The Top 15 Foods + Supplements For Mood Support
Anxiety, sadness, and stress can be a part of life for the majority of us but when these feelings engulf every second of every day, that’s a major red flag. And with rates of anxiety and depression skyrocketing in modern society, it’s important to do everything we can to protect our mental health.
In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, I work with people on a daily basis to maintain a healthy mood and overcome anxiety and depression as naturally as possible. While there is a place for conventional medicine it can come with a lot of side-effects and doesn’t always address the root cause.
Read on to learn more about what triggers mood imbalances and the best foods and supplements for mood support so you can enjoy every second of your life.
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Symptoms of mood imbalance
We all have off days. But off days that turn into off weeks, months, and years are worth paying attention to. Symptoms of a more serious mood imbalance can include:
- Changes in sleep
- Chronic fatigue
- Changes in appetite
- Weight fluctuation
- Brain fog or difficulty concentrating
- Persistent anxiety
- Aggression or irritability
- Unrelenting sadness
- Loss of interest in once enjoyable activities
If you are experiencing a few or all of these symptoms, chances are there is a bigger issue underneath the surface than just having a bad day. In fact, it all goes back to your gut and brain health.
The gut-mood connection
Fascinating new research is looking at how inflammation can damage the brain’s protective blood-brain barrier (BBB) and possibly lead to brain problems such as anxiety and depression in what is now often referred to as neurological autoimmunity. (1)
This inflammation activates the brain’s immune microglia cells, which can trigger an inflammatory-autoimmune response. In other words, people’s immune systems might be attacking their brain and nervous tissue in response to inflammation that could have started somewhere else entirely, such as in the gut.
This is because your gut and brain are connected through what is known as your gut-brain connection. Both of the proteins that govern gut permeability - occludin and zonulin - also control the permeability of your blood-brain barrier. When your gut is compromised chances are your brain is too and you will feel sad, moody, and cranky. Want a clear example of this? Serotonin - your body’s “happy” neurotransmitter - is made and stored in your gut.
What supplements can help mood?
Supplements for mood support can range between herbs, vitamins, and other compounds. Since many of my patients want to improve their mood without the use of conventional medication (although sometimes necessary) people often ask me “what can I take naturally to improve my mood?” These are my top recommendations for the best mood supplements.
1. St. John’s Wort
The power of St. John’s wort has caught on in Germany. This natural herb is used and recommended more often than Prozac and other antidepressants by doctors! Long-term studies have supported its ability to stabilize mood but more research needs to be done to better determine just how effective it is. (2)
This and other adaptogens like rhodiola have been used for thousands of years for their ability to restore balance to your HPA axis and level out high cortisol levels that play a role in stress and anxiety. Research shows significant reduction in cortisol levels and self-reported stress and anxiety symptoms in those taking ashwagandha. (3)
In my functional medicine clinic, I have seen the immense power of ashwagandha supplementation for stress and anxiety. However, it can be difficult to find a high-quality, effective supplement with so many options on the market. That’s why I developed The Brain-Adrenal Balancer formulated with a curated blend of clinically tested and proprietary herbal blends and nutrients like ashwagandha and L-theanine.
This nutrient plays a significant role in regulating neurotransmitter pathways so it is not surprising that deficiency is often linked to symptoms of depression. Recent studies have looked into this connection and have found that regular high-level supplementation with zinc was able to improve symptoms of depression by 28%. (4)
Magnesium deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies for 50-90% of the population and has been consistently linked to increased rates of depression and anxiety. This is believed to be due to the fact that magnesium works in the brain to calm down the excitatory NMDA receptor that when left unchecked can lead to depression and anxiety. (5)
However, many forms of magnesium have low absorption rates. That’s why I went ahead and formulated The Magnesium with magnesium compounds backed by research and studies for their enhanced bioavailability – specifically Albion chelated magnesium plus MagteinTM (magnesium L-threonate), the only form of magnesium proven in animal studies to cross the blood-brain barrier.
This amino acid binds to glutamate and NMDA neurotransmitter receptors in the brain and increases levels of serotonin, GABA, and dopamine. A study published in the medical journal Acta Neuropsychiatrica were able to see that l-theanine was able to alleviate symptoms of poor sleep, anxiety, and depression in those with Major Depressive Disorder in as little as 8 weeks. (6)
6. B Vitamins
What is the best vitamin for mood? There are few that can hold a candle to B Vitamins as certain B Vitamins like B12 and folate are needed for healthy production and regulation of “happy” neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) that when low, increases rates of anxiety and depression. (7)
Not all B Vitamins are created equally, so if you are going to add in a supplement, you’ll want to make sure it is an activated B Vitamin complex that includes more bioavailable versions of all B vitamins - as there are multiple kinds - like my supplement The Methylator.
