Thanksgiving is a time of year where we get together with loved ones and reflect on what we are grateful for, but let’s face it: Thanksgiving can be a stressful time for everyone. Visiting with family whose opinions you may not agree with, dealing with travel hassles, conversing with opinionated in-laws, and even just cooking all that food! What if there were a magic pill you could take to deal with all that stress so you could get back to being grateful?
While there is no “magic pill” per se, there is magic to be found in what you decide to eat this Thanksgiving. Yes, that’s right; what you eat can have a drastic impact on your mood and mental well-being. Food is largely responsible for producing mood-boosting hormones in the body like dopamine and serotonin, and also supports good mental health through the gut–brain connection. If you’re dealing with extra stress this holiday season, here are a few tips to curate your meal to better deal with it, and help everyone you’re spending time with get along.
The Thanksgiving Turkey
Turkey is the quintessential Thanksgiving day food, unless of course you’re vegetarian or vegan, then I’ll have some other options for you. Turkey is well known to make people feel a bit drowsy and relaxed, and this is due to compounds it contains that metabolize in the body to create tryptophan. Tryptophan is a precursor to both melatonin and serotonin production. Melatonin is the hormone that regulates sleep cycles, and serotonin helps you feel happy and relaxed.
These happy, sleepy feelings get amplified because most people eat turkey with either rice or stuffing, and these carbs increase the amount of tryptophan the body makes. Most of the serotonin in the body is made in the gut from what we eat, so feeling more relaxed and happy is directly connected to eating foods that support its production, like turkey. Vegans, don’t worry! You can get the same serotonin benefits from eating spinach, seeds (mmm, pumpkin seeds), soy products, and most nuts.
While cranberries are well known for their health benefits (they increase immunity, are anti-inflammatory, and even make bacteria more sensitive to antibiotics), you may not know what a powerful ally they are for your mood. Eating cranberries has been shown to increase the amount of beneficial bacteria in your gut, which can have a direct impact on your mood and mental health. Having a healthy and robust gut flora is linked to less symptoms of depression and an elevated mood in general, likely due to all that serotonin produced in the gut. This is particularly important for those eating a meat-based diet, where you may become exposed to more harmful bacteria than good. Regulating the balance is essential for physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
The anti-inflammatory benefits of cranberry aren’t just physical: Depression is now known to be linked to inflammation. Eating anti-inflammatory foods like cranberries, turmeric, and ginger can help keep your mental health in order. Not a fan of the canned stuff? Try making a cranberry relish from scratch—you’ll thank me when you do. Try adding a touch of ginger for some extra stress-reducing benefits.
Foods that are tart and sour like cranberry have also been linked to increased willpower. This is because sour foods reduce sweet cravings, and sugar is a known enemy to willpower, being the highly addictive substance that it is. Sugar is also an enemy of healthy gut bacteria, so a healthy dose of cranberry this Thanksgiving can help your health and your mood. Don’t forget the healthy fiber in cranberries, a prebiotic that feeds your gut bacteria.
It just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without a healthy dose of pumpkin pie. Vegans, try it with some coconut whipped cream to amplify the flavor! Pumpkin has a whole host of health benefits, so much so that I consider it a superfood. One of its superpowers is in its low-carb, high-fiber content. Fiber, as mentioned above, isn’t just better for elimination, it’s food for your gut microbiome. Eating probiotic foods can add healthy bacteria to your microbiome, but you still need to feed them so they can survive, and that food is fiber. Fiber also reduces the amount of sugar absorbed into the bloodstream, and that directly translates into a better mood for you. Eating too much sugar is directly connected to mood disorders and an increase in depression, likely due to its inflammatory properties.
Whatever your reason is for wanting to reduce stress this Thanksgiving, give these three a try with a mindful approach and see how they help. It’s the little things like this that make the biggest difference in day-to-day life. Food can help you feel better, mind, body, and soul, so make it your friend this Thanksgiving and give yourself one more thing to be grateful for.
Jaya Jaya Myra is a wellness lifestyle expert and go-to media expert on mind-body wellness, stress management, mindfulness, food for mood, and natural, healthy living. She’s a best-selling author, TEDx and motivational speaker, and creator of The WELL Method for purpose-filled healthy living. Visit www.JayaJayamMyra.com