The pursuit of happiness is a preoccupation for many people. Yet only the pursuit can be promised, not happiness itself. This elusive topic can spin us into a spiral of philosophy, but for the sake of this blog let’s focus on the science behind it in the form of food and the human body. Our overall health includes mental health, and the foods we eat impact our brain chemistry and our mood. Two of the most important neurotransmitters involved in the regulation of our mood are dopamine and serotonin (Dfarhud et al., 2014). Although foods do not contain these neurotransmitters, there are foods that we can eat which increase dopamine and serotonin levels. A key vehicle in charge of this is tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid that promotes relaxation and reduces anxiety and depression, but isn’t produced in the body (Medical News Today, 2018). Thankfully tryptophan can be found in food. Tryptophan increases serotonin in the brain which in turn increases pleasantness, decreases argumentativeness, and improves mood (Young, 2007). The following foods contain tryptophan among other amazing benefits.
The mere thought that eating chocolate can bring on positive feelings makes me happy! Chocolate contains about 50% fat and close to 50% carbs which sets off a powerful effect in which dopamine and serotonin are positioned at the most advantageous levels for positive mood and euphoric feelings (Morris & Tarren, 2005). Chocolate also contains phenylethylalanine, a natural antidepressant, and theobromine, which promotes relaxation and decreases stress (Sheth, 2014). To get the highest benefit, choose chocolate with a high cocoa content, around 70 to 85%.
Pineapple is rich in tryptophan which, as we covered above, elevates our mood by boosting serotonin levels. It also has high levels of the enzyme bromelain. A clinical study with 77 adults found that anxiety and depression were lowered after ingesting bromelain (Chestnut Hill Farms, 2020). Did you know that pineapple is the only food that contains bromelain? The only other way to get it is in supplement form. Another happiness benefit from pineapples? Vitamin C! Vitamin C is not produced in the body, so we must get it from foods. There are so many benefits we receive from vitamin C, including mood improvement. 1 cup of pineapple contains 79mg of vitamin c; more than a serving of mango, kiwi, grapefruit, and even orange (Chestnut Hill Farms, 2020).
The carbs in sweet potatoes aid in serotonin production (D’Ambrosio, 2017). When we eat carbs, insulin is released in the body which promotes amino acid absorption and leaves tryptophan in the blood (Healthline, 2020). Mixing high-tryptophan foods with carbs can give us a little serotonin boost. A big reason why we crave carbs when we are stressed, sleep-deprived, sad, bored or (for women) PMSing is because of the serotonin boost it gives us (Deans, 2012). Interestingly, eating protein with carbs actually blocks the availability of tryptophan, therefore it is impossible for serotonin to be synthesized this way (Benton, 2002). I like to snack on sweet potato roasted with cinnamon.
Benton, D. (2002). Carbohydrate ingestion, blood glucose and mood. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 26(3), 293-308.
Chestnut Hill Farms (2020, Feb. 12). How eating pineapple can improve your happiness. Chestnut Hill Farms. https://www.chfusa.com/blog/pineapples-improve-happiness/#:~:text=Luckily%2C%20pineapple%20contains%2010%20mg,problems%20and%20possibly%20even%20depression.
Chestnut Hill Farms (2020, May 6). When it comes to vitamin c, pineapple is queen. Chestnut Hill Farms. https://www.chfusa.com/blog/pineapple-queen-of-vitamin-c/#more-3841
D’Ambrosio, A. (2017, Nov. 16). 5 mood boosting foods. Dietetic Directions. https://dieteticdirections.com/5-mood-boosting-foods/#:~:text=Sweet%20Potato&text=Sweet%20potatoes%20can%20also%20prevent,potatoes%20help%20with%20serotonin%20production.
Deans, E. (2012, March 11). Do carbs keep you sane? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolutionary-psychiatry/201203/do-carbs-keep-you-sane
Dfarhud, D., Malmir, M., & Khanahmadi, M. (2014). Happiness & health: The biological factors- systematic review article. Iranian Journal of Public Health, 43(11), 1468-1477.
Healthline (2020, Aug. 31). 7 foods that could boost your serotonin: The serotonin diet. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/healthy-sleep/foods-that-could-boost-your-serotonin
Medical News Today (2018, July 10). How to boost serotonin and improve mood. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322416
Morris, K. & Tarren, D. (2005, Nov.) Eating your way to happiness: Chocolate, brain metabolism, and mood. Karger Gazette, 68.
Sheth, R. (2014, Feb. 20). Why does chocolate make us happy? Sather Health. https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~sather/why-does-chocolate-make-us-happy/
Young, S.N. (2007). How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, 32(6), 394-399.