Manage Holiday Emotions with Mood-Enhancing Food

Submitted by Connie Scott, MSM, RD, CSSD on December 09, 2019

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How are you managing your holiday emotions?

The winter holidays typically involve celebratory events or activities. This special time to socialize, eat, drink and be merry can be wonderful and energizing. However, for some, the holidays can also bring stress, anxiety and sometimes sadness. People handle these feelings in different ways, but many resort to excessive eating and drinking, which can lead to depression, irritability, mood swings and insomnia. 

Healthy thanksgiving foods

You can better manage these feelings with the help of serotonin.

Serotonin is a natural mood enhancer. In the body, serotonin is a chemical that helps nerve cells “talk” to each other by sending signals that can positively impact mood, sleep habits, hunger cues and stress responses. Foods that are high in tryptophan (an amino acid) and vitamin B6, vitamin B12 and folate (folic acid) help to make serotonin. Foods high in healthy carbohydrates move these serotonin-building nutrients to the brain while providing you with long-lasting energy.

Keep your mood, stress, sleep and hunger in better control with the following serotonin-boosting foods:

Tryptophan

Chicken, turkey, fish, beef, pork, nuts, seeds, tofu, cheese, eggs, oats, beans, lentils, spinach, dates, bananas and dark chocolate (70-85% cocoa)

Vitamin B6

Chicken, fish, pork, eggs, bananas, non-citrus fruits and starchy vegetables

Vitamin B12

Chicken, turkey, fish, beef, pork, cheese, milk, yogurt and fortified foods, such as non-dairy milks and cereals

Folate

Beef liver, asparagus, Brussels sprouts and dark green, leafy vegetables, such as spinach and mustard greens, fruits and fruit juices (especially citrus), nuts, beans, peanuts, black-eyed peas, kidney beans and fortified foods such as cereals, grains and bread

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Found naturally in salmon, trout, mackerel, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds and soybeans will also boost serotonin levels.

Holiday meals and treats, like pies, cookies, rolls, turkey, beef and pasta, which are usually high in refined sugars and carbohydrates or protein can overload our system with quick-acting, but short-lived energy. Too much protein can crowd out tryptophan and those healthy B vitamins mentioned above, resulting in lower serotonin levels. Lower serotonin triggers us to eat again via a craving—when we reach for something sugary, fatty or salty with the hopes of returning to high serotonin levels to quickly improve our mood. This quick fix is not a great long-term solution and can impact our health.

What is the better solution?

Plan to eat a moderate amount of protein at each meal (the size of the palm of your hand) and each snack (the size of your thumb) in combination with a healthy carbohydrate, such as whole grain breads, crackers or cereals, legumes, fruit or vegetables to raise serotonin levels slowly and for a longer period of time. The results are a better and more stable mood, restful sleep, less anxiety, decreased cravings and a better holiday season.

Connie Scott, MSM, RDN, CSSD, MS-Candidate, is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and is a certified specialist in sports dietetics. She works at Chesapeake Regional’s Lifestyle Health & Wellness Center in Diabetes and Nutrition Services.