Short for S-adenosyl-L-methionine, SAMe is a naturally occurring chemical in all of your body’s cells and plays a role in hundreds of important pathways. SAMe is often used in conjunction with or in place of antidepressants without the more common side-effects of conventional antidepressants. While further studies need to be done on SAMe’s long-term effectiveness, recent studies have shown promise for its ability to decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression, especially in milder cases of depression. (8)
As we have seen, your mood depends heavily on the health of your gut. Keep your gut microbiome thriving with the proper balance of good bacteria. A daily probiotic like my supplement The Probiotic, can ensure you are getting a regular dose of necessary bacteria in addition to eating more probiotic-rich foods.
Foods to eat to improve mood
1. Chamomile tea
The ultimate calming tea, chamomile is an easy and delicious anti-anxiety medicine. This soothing, mild tea was shown to significantly decrease anxiety symptoms in just a few weeks of regular use. (9)
This exotic spice is also an anti-inflammatory powerhouse and because of this, can be a profound mood-booster. Curcuminoids, the antioxidants in turmeric, have a neuroprotective quality and were shown in a randomized controlled trial to be an effective option for major depressive disorder, which is often closely linked to anxiety disorders. (10)
Since zinc deficiency is a major factor in depression, upping your intake of zinc-rich foods like oysters and crab can be an easy (and delicious) way to eat your way to a happier you.
4. Dark leafy greens
Dark leafy greens like spinach, kale, and Swiss chard are rich in both magnesium and B vitamins necessary for your happy neurotransmitters. Try getting in more leafy greens by sauteing them into your scrambled eggs, curries, stirred into soups, and hidden in your morning smoothies and green juices.
5. Healthy fats
About 60% of your brain is made of fat and 25% of your body’s total cholesterol is found in the brain. It makes sense that in order to support optimal brain health and reduce anxiety and depression symptoms, you would want to feed your brain exactly what it is made of.
It’s no surprise then that research shows ketogenic diets - a high fat, moderate protein, low-carb diet - have similar effects to antidepressants. (11) Even just adding more healthy fats into your diet can greatly improve symptoms of depression. (12) Some of my favorite sources of healthy fats include wild-caught fish, avocados, hemp seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, olive oil, avocado oil, and coconuts.
6. Green tea
Green tea has some of the highest levels of l-theanine with one regular cup having as much as 25mg. Black tea and white tea also contain decent levels of l-theanine if you prefer those varieties over green tea.
Turkey contains high levels of the amino acid tryptophan which is a precursor to serotonin. Since your body doesn’t produce tryptophan naturally, it is necessary to get in through your diet. Studies have linked tryptophan intake - specifically from meat sources like turkey - to lower rates of anxiety disorders. (13)
Foods to avoid to improve mood
The sweet stuff is fuel for the anxiety fire. In fact, many studies have shown that the more sugar you eat (specifically the refined kind), the worse your anxiety can be. (14) This can be traced back to your gut-brain connection. Sugar is the perfect fuel for bad bacteria that contributes to anxiety overload. For example, studies have shown (15) that lower levels of beneficial bacteria, Bifidobacterium longum and Lactobacillus helveticus are found in those struggling with anxiety.
Sugar also puts you on a blood sugar roller coaster putting your “fight or flight” response into overdrive. With a constant stream of sugar, your body doesn’t have a chance to calm down and your anxiety levels will be through the roof because you are always on high alert.
If you ever get jittery from caffeine, there’s a reason for that. Your CYP1A2 gene determines just how well you tolerate caffeine. If you are a slow metabolizer coffee and other forms of caffeine won’t be processed by your body as efficiently leading to a spike in anxiety with each sip.
You don’t have to be diagnosed with celiac disease and have gut problems to have problems with gluten as studies now suggest that celiac disease can present itself strictly as a neurological problem. (16)
This is because gluten can increase levels of the protein zonulin in your gut and your brain. Once the blood-brain barrier has been breached, your brain’s immune system – specifically its glial cells – can be activated. Glial cells can then cause an inflammatory cascade throughout the brain leading to anxiety and depression.
