The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and celebration, but for many of us, they also bring stress, seasonal sadness, and maybe even a few extra pounds of cookie weight. Why not push the reset button on the holiday health by starting your day with a refreshing smoothie? This recipe has been designed specifically to feature mood supporting nutrients that will also keep you feeling satisfied (so it may be easier to pass by the cookie plate at work without regrets). 

Frozen fruits and veggies are a great start to any smoothie, as they bring the signature frosty bite to your drink without the extra water of melting ice cubes. They are also a great addition to any good mood food, as diets higher in fruits and vegetables have been linked with a lower incidence of depression [1]. For this smoothie, we recommend blueberries and spinach as your fruit and veg, because of their individual mood-boosting properties.

With more antioxidants than any other common fruit or vegetable, blueberries really pack a brain-boosting punch. They contain a high concentration of a particular type of antioxidant called a flavonoid (more specifically anthocyanin and flavonol), which can help to regulate mood, improve memory, and protect the brain from some physical aging [2]. All of these factors are important when it comes to mood, as the aging brain is associated with increased vulnerability to brain disorders such as depression [3]. Antioxidants found in blueberries may even reverse some age-related deficits in spatial working memory and short-term memory, centered in the hippocampus [2]. A recent animal study also suggested that the anti-inflammatory chemicals and antioxidants in blueberries may be beneficial to patients with PTSD and other serious mental health problems by helping to restore normal neurotransmitter balance and reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain [4].

Spinach is also a superfood. It is high in a number of beneficial nutrients like vitamins A and K, as well as fiber to keep your digestive system running smoothly. When it comes to mood and the brain, however, we are celebrating spinach for its folate and magnesium content. Nutritional scientists have shown time and again that typically, individuals with depression have lower serum levels of folate and dietary folate intake than individuals without depression [5]. This relationship alone does not prove causation, but when we look into the relationship between folate and healthy neurotransmitter synthesis, it makes sense that less folate in the diet will likely lead to reduced serotonin synthesis and availability in the brain. In fact, folate supplementation has been shown to improve the efficacy of traditional antidepressant medications [5].

Spinach also contains the mineral magnesium. About two-thirds of the American population are estimated to be magnesium deficient, and magnesium is involved in more than 325 enzymatic reactions [6]. At least one of those reactions can directly affect your mood. For example, magnesium is a cofactor for the COMT enzyme, which is involved in the metabolism of the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine [6]. 

Magnesium and folate should always walk hand-in-hand. Many people who have experienced folate deficiency also experienced the downstream symptoms of mood imbalance from insufficient or dysregulated neurotransmitter synthesis. Once the methylation cycle is stabilized with supplementation, adequate magnesium levels become more important as the body and brain need to process the increase in neurotransmitters being created [6].

Although flax seeds are another excellent source of magnesium, the reason they have been recommended for this mood-boosting smoothie is their omega-3 fatty acid content. Flax can be purchased as whole seeds or ground into a meal (which is less likely to get stuck in your teeth). Omega-3 fatty acid deficits have been associated with mood disorders and several treatment studies have indicated therapeutic benefits from omega-3 supplementation for depression [7]. An association between omega-3 fatty acid deficiency and coronary artery disease has also been suggested as an explanation for the link between coronary artery disease and depression [7]. Omega-3s are more typically associated with fish and seafood, but fish would probably be an unwelcome ingredient in a fruity breakfast drink.

Adding protein to your smoothie is a great way to make sure you stay feeling satisfied for longer after your meal. One excellent, natural protein source that will add creamy texture, tang, and probiotics to your smoothie is a plain, organic yogurt. If you are averse to or sensitive to dairy, of course, you can substitute with a non-dairy yogurt for a similar probiotic dose. You do want to be careful reading yogurt labels because high levels of sugar are often hidden by tangy flavor. This is why we suggest always buying plain and adding your own sweetener and fruit.

