Can certain foods really improve my mood? If there was ever a time to address these challenges on a larger scale, it’s now. The past year has been a whirlwind of mental health challenges due to social isolation, job losses, increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. It is no surprise that mental health awareness is on the rise as people try to navigate through these unprecedented times. In fact, a recent poll conducted by the Mental Health Commission of Canada found that stress levels among Canadians have doubled since the start of the pandemic, with 44% of Canadians reporting feeling more worried and 41% feeling more anxious (1). What we eat, however, can have an impact on how our bodies cope with these stressors.
It has long been recognized that certain chemical properties in the foods we eat can enhance mood, decrease levels of anxiety and stress, and support overall mental well-being (2). While mental health is a complex topic that is affected by many variables outside of what we eat, there is evolving research that continues to support the powerful effects of food on the brain.
Here are 5 mood boosting nutrients to consider incorporating into your products:
Potassium is an essential mineral and electrolyte needed by the body. It helps regulate fluid and pH balance, muscle and nerve function, digestion, heart rate, and it plays a key role in lowering blood pressure (and in turn stress levels) (3).
Having a product with a good source of potassium can also be beneficial in light of the new labelling laws which require food manufacturers to update their nutrition facts tables to include potassium (4). Canadians have simply not been getting enough potassium in their diet (4), so this is likely something consumers will start paying more attention to when selecting a product. Do keep in mind that for people with kidney issues, too much potassium in the diet can be harmful as their kidneys are unable to filter this nutrient from the blood which can lead to toxic buildup. For healthy adults though, the daily recommended intake (DRI) value is 4,700 mg/day (5).
What’s also great about potassium-rich foods are that they are very versatile and can easily be incorporated into different recipes, from dried fruits in snack products to the base of soups, sauces, and more! Some good sources of potassium include: bananas, avocados, cantaloupe, apricots, kiwis, oranges, pineapples, regular/sweet potatoes, tomato juice, mushrooms, leafy greens, cooked spinach, whole grains, beans, and nuts.
Magnesium is another essential mineral that helps support healthy blood pressure levels, immunity, muscle and nerve function, bone health, and restful sleep. By lowering the levels of stress hormones in the body, such as cortisol, depression and anxiety may be reduced (6). Many studies have suggested a link between low levels of magnesium and high levels of anxiety. Low levels of magnesium are also associated with low levels of vitamin D – another nutrient believed to have a strong role in mood regulation. The daily recommended intake (DRI) for magnesium is 420 mg/day (7).
Some good food sources of magnesium include: leafy greens (swiss chard, spinach, etc.), pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa), black beans, quinoa, brazil nuts, almonds, cashews, and avocados.
3) Vitamin D
Also known as the “sunshine” vitamin, vitamin D is among the most studied nutrients with a long list of health benefits, including its anti-depressive properties especially in individuals with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) (8). In countries situated far from the equator, ageing populations, or for people with darker skin living in northern latitudes, obtaining adequate vitamin D through food and/or supplementation becomes even more essential. This is because during the winter months, the sun’s rays in these regions are weaker and people also tend to spend less time outdoors. Since vitamin D is stored in fat cells and can build up overtime leading to toxicity, there is a limit on the amount consumed from supplements but not food. The daily recommended intake (DRI) established for Vitamin D is 600 IU (15 mcg) in adults (9).
Health Canada recently required that Vitamin D also be indicated on the nutrition facts table of all packaged food products as part of the new food labelling laws (4), which also means that consumers are likely to be on the look-out! While many food products in Canada have been fortified with vitamin D, such as orange juice, cereals, milk and other dairy products, there are also some naturally occurring food sources. These include: egg yolks, fatty fish like salmon, herring, sardines, canned tuna, cod liver oil, wild or UV-light grown mushrooms.
4) Omega 3s
The importance of Omega 3s for brain, heart and eye health is widely known, and low intakes have been suggested to increase the risk of developing depression and anxiety. As such, it is useful to understand the differences in sources of Omega 3s in order to find the best fit for incorporation into your food product.
There are two long chain Omega-3s that are recognized as providing potential mood benefits: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The best food sources of EPA and DHA come from fatty fish or smaller water fish. In most studies, supplementation with 1-2 g of omega 3s per day was shown to be effective in reducing feelings of depression among study participants (10). Good sources of Omega 3s: salmon, trout, mackerel, tuna, herring, anchovies.
But what if my target market is plant-based?
Some good vegan sources of omega 3s include: flax, hemp, and chia seeds, walnuts, and edamame.
However, these foods contain omegas 3s mostly in the form of a short chain omega 3 called arachidonic acid (ARA). In the body, ARA is not always efficiently converted to the desired Omega 3 forms EPA and DHA that support mental health. In fact, only about 8-20% conversion for EPA and 1-9% conversion for DHA, which is why it is usually recommended that non-fish eaters still take a balanced omega 3 supplement (10). With that being said, these ingredients still pack a nutritional punch by offering other great benefits like added fibre, protein, and of course, flavour and crunch! It is worth mentioning algal oil, which comes from specific marine algae. It is the one complete plant-based source of the essential omegas 3s, EPA and DHA, however sourcing this ingredient is not always easy and often quite pricey (11).
L-Theanine is a non-protein amino acid thought to promote relaxation and help with falling and staying asleep. This compound is naturally found in (green) tea leaves, but can also be found in specific mushroom varieties, including those related to the boletus badius species (12). As such, L-Theanine containing foods may impart an umami or savoury taste. The role of L-Theanine in improving mood and overall well-being is multi-pronged. It increases the levels of certain brain chemicals or “neurotransmitters”, such as GABA, serotonin, and dopamine, which are responsible for lowering stress and feelings of anxiety and depression, while also improving levels of alertness, concentration, cognition, and regulating appetite (13). L-Theanine has also been shown to reduce heart rate and blood pressure, further contributing to a relaxed state.