balance your mood.
Our understanding of—and questions about—how the brain, mind, and body function and interact are constantly evolving. As such, this article has been updated to reflect recent scientific and nutritional findings. In particular, it includes changes related to researchers’ ever-expanding understanding of the gut-brain axis (GBA), that is, the complex back-and-forth interplay among our gastrointestinal (GI) tract, central nervous system, and immune system. It seems that the impact of the GBA on our mental health and cognitive functioning cannot be understated, with some referring to our gut as our “second brain.”(Please consult your treatment team before modifying your diet and lifestyle to ensure you reap only benefits from such changes.)
The monounsaturated (“good”) fats in this heart-healthy fruit not only lower cholesterol but also help keep receptors in the brain sensitive to serotonin, a neurotransmitter thought to boost mood. These same fats can help lower blood pressure, another key to feeling relaxed.
Of all the varieties of beans, pinto, garbanzo (chickpeas), and mung are the greatest sources of vitamin B9 (folic acid, or folate). Studies have shown that a body that lacks folic acid has a higher-than-normal level of the amino acid homocysteine, which is a condition that’s been linked to bipolar disorder. A cup of one of these types of beans per day will go a long way, meeting more than 40 percent of your RDA (recommended daily allowance).
Perhaps the king of nuts—cholesterol-free, low in fat, and filled with vitamin B6, vitamin E, folate, and protein. And if that weren’t good enough, walnuts also boast omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. To help keep yourself on an even keel, sprinkle them on oatmeal or a salad.
#4 Dark Chocolate
Cocoa beans are rich in a variety of mood-lifting ingredients (including phenylethylamine, a neurotransmitter that appears to relieve depression symptoms) that are most concentrated in dark chocolate. A recent study found that eating 1.5 oz. of dark chocolate a day for two weeks reduced the level of stress hormones.
All of it is good! But a few favorites are B6-rich bananas (vitamin B6 is known to build serotonin levels) and energy-boosting, vitamin C–packed pineapple (loaded also with manganese and thiamin, which help metabolize body-fueling carbohydrates).
This once-beguiling bean curd is now considered a pure, health-giving food of the times. Made from the curds of soybean milk, tofu is highly nutritious and an important protein source in vegetarian and vegan diets. Numerous studies have shown that the soy protein found in tofu can help lower cholesterol, which aids in preventing heart disease.
Although there is mixed concern regarding soy’s potential effects on our hormones, according to the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, “Results of recent population studies suggest that soy has either a beneficial or neutral effect on various health conditions. Soy is a nutrient-dense source of protein that can safely be consumed several times a week, and is likely to provide health benefits—especially when eaten as an alternative to red and processed meat.”
Spinach, like turnip greens and collards, is not only plentiful in folic acid but also full of vitamin C, vitamin E, and antioxidants, which are excellent for overall good health. (Raw versions provide the most folate.)
#8 Sunflower Seeds
Sunflower seeds are one of the best sources of vitamin B9. You can eat them as a snack or add them to your salads. One handful will give you more than half of your daily recommended amount of folate and magnesium.
Raw, baked, broiled, or grilled, salmon is one of the healthiest foods around. The omega-3 that shows up in abundance in salmon has been found to be necessary for healthy bodies and minds. Like mackerel, sardines, anchovies, and albacore tuna, salmon also contains protein (for long-lasting energy) and tyrosine, which the body uses to create two mood-stabilizing neurotransmitters, dopamine, and norepinephrine. With any fish or seafood, wild-caught is healthier than farm-raised, so be sure to identify the source of your fish before you purchase.
#10 Brazil Nuts
They’re an excellent source of the mineral selenium, and several studies have linked low selenium levels to low mood. The nuts are also rich in B vitamins, magnesium, and zinc, which can help calm stressed nerves and keep you alert.
The liver of most any animal is packed with vitamin B9 (folate). Often appearing on the culinary scene as pâté, liver also shows up in sausage (liverwurst). Turkey liver provides the most folate, with a 3-ounce (100g) serving reaching 173 percent of the RDA.
Please exercise caution when consuming liver; although it is nutrient-dense, it also contains high levels of cholesterol and saturated fat. Both need to be included in a healthful, balanced diet, but only in moderation. Further, it is important to identify the source and quality of any meat products or by-products prior to purchase.
#12 Cottage Cheese
Not only is cottage cheese a good source of B12, but it also contains plenty of whey protein, which has been shown to decrease anxiety and irritability. A glass of milk or cup of yogurt is another way to get a good shot of whey in a hurry.
A study published in the journal Bipolar Disorders found that—because of the resulting inflammatory response—an immune sensitivity to wheat glutens and bovine (cow) milk caseins may have a negative effect on a subgroup of those with bipolar. As such, those who live with bipolar might consider exercising caution consuming foods or supplements that contain wheat gluten, casein, and/or whey. Furthermore, this inflammation in the blood and GI (gastrointestinal) tract might also “represent part of an overall heightened activated immune state inherent to this mood disorder.”
This latter finding was supported in a study published in 2018 in Frontiers in Psychiatry, which examined the gut-brain connection in those with psychiatric diagnoses. Researchers found “strong preliminary evidence for a role of GI tract in the inflammatory pathology of BD [bipolar disorder]” and concluded that “treatment strategies involving diet modifications, anti-inflammatory agents, and microbiota modulations should be further investigated.”
Originally posted November 13, 2016. Updated April 2021.
Tanya Hvilivitzky has spent almost 30 years in the communications field—a career that has included stints as an investigative journalist, magazine managing editor, corporate communications director, and researcher/writer. She has been with bp Magazine and esperanza Magazine since 2016, serving in roles such as interim editor and, currently, the features editor. She also writes for the bpBUZZ section of bphope.com, where she synthesizes complex information into a format that both inspires and informs.
As an award-winning writer/editor, she received the Beyond Borders Media Award for her 2012 investigative exposé about human trafficking. Her work on this important topic also earned the Media Freedom Award “Honouring Canada’s Heroes” from the Joy Smith Foundation to Stop Human Trafficking.
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