Although you may generally associate probiotics with your digestive system, they may actually be working to help balance your mood as well. Research shows that the gut and brain are closely connected through the gut-brain axis, a biochemical signaling relationship between the enteric nervous system in the digestive tract and the central nervous system, which includes the brain [8]. The brain and gut are connected by the vagus nerve, the longest nerve in the body, and a healthy gut is actually responsible for making many of the same neurotransmitters produced by the brain (such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA). In fact, it has been estimated that up to 90% of circulating serotonin is made in the digestive tract [8]. You can read more about supporting your gut with probiotics here. Evidence indicates that supporting the health of your gut will also support the health of your mind and mood.

Your smoothie will already have a hint of green from the spinach you’ll add, but why not make it just a little greener? Matcha green tea powder will put a pep in your step and give you a boost of calm, focused energy to start your day. The chemical constituents of green tea that have long supported its reputation as a brain food are caffeine, the amino acid L-theanine, and epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) [9]. Caffeine alone can improve performance on long-duration cognitive tasks and alertness, arousal, and vigor [9]. L-Theanine alone can help with relaxation, calmness, and reducing tension. EGCG has even been shown to have some fat-burning properties. Together, L-theanine and caffeine benefit sustained attention, memory, and suppression of distraction, and L-theanine counteracts the jitters that caffeine can cause [9].

Smoothie Recipe (makes 1 smoothie or smoothie bowl)

  • ½ cup blueberries
  • ½ cup spinach
  • ½ cup yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon matcha powder
  • 1 tablespoon flax meal (or whole seeds)
  • (optional) A drizzle of honey or agave syrup to taste (about 1 Tbsp)
  • (optional) Purified water or fruit juice to taste (about 1 Tbsp for a smoothie bowl or ½ cup for a drinkable smoothie)

By blending these ingredients, you’ll have a rather thick smoothie that is quite tart (especially if you forego the sweetener). If you prefer a smoothie bowl, you can pour these ingredients, blended, into a bowl and top with an extra drizzle of honey, a sprinkle of granola, sliced fruit like bananas or strawberries, and maybe some dried coconut for texture.

If you prefer to drink your smoothie, you’ll likely want to add more liquid to get the consistency of your preference. By adding a small amount of fruit juice (orange or apple) you can both sweeten and thin with the same liquid. Otherwise, a drizzle of honey or agave syrup makes a great sweetener, and water works just fine to thin the smoothie to your desired consistency. Add just a few tablespoons at a time while you blend.

References:

  1. Liu, Xiaoqin, et al. “Fruit and vegetable consumption and the risk of depression: a meta-analysis.” Nutrition 32.3 (2016): 296-302.
  2. Spencer, Jeremy PE. “The impact of fruit flavonoids on memory and cognition.” British Journal of Nutrition 104.S3 (2010): S40-S47.
  3. Sibille, Etienne. “Molecular aging of the brain, neuroplasticity, and vulnerability to depression and other brain-related disorders.” Dialogues in clinical neuroscience 15.1 (2013): 53.
  4. Ebenezer, Philip J., et al. “The anti-inflammatory effects of blueberries in an animal model of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” PloS one 11.9 (2016): e0160923.
  5. Bender, Ansley, Kelsey E. Hagan, and Neal Kingston. “The association of folate and depression: A meta-analysis.” Journal of psychiatric research 95 (2017): 9-18.
  6. Greenblatt, James. ”Magnesium: The Missing Link in Mental Health.” Integrated Medicine for Mental Health. November 17, 2016. “http://www.immh.org/article-source/2016/11/17/magnesium-the-missing-link-in-mental-health
  7. Parker, Gordon, et al. “Omega-3 fatty acids and mood disorders.” American Journal of Psychiatry 163.6 (2006): 969-978.
  8. Harvard Medical School. “Probiotics may help boost mood and cognitive function”. Healthbeat – Harvard Health Publishing. Accessed December 3, 2019. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/probiotics-may-help-boost-mood-and-cognitive-function 
  9. Dietz, Christina, and Matthijs Dekker. “Effect of green tea phytochemicals on mood and cognition.” Current pharmaceutical design 23.19 (2017): 2876-2905.