An expert sheds light on that old saying: ‘You are what you eat.’

It’s the changing seasons, the culminating stress, or maybe even a big move or life event—these factors can all affect our mood, often for the worse. The actual physiological and chemical reasons for a change in mood are much more complex, but what it boils down to is that life takes a toll on us, and many of us aren’t equipped to handle it all with grace.

Depleted of certain key nutrients, our brains are less able to bounce back and adapt to stress or changing environments, leading us to feel more moody and irritable. As a functional diagnostic nutrition practitioner (FDN-P), I support people every day in their health journey, part of which includes improving their moods. To avoid becoming a cast member on Grumpy Old Men or Mean Girls, I’d like to share with you a few of my favorite foods that give our brain and body nourishment to combat stress and boost mood. These are the mood-boosters I eat on a regular basis because of how much they improved my brain health, and I encourage you to eat them, too!

01. Avocado

Name just about any function in the body, and avocado can help give it a boost—brain health is one of them. Avocado plays a role in boosting sex hormone production, namely estrogen and testosterone. When our hormone levels become imbalanced (either too high or too low) due to things such as stress, infections, medication, and poor diet, it can have a big impact on our mood. Eating hormone-loving foods such as avocado helps prevent that from happening (as long as you can also keep stress at bay) and supports your body’s normal production of these hormones.

02. Cacao

Cacao, or raw chocolate, is the highest antioxidant food on the planet. According to Dr. Mercola, cacao can actually have a direct effect on your emotions and mood because it plays a role in raising serotonin (the “feel-good” chemical). It can also stimulate the release of a compound called anandamide, which can cause a slight euphoric feeling, so perhaps this is why we often crave chocolate when we’re feeling down and out. Here are a few delicious ways you can use cacao: Add 1 teaspoon of raw cacao powder to a smoothie, blend it with an avocado for a snack, or mix it with unsweetened dairy-free milk and a drop of stevia for a healthy hot chocolate.

03. Proteins

Proteins are the building blocks of our bodies. Without adequate amounts, we can end up with amino acid deficiencies, which can lower neurotransmitter levels such as serotonin and cause mood imbalances. Today, the type of protein you consume matters more than ever. If you’re a meat eater, choose only grass-fed, pasture-raised beef and dairy; free-range, hormone-free chicken and eggs; and wild-caught fish. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, choose only organic beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Though these cleaner proteins may cost you a few more dollars, they can go a long way in keeping harmful toxins and substances from conventional farming practices out of your body, especially your brain.

Bonus: Foods to Avoid to Boost Your Mood

Just as important as eating the right foods is avoiding foods that can be a detriment to your mood. Here are three that you would do well to limit or avoid altogether. 

01. Sugar

Sugar is one of the biggest culprits for poor mood. Sugar gives our bodies a massive blood sugar rush, and once it’s over (which is remarkably fast), we experience a significant drop in blood sugar levels, leaving us hungry, moody, irritable, and even anxious.

02. Gluten

Gluten is among the foods that are generally considered inflammatory (because we either can’t digest them properly or they’re highly processed and our bodies don’t recognize them). Gluten can be particularly concerning when it comes to gut health, and with more and more studies coming out about the mind-gut connection, if your gut is in distress, you can bet your brain will feel it, too. 

03. Dairy

Dairy can also be one of those inflammatory foods because many of us lack the enzyme to break it down in the first place. Not only that, dairy is a highly processed food if not from a direct and pure source, which can cause harm to our bodies and moods. If you eat dairy, make sure it’s as unprocessed as possible.

Food truly has a profound impact on our health, and by knowing the right foods to fuel our bodies, we can optimize brain function, gut function, liver function, and everything in between. Make sure the foods in this post are in your regular diet, and you’ll be supporting your brain health in incredible ways. Don’t forget to simultaneously find time to exercise and improve your sleep so you can feel better and be better.