A lot of people think food is pretty straightforward when it comes to improving how you feel. Just pick your favorite meal, maybe grab a beer or glass of wine, and go to town! Unfortunately, it’s not so simple.
A favorite meal or snack will definitely perk you up for a bit, but the effect won’t be as long-lasting, consistent, or healthy as incorporating a variety of vitamins and minerals into your regular diet. There are even some foods that have natural stress-reducing effects, making them a great way to improve mood without resorting to comfort food.
Zinc and magnesium are both indirectly associated with improved mood. Studies show that people with depression tend to have lower magnesium levels than people without depression. Some antidepressants, like amitriptyline and sertraline, actually increase magnesium levels in red blood cells. There is animal evidence to suggest a lack of magnesium in the diet is associated with increased anxiety and symptoms of depression, but more research is needed to confirm this kind of direct relationship in people.
Bananas, dark leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds, avocados, and dark chocolate are good sources of magnesium.
Zinc does not have an antidepressant effect by itself, but it increases the effectiveness of antidepressant effects from other food and supplements. Meat, eggs, legumes, and oysters are high in zinc.
To supplement zinc, take 25–30 mg/day, with a meal. Zinc supplementation does not improve mood when supplemented by people suffering from clinical depression.
Need help with your sleep? A great way to avoid feeling tired during the day is a good night’s rest, but for most of us, that might be easier said than done. Chamomile (Matricaria recutita or Chamomilla recutita) has traditionally been used for its relaxing and calming effect. It is often brewed into an infusion (an “herbal tea”). Two double-blind studies have shown chamomile to be effective for people struggling with anxiety and troubled sleep, though more research is needed to determine the mechanism for this effect.
Another option for fighting fatigue is supplementing with ornithine. Ornithine is an amino acid that can alleviate fatigue associated with elevated ammonia levels. Ammonia buildup can be the result of prolonged exercise or long work hours. Several liver disorders, like hepatic encephalopathy, are also associated with high levels of ammonia.
To supplement ornithine, take 2–6 g/day. People with normal ammonia levels will not benefit from ornithine supplementation.
If stress seems to be the root of your problems, supplementing rhodiola rosea and ashwagandha might help. Both these supplements are adaptogen compouds. Adaptogens desensitize the body to stress before it occurs and can alleviate depression, mood swings, and irritability. More specifically, Rhodiola rosea has been specifically shown to prevent and relieve burnout caused by stress. Ashwagandha is well tested and has been shown to be effective for athletes, as well as for people suffering from social anxiety.
A daily dose of 50 mg of Rhodiola rosea has been shown to be effective at fighting daily fatigue. To supplement Rhodiola rosea in preparation for a specific stressful event, take 288–680 mg. Do not exceed 680 mg, as higher doses have been shown to be ineffective. To supplement ashwagandha, take 300–500 mg with breakfast in preparation for a stressful day.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids are associated with a variety of health benefits, and preliminary evidence suggests treatment-resistant depression is associated with a low concentration of EPA in the brain.
Fish oil, derived from fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, tuna, mussels, and trout is high in EPA and DHA. Fish oil supplementation has been shown to be effective at reducing symptoms of depression, specifically when taken by people suffering from major depression. People who eat a lot of fatty fish don’t need to supplement fish oil. Algal oil is the best alternative for vegetarians and vegans.
Tryptophan is an amino acid the body uses to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for maintaining mood. Low levels of serotonin contribute to depression. Poultry, seafood, nuts, seeds, dairy, and legumes are all good sources of tryptophan.
Another option for improving serotonin levels is supplementing 5-HTP, the precursor to serotonin. However, eating food that contains tryptophan will enable slower, more prolonged production of serotonin, compared to the rapid production associated with 5-HTP supplementation. Supplementation of tryptophan, however, is not as effective as 5-HTP supplementation.
To supplement 5-HTP, take 300–500 mg/day. Do not take 5-HTP if you are taking any neurological drug or antidepressant: High levels of serotonin are very dangerous and potentially lethal.
St. John’s Wort is a well-researched herbal antidepressant, comparable in strength to pharmaceutical alternatives like tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). Do not supplement St. John’s Wort if you are taking antidepressants, such as SSRIs, SNRIs, or MAOIs. St. John’s Wort increases serotonin signaling in the brain and, like 5-HTP, can result in an overdose if taken alongside medication.
Agmatine is a neurotransmitter that works synergistically with other antidepressant compounds, including bupropion, SSRIs, adenosine, imipramine, and folic acid. Agmatine does possess some antidepressant effects, but they are weaker than comparable reference drugs, such as imipramine.
Before supplementing a compound to alleviate symptoms of depression, talk to your doctor.
Comfort foods tend to be loaded with sodium and packed with calories, but not with a lot of nutrients. Don’t give in to the temporary pick-me-up, no matter how tempting it is. Instead, evaluate your weekly diet to determine if you could include some additional healthy foods that will improve your day-to-day mood.
Change your diet one step at a time. Start by adding a dark, leafy salad to your lunch, or replace burger night with fish night. As you change your diet, take note of your mood. Taking the time to track results will help you stick to your goals.
Supplementation should be the last step in a dietary overhaul. Eating better food to become a happier person is cheaper, delicious, and more effective than supplementation.