There are two nutrition-based approaches a person can take when trying to improve their mood naturally—without drugs or pharmaceuticals. One way is to use supplements and individual nutrients to adjust the specific neurotransmitters that help determine our mood. We can think of the three primary mood related neurochemicals—dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine—as primary colors that combine in different concentrations to create what we interpret as our mood. They all mix and mingle and interact.
But trying to modulate each specific neurotransmitter to the perfect degree using specific nutrients and supplements is harder than you think. Top down orchestration of complex neurochemistry is unreliable and prone to side effects. Just look at the how the pharmaceutical single-minded focus on serotonin to combat depression has failed. Do you think you can do the same thing using supplements and get it right?
Another way, a better way, is to look at foods that have been shown to improve mood without worrying so much about their specific effect on individual neurochemicals. It turns out there is a large trove of research on the topic and we have a fairly good idea about the foods that can boost and support our mood.
Foods That Boost Mood
Now, this isn’t medical advice. The information contained in this article should not be construed as a replacement for consultation and treatment with a medical professional, particularly if you’re experiencing serious mood disorders. This is simply a post describing foods that have been shown to improve mood—to make people feel better and happier.
How Meat Boosts Mood
The first foundational food of a mood boosting diet has to be meat. There are several lines of evidence that point toward meat being an important mood food.
First, observational evidence shows that vegans, vegetarians, and other plant-based dieters are more likely to present with mood disorders like depression and anxiety. In fact, among the studies collected by a recent literature review, it was the highest quality studies with the best methodology that found the strongest association between meat avoidance and mood disorders.1 “The more rigorous the study, the more positive and consistent the relation between meat consumption and better mental health.”
Second, meat contains many different nutrients that have been linked to improved mood or shown to directly improve a person’s mood. Let’s go through some of them:
Carnosine: In many Asian countries, a carnosine supplement derived from chicken meat called “chicken extract” is a popular mood enhancer and stress reliever. Studies show that it can improve mood, reduce anxiety, and ameliorate mental fatigue.2 More recently, direct supplementation with carnosine had a rapid anti-depressant effect in people with clinical depression.3 The speed at which the supplement improved mood in the depressed patients so astonished the researchers that they’re conducting further research as we speak.
Creatine: Creatine is only found in animal foods, particularly fish and red meat. Research shows that the more creatine a person eats, the lower their risk of depression.4 This isn’t proven to be a causal relationship, but there’s mechanistic evidence as well: depression is characterized by poor energy function in the brain, which creatine can restore.5
Zinc: In human trials, zinc supplementation has been shown to reduce anger and improve mood.6 Zinc is most abundantly found in animal foods, particularly meat (and shellfish).
If you want to get more specific, the best sources of carnosine are turkey breast and pork loin. The best sources of creatine are red muscle meat and fish. The best sources of zinc are red meat.
How Fish Boosts Mood
Seafood is another class of animal foods with both strong observational and plausible mechanistic evidence for being mood boosting food.
On the observational side, fish and seafood consumption is almost always linked to improved mood, less anxiety, and reduced depression risk.7
One piece of evidence for the causality of the relationship is that it isn’t linear. It’s a U-shaped curve. Both the lowest and highest intakes of fish and omega-3 fatty acids are less protective, while the moderate doses of fish and omega-3 fats are most protective against mood disorders.
Another piece of evidence is that giving DHA directly to people suffering from mood disorders improves their mood. People who received DHA supplements experienced reduced anger and improved mood scores.8
Plus, seafood is also a great way to get creatine and zinc, two mood-boosting nutrients already established as likely causal in the previous section. For instance, herring has the most creatine of any food and oysters are the richest source of zinc—more than even the reddest of red meat.
How Dairy Boosts Mood
Almost every observational study finds an association between low dairy intake and depression, anxiety, and other negative moods.
Among Jordanian college students, a low dairy intake predicts the presence of depression and anxiety.9
Among Fins, higher intakes of full-fat dairy predicted lower odds of having depressive symptoms.10
Among Chinese children, habitual dairy consumption is a strong predictor of low rates of anxiety and depression.11
Again and again, we see that the more dairy people eat, the better their mood and lower their risk of mood disorders. Is this causal? What could be going on?
Removal of dairy from the diet raises parathyroid hormone. Women who eat a plant-based diet low in dairy see their parathyroid hormone skyrocket.12 This has devastating effects on their bone density, and it can also increase the risk of depressive symptoms. In severe hyperparathyroidism—where the parathyroid hormone levels skyrocket—anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation are common.13 Dairy is a potent source of calcium, a known modulator of parathyroid hormone. More calcium, lower parathyroid, better mood. Less calcium, higher parathyroid, worse mood.
How Fermented Food and Prebiotics Boost Mood
A few years back, a study reported that the more fermented food like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, or sauerkraut a person ate, the lower their risk of social anxiety.14 This relationship was strongest in people with a genetic tendency toward neuroticism, suggesting that neuroticism isn’t a foregone conclusion but rather a fermented food deficit. While there are studies looking at specific probiotic strains and mood, I’d suggest just eating fermented food and if you want to take a supplement, use a broad spectrum probiotic like Primal Probiotics consisting of commonly encountered strains that have been show to improve health markers across the board.
Another study found that feeding gut bacteria with specific prebiotics—fermentable fiber that gut bacteria turn into short chain fatty acids—reduced negative emotional bias and lowered cortisol (a stress hormone). People who took the prebiotic (Bimuno-galactooligosaccharides, or BOS) focused more on positive stimuli and were able to ignore negative stimuli in a test of emotional bias. To me, the ability to focus on the positive, to be optimistic, is the hallmark of a “good mood.”
How Coffee Boosts Mood
Dopamine is the primary mood-boosting neurotransmitter, improving motivation, increasing joy, and simply making a person feel good. That’s actually one of the mechanisms by which so many of the most popular drugs like tobacco, cocaine, and opioids are so addictive: they increase the dopamine response. Coffee is one of the most reliable, most legal ways we have of boosting dopamine function, increasing both dopamine release and dopamine receptor density.15
Many people use coffee the wrong way: to “counter” a bad night’s sleep. That keeps your head above water but it doesn’t really boost your mood. A better way to consume coffee is to do so well-rested after a good night’s sleep. Coffee when well-rested, when you “don’t need it,” is an entirely different experience. The mood boost that results can only be described as productive optimism. You can actually feel the dopamine and feel compelled to create, to do, to act on the world. You feel good and feel like building something great.
How Blueberries Boost Mood
Blueberries are the most powerful berry, almost akin to a true superfood. They can improve cognitive function in children and adults, increase acute performance on memory tests, and they can also boost your mood. A blueberry-based drink was able to quickly improve mood in both kid and grown-ups.16
The compound responsible appears to be the anthocyanin, the blue/purple pigment that gives blueberries their distinctive color. To really get a mood-boosting effect, choose the berries that stain your mouth blue and purple. Smaller berries are better because they have more surface area per gram and therefore more pigment. Other plants carrying the same purple/blue pigments may confer the same mood boosting benefits, like purple sweet potatoes. One study even found that purple cauliflower reduced depressive symptoms in mice.17
The beauty of using foods to boost your mood is that there’s no risk involved. You’re just eating foods that are already nutritious, already good for you for reasons that have nothing to do with mood alteration.
What foods do you use to boost your mood? Does this list jibe with your experiences?
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.