4. Food intolerances
While some foods like the ones above should be avoided by most people when looking to tame anxiety and depression, most other foods are less obvious. What foods trigger inflammation in you are going to be different from the foods that trigger inflammation in someone else. That’s why it is important to discover your food intolerances through an elimination diet like the one I talk about in my book The Inflammation Spectrum, or working with a functional medicine practitioner.
Seeing help from a functional medicine doctor
There’s rarely one set answer to your health problems, and mood imbalance is no exception. There are multiple factors that can contribute to poor gut, brain, and hormone health. In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, we run tests and look at all aspects of your health that could be impacting your gut-brain connection in order to determine the best dietary plan and supplements for mood support.
However, if you are dealing with severe mood problems and experiencing extreme symptoms of depression that include suicidal thoughts or ideation, it’s vital to seek professional help immediately. Counseling and conventional medication may also be necessary to use in conjunction with functional medicine dietary and supplement recommendations.
As one of the first functional medicine telehealth clinics in the world, we provide webcam health consultations for people around the globe.
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- Wolburg, Hartwig, and Andrea Lippoldt. “Tight junctions of the blood-brain barrier: development, composition and regulation.” Vascular pharmacology vol. 38,6 (2002): 323-37. doi:10.1016/s1537-1891(02)00200-8
- Linde, Klaus et al. “St John's wort for major depression.” The Cochrane database of systematic reviews vol. 2008,4 CD000448. 8 Oct. 2008, doi:10.1002/14651858.CD000448.pub3
- Chandrasekhar, K et al. “A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults.” Indian journal of psychological medicine vol. 34,3 (2012): 255-62. doi:10.4103/0253-7176.106022
- Yosaee, Somaye et al. “Zinc in depression: From development to treatment: A comparative/ dose response meta-analysis of observational studies and randomized controlled trials.” General hospital psychiatry vol. 74 (2022): 110-117. doi:10.1016/j.genhosppsych.2020.08.001
- Felice N. Jacka, Simon Overland, Robert Stewart, Grethe S. Tell, Ingvar Bjelland & Arnstein Mykletun (2009) Association between magnesium intake and depression and anxiety in community-dwelling adults: the Hordaland Health Study, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 43:1, 45-52, DOI: 10.1080/00048670802534408
- Hidese, Shinsuke et al. “Effects of chronic l-theanine administration in patients with major depressive disorder: an open-label study.” Acta neuropsychiatrica vol. 29,2 (2017): 72-79. doi:10.1017/neu.2016.33
- Kennedy, David O. “B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy--A Review.” Nutrients vol. 8,2 68. 27 Jan. 2016, doi:10.3390/nu8020068
- Sarris, Jerome et al. “S-Adenosylmethionine (SAMe) monotherapy for depression: an 8-week double-blind, randomised, controlled trial.” Psychopharmacology vol. 237,1 (2020): 209-218. doi:10.1007/s00213-019-05358-1
- Amsterdam, Jay D et al. “Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) may provide antidepressant activity in anxious, depressed humans: an exploratory study.” Alternative therapies in health and medicine vol. 18,5 (2012): 44-9.
- Sanmukhani, Jayesh et al. “Efficacy and safety of curcumin in major depressive disorder: a randomized controlled trial.” Phytotherapy research : PTR vol. 28,4 (2014): 579-85. doi:10.1002/ptr.5025
- Murphy, Patricia et al. “The antidepressant properties of the ketogenic diet.” Biological psychiatry vol. 56,12 (2004): 981-3. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2004.09.019
- Jacka, F.N., O’Neil, A., Opie, R. et al. A randomised controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial). BMC Med 15, 23 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-017-0791-y
- Hudson, Craig et al. “Protein-source tryptophan as an efficacious treatment for social anxiety disorder: a pilot study.” Canadian journal of physiology and pharmacology vol. 85,9 (2007): 928-32. doi:10.1139/Y07-082
- Chepulis, Lynne M et al. “The effects of long-term honey, sucrose or sugar-free diets on memory and anxiety in rats.” Physiology & behavior vol. 97,3-4 (2009): 359-68. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2009.03.001
- Messaoudi, Michaël et al. “Assessment of psychotropic-like properties of a probiotic formulation (Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175) in rats and human subjects.” The British journal of nutrition vol. 105,5 (2011): 755-64. doi:10.1017/S0007114510004319
- Hadjivassiliou M, Grünewald RA, Davies-Jones GABGluten sensitivity as a neurological illnessJournal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry 2002;72:560-563.
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.