Eating your way to happiness

It is a well-known scientific fact that some foods contain a higher level of amino acids that stimulate the production of what we call ‘feel good substances’ that essentially help us stay calmer and happier. Serotonin is such a substance and chocolate is such a food. But did you know that there are other foods that also have the exact same effect as chocolate on our brains and bodies? Like oatmeal, for example. Or walnuts. A handful of either (or both) in the morning is guaranteed to brighten up our days.

So what is it then, that makes these into such powerful ‘feel good foods’?

Well, when it comes to chocolate it is basically a matter of sugar and fat. When consumed in moderate amounts sugar and fat kick off the production of serotonins and endorphins in the brain, which are chemical neurotransmitters responsible for stimulating our mood-regulating hormones. In women these mood-regulating hormones have a ‘queen hormone’ called estrogen which tends to stir things up during a certain time of the month, in some women a little too much. This explains why so many of us turn to chocolate for comfort. It increases temporarily the release of serotonins and endorphins which help balance out the negative effects caused by estrogen. Chocolate also contains phenylethylamine, a sort of natural amphetamine, and, of course, caffeine.

What about oatmeal then?

Well, aside from all its precious vitamins and minerals, oatmeal contains tryptophan, which is a substance that makes serotonin. It doesn’t induce its release but actually converts into serotonin upon absorption. And this little genius only exists in certain foods, oatmeal being one of the healthier ones, mozzarella cheese and bacon being the not so healthy alternatives, especially for someone who is on a diet. The best way to prepare our daily dose of tryptophan is basically to cook ourselves a bowl of English porridge by boiling a cup of rolled oats with two cups of milk and a tablespoon of sugar until the milk has turned into a creamy, glutinous texture. Then we just ladle the porridge into a bowl and sprinkle some nuts on top.

And while on the subject of nuts… Consuming as little as a handful of walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts or even chestnuts can have a huge effect on how we will feel the rest of the day. The reason is threefold; magnesium, calcium and iron. All of them help prevent feelings of depression and anxiety, magnesium perhaps being the leader of the pack as it happens to have a major influence on the function of serotonin. In fact, serotonin depends heavily on the levels of magnesium in our bodies, without it it cannot function properly since low levels of magnesium tend to reduce the levels of serotonin, which in turn can lead to depression, anxiety and fatigue.

With serotonin being the magic word here, it seems crucial that we keep a healthy and balanced diet that doesn’t exclude any fats or nutrients, but rather increases the spectrum of those that can give our brains a push in the right direction. Because doing so, might just change our lives.

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