Doesn’t food make you happy? And, can you eat yourself happier? The short answer to both: Yes.
Read on to understand better the way that food can make you happy, and what food to eat for happiness.
How Does Food Make You Happy: Nutritional Psychiatry
Here are some of the ways that food makes us happy:
Food nutrients can help the body produce feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects our mood and encourages sleep. Low serotonin has been linked to depression. Dopamine is a pleasure chemical related to rewards and is released in response to eating comfort foods.
Nutritional psychiatry involves using a diet to safeguard and improve your psychological well-being. In nutritional psychiatry, doctors use supplements and food as an alternative to medication to treat mental health.
Research shows the gut-brain axis is a two-way link between our central nervous system (CNS) and the enteric nervous system (ENS). The food we eat affects our mental health, and our mental health affects the kind of food we choose to eat.
An upfront way to find this out is to note the energy boost you get after eating. And on the other hand, you might want to remember a time you skipped a major meal of the day, and it spoiled your whole day by keeping you sapped.
According to nutritional psychiatry, “you are what you eat.” This appears to be true because there is a connection between food and mood — the gut-brain axis.
It would be wise to note here that mental health does not include only mental diseases, like depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder. Indeed, mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being.
According to the World Health Organization,
Mental health is a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.
Ever heard of comfort food—the kind of high-carbohydrate food we tend to eat in times of emotional stress? This brain-gut axis helps us understand the connection between nutrition and disease.
Our vagus nerve connects the brain and gut through biochemical signals traveling between the digestive tract and the nervous system. The gut produces many neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin, just like the brain.
Our gut is also home to about 100 trillion microorganisms, which is 10 times the number of all the cells in our body. So, are we harboring them or are they harboring us?
Studies show these gut microbes help the development and growth of our nervous system (CNS and ENS) in the early weeks after our birth.
Anything that affects your digestive tract affects your brain, and vice versa is true. It is for this reason, current research is focusing on various nutritional strategies for the management of mental health.
How Does Food Make You Happy: Psychobiotics
The health of the digestive system is the key to your emotional well-being. A person with a healthier gut is a happier person.
Scientists have also found having Psychobiotics as food can enhance our mood. Psychobiotics are the live bacteria (probiotics) that, when eaten, help reduce our anxiety and depression levels.
When you eat, the body breaks down the food into substances that it uses to make chemical messengers in the brain, such as serotonin and dopamine.
Food also acts as a raw material for stress hormones such as opiates. What you consume plays a vital role in the functioning of the nervous system, including the brain.
Thus, the gut greatly influences your psychological state. A balanced diet is integral for the health of your gut, as well as the health of your mind.
What Foods Make You Happier: Best Foods To Eat For Happiness
- Fermented Products — They include cheese, yogurt, kefir, and kimchi, among others, and help to improve digestion. Eating these food choices will reduce stress and improve your mood.
- Prebiotics — These are indigestible fibers that serve as food for the probiotics. You can promote the function of the digestive system by having foods that have prebiotics, like garlic, bananas, and asparagus.
- Organic Products — To reduce exposure to oxidative stress and toxins, consume natural products whenever possible. Get fresh fruits and vegetables as part of your nutrient-dense diet.
- Healthy Fats — The main sources of healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fats are kidney beans, fish, chia seeds, and walnuts. You can also get hemp seeds, which contain high quantities of healthy fats. If you suffer from clinical depression, using fish oil supplements is an appropriate choice. Studies show that healthy fats are suitable for the brain and mental health.
- Micronutrients — To stay happy, you need vitamins, fiber, and proteins. You can manage depression by consuming vitamins from broccoli, leafy vegetables, and lentils. Proteins raise the level of dopamine to promote energy and maintain a good mood. Sources of protein include tofu, eggs, and beans. Foods such as Brussels sprouts are rich in fiber and also promote the health of the digestive system.
What Foods To Avoid: “Bad Foods/Sad Foods”
Some experts speculate that most of our psychological issues begin in the gut, and gut problems can lead to anxiety, psychosis, and mental anguish.
Unhealthy food also affects the immune system by producing inflammatory chemicals.
For example, when blood sugar levels are high, the body produces inflammatory substances, like cytokines. Cytokines are small proteins released by the immune system cells that act as cell-to-cell signals.
Too much carbohydrate and sugar also trigger the pancreas to secrete high levels of insulin that can make a person insulin resistant, diabetic, and up to 2 to 3 times more likely to have depression.
Few people are aware that what they eat affects their mood. You need to be conscious of the foods you eat at all times.
Here are some of the ways you can satisfy the chemicals in your body to feel good most times:
- Avoid processed foods — Processed foods are full of sugar, oil, and carbohydrates that will harm your health and mood. Reduce your intake of soda, junk food, fruit juices, and any product that contains sugar. They will only give you more weight and dietary diseases that will leave you feeling low, sad, and depressed. Also, watch out for your alcohol intake because it leads to irritability and insomnia.
- Do not skip meals — Come up with a schedule to set aside time for eating. No matter how busy you are, try to squeeze meals into your schedule. When you skip meals, you will have the urge to overeat later, and this will affect the digestion of food. Research shows that when you are hungry, you tend to have a sad mood. Therefore, make sure your body gets a constant supply of food to maintain that good mood. You can try a three-course diet with snacks and fruits in between.
- Eat frequently — To regulate your blood sugar levels, eat snacks, and food at intervals. Frequent eating will give your body a constant supply of energy, which equals a good mood. You can snack on vegetables and fruits because they are rich in nutrients.
The food you eat determines your mood to a large extent. A focus on healthy food choices will improve your gut health, that in turn will trigger the nervous system to produce mood-elevating hormones.
Unhealthy foods, on the other hand, hinder the efficiency of your body in digesting food. As a result, you end up with inflammation and stress-related diseases.
With healthy food, you get a happy mood. So, ensure you stick to a nutritious diet. The next time you feel moody or depressed, pay attention; it could be your body telling you to eat healthily. Remind yourself then that you can eat for happiness.
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Author Bios: Jessica Smith wrote an earlier version of this article. Edited and rewritten by Sandip Roy, a psychology writer, happiness researcher, and medical doctor.
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