What to Eat when You're Feeling Blue

Photo: ThinkstockBy Corrie Pikul

Happy Fruit
Oranges and papaya are high in vitamin B6 and folic acid, both of which have been found to be lacking in studies in patients who suffer from depression.

Added perk: Many people swear that these fruits, with their pleasantly tangy scent and cheery orange hues, help wake up the senses.

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The Thinking Woman's Pick-Me-Up
Fish oil is famously high in polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential to brain function and cardiovascular health. While there is an established link between people with depression and low levels of these omega-3 fatty acids, scientists are still trying to definitively prove that the reverse is also true. Some encouraging studies found that omega-3s have boosted the mood-elevating power of prescription antidepressants; in another large study, omega-3 supplements improved the symptoms of those diagnosed with depression but who do not suffer from anxiety (although this research was funded by the makers of the supplements). Try sashimi of wild salmon, mackerel and arctic char, all of which have high levels omega-3s and low levels of mercury.

Added perk: Because sashimi is low in calories and saturated fats, incorporating it into your diet will ensure you're still smiling when you step on the scale.

The Mood Enhancer for Those with a Taste for the Exotic
Saffron, a spice made from the dried stigmas of crocus plants, is popular in Middle Eastern, Spanish and Indian cuisine. It's also been used to treat depression (and right other internal wrongs) in traditional Persian medicine and as a nerve-calming medicinal incense in Tibetan healing practices. There isn't a wealth of research to back up saffron's effect on mood, but a series of smaller experiments from Iran, which produces most of the world's saffron, showed promising results: Capsules of 30 mg of saffron were more effective at lifting depression than a placebo and were also found to be as effective as Prozac. Saffron can be expensive, and it will take about 15 strands (there are only 3 per flower) to make up a 30 mg dose, according to Duke's Handbook of Medicinal Herbs of the Bible. But consider this your excuse to enjoy an extra helping of paella, the Mediterranean fish stew that owes its color and unique flavor to the spice.

Added perk: Paella is usually served family-style, and sharing it with friends can distract you from your problems.

Bliss in a Bar
Most of us discovered the mood-boosting powers of chocolate by age 2. And it's no surprise that we get hooked on it young: Studies have shown that chocolate contains chemical compounds that can have similar effects on the brain as marijuana. Some think chocolate's power comes from serotonin-boosting carbs; others say it has chemicals that boost dopamine; still others say it's the pleasure from satisfying your craving that cheers you up. Regardless of the reason, many people report feeling better after a few squares (of course, they feel worse--or at least guiltier--after eating a lot of squares).

Added perk: The caffeine in the chocolate can also rev up your energy.

A (Legal) Bummer-Busting Plant
St. John's wort is a yellow-flowered plant (also known as Hypericum perforatum) that has been used for centuries as a medicinal cure-all. Science recently bolstered the herb's rep: In a 2009 review of 29 international studies, St. John's wort came out ahead of placebos as a treatment for depression and was as effective in treating mild to moderate depression as several popular prescription antidepressants (however, two other studies conducted in the U.S. were not able to back up these claims). Preliminary research suggests that St. John's wort may work by preventing nerve cells in the brain from reabsorbing chemical messengers like dopamine and serotonin.

The catch: Unlike the other treatments mentioned here, St. John's wort can have serious side effects, and it can interfere with other medications (like antidepressants and birth control pills), so get your doctor's go-ahead before trying it.

A Sure Thing for Carb-aholics
There's a hypothesis that carbs can help your brain produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates moods, explains Judith J. Wurtman, PhD, the author of The Serotonin Power Diet. In clinical studies Wurtman carried out as a researcher at MIT, when carbohydrate-craving volunteers drank a high-carb beverage, they showed measurable improvements in mood, concentration and energy levels. So if you're having bagel fantasies during what Wurtman calls the "carb craving time," between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., she suggests trying a sweet and starchy snack of about 120 calories and 25 to 30 grams of carbs (note: this advice is not recommended for diabetics, who have a complicated relationship with carbs). Wurtman says that easily digested simple carbs will boost mood right away, while complex carbs take longer to digest, making them a "time-release" happy pill. Her recommendations combine both types of carbs: a whole-wheat English muffin with jam, oatmeal with raisins or honey on whole-wheat crackers.

Added perk: Carbohydrate-cravers will feel the mood-lifting effects within 20 minutes, says Wurtman.

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