Feeling the chaos? Food can help your mood.

Feeling the chaos? Food can help your mood.

Feeling a little… stressed these days? The good news is that to a large degree we have the means at hand to soothe stress. You probably know about stress reduction through exercise and mind-body work such as yoga and/or meditation — but did you know that food can help? 

In writing The Healthy Mind Cookbook, my science-writer partner Mat Edelson and I drilled into recent research to understand how food works to influence stress and mood. Here’s a summary for you to briefly contemplate so you can grasp how what you put on the end of your fork matters!

In search of tryptophan

When cortisol floods the body constantly, which occurs when we’re stressed, it causes the body to break down the amino acid tryptophan more rapidly. This is decidedly not a good thing for your mood, because the higher the levels of tryptophan that stay in the body, the more tryptophan there is to convert into—wait for it—serotonin. Serotonin is the brain’s happy hormone. So, under certain conditions, more tryptophan = more serotonin = better mood. 

It’s important to note that tryptophan is just one of many amino acids vying for the brain’s attention and absorption. So what you’re looking for is foods that have a high ratio of tryptophan in their overall amino acid profile, which increases the odds that tryptophan will make it through the so-called blood/brain barrier and be usable by the brain. 

Where to find this magic food combo? In pumpkin and sesame seeds! Pumpkin seeds are my go-to stress-busters, my mini antidepressants. Another way of keeping tryptophan in the system is by making sure you get a larger proportion of vegetables on your plate with each protein-filled meal. According to nutrition expert Dr. Michael Greger, the carbs in plant foods are known to cause an insulin release that, Greger writes, “causes our muscles to take up many of the non-tryptophan amino acids as fuel, potentially leaving our tryptophan first in line for brain access.

Another mood enhancer may be omega-3 fatty acids. These are found in cold-water fish, such as wild salmon, and in walnuts. Researchers looking at Japanese culture noted a marked lack of depression (as much as 90 percent less than among Americans); they also discovered that the Japanese, on average, ate fifteen times more omega-3s than Americans. Investigators in a large study in Montreal found that supplementing the diet with omega-3s brought relief to some patients with major depression who did not have anxiety issues. Other investigators, including Dr. Andrew Weil, cite a diet rich in anti-inflammatory ingredients, such as sardines and extra-virgin olive oil, to be helpful in reducing depression, and Ohio State researchers found that fighting inflammation with omega-3s lowered anxiety in some students.

Let’s eat!

Ready for some delicious recipes that deliver the magic tryptophan combo to help knock back stress and elevate your mood?


My Triple Triple Brittle is a huge hit from The Healthy Mind Cookbook, and no wonder! Not only is it DELICIOUS for the tongue and good for the brain, but it’s the perfect carry around snack AND if you want to make your family or coworkers happy, THIS is it. Super satisfying. 

All I can say is get out your camera, cause when you make this dish, you’re going to want to take a picture of it before you serve it. It’s just that pretty, with the peach of the salmon, the ruby red jewels of the pomegranate seeds, the vibrant green of the parsley. The taste is no less sensational, the citrus and herbs playing wonderfully off the salmon’s healthy blend of omega-3 rich fats. This one will energize all your senses.

From The Longevity Kitchen, a lovely symphony of flavors and health. Sweet dates, peppery arugula, creamy goat cheese, toasty walnuts, and sprightly mint do a lovely dance together. 

This could become a huge favorite!