Typically, the term “feel-good” food conjures up images of mac and cheese, French fries, fried chicken, and other comfort foods. (It’s in the name, after all.) And while it can’t be denied that a piece of pizza or chocolate can be happy-making on a bad day, there’s not really much else they can do for one’s mood besides providing a temporary boost. Which is why I was intrigued to see a crop of healthier products across the food, drink, and supplement space branding themselves as happiness boosters, whether it’s through the power of stress-busting adaptogenic blends or improved gut health.
Kara Nielsen, the vice president of trends and marketing at CCD Innovation, isn’t surprised that there has been an uptick in interest around mood-boosting products. “The overarching quest for happiness has grown recently,” she says. “Issues like global warming, poverty, immigration, and politics have always happened to the human race, but the issues are very acute right now. We’re super stressed out.”
At the same time. Nielsen says there is a growing interest in (and acceptance of) holistic nutrition, including Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine. “Science and medicine are making some very powerful connections between stress and health—and also sleep and health,” she says. “We’re moving into this newer definition of what good health is, which includes sleep, stress, mindfulness.” She adds that gut health and the brain-gut connection is another thing people are increasingly interested in.
She also points out that while functional foods, drinks, and supplements aren’t necessarily new, the formulations and the way we talk about them has evolved. “Right now, herbs and ancient medicine are the focus, while in the past it was more of a designer chemistry lab-focused, like Red Bull,” Nielsen says.
Looking for another happy-making food? You’ll love these mood-lifting energy balls:
Stacey Gillespie, the director of product strategy at Gaia Herbs, says the brand created their Mood Uplift supplement ($24) with the goal of using herbs to support the nervous system, help the body cope with daily stress, and contribute to a more positive outlook. In the blend are St. John’s wort, milky oats, passionflower, blue vervain, gotu kola, ginkgo, and rosemary. Gillespie says they do lots of research to ensure that the formulation has the right amount of truly beneficial ingredients. Sun Potion, Moodbeli, and Anima Mundi are three other brands that create various adaptogenic blends with mood-boosting in mind, among other benefits, depending on the blend you choose.
Then there’s new functional tonic line Sunwink. Each blend is created with medicinal doses of herbs so that the effects are actually felt after consuming. Their Lemon-Rose Uplift blend ($60 for 12 bottles) is made with lemon balm, rose, hibiscus, and damiana. “Herbalists usually suggest allowing one to two weeks to begin noticing the long term benefits of herbs, but consumers have told us they’ve noticed a boost immediately,” says the brand’s founder and CEO Eliza Timpson (who’s an herbalist herself).
But adaptogens aren’t the only agents being used in mood-boosting products. As Nielsen points out, gut health is another conduit brands are pursuing by using prebiotics and probiotics in their products. When massive mainstream food giant Kellogg’s decided to release a probiotic cereal, they literally named it Happy Inside ($40 for 10). Australian brand Uplift Foods created what they call a “psychiobiotic gut healthy prebiotic blend” ($35) to drive home the idea that a healthy gut is directly related to a better mood.
These are all exciting products, but herbalist and certified holistic health coach Rachelle Robinett wants people to keep things in perspective. “If only we could stop looking for our magic bullet,” she says. “Something I always tell people is that if they are going to spend all their money on herbs or supplements, their diet and lifestyle need to be in a good place. You have to check those boxes first,” she says.
There also many potential reasons why a person could be unhappy, Robinett says—undiagnosed health conditions like gut or hormonal imbalances, mental health issues, external stimuli, etc. Herbs can only help with some of those conditions, and certain underlying conditions require more help from a trusted practitioner. “This is why it’s important to work with a trained professional if you are truly hoping to change your mood using herbs,” she says. She adds that some herbs, like St. John’s wort, can also interfere with prescription meds, so it’s important to fill your doctor in, too.
That’s not to say that Robinette thinks the above-mentioned products have no purpose—au contraire! But it’s about understanding that they can be one aspect of an overall healthy lifestyle, not a quick fix. And be patient about seeing results. For example, adaptogens can take up to eight to 10 weeks of daily dosage to truly take effect, she says. “If you do plan on using a product in this way, it’s especially important to look into the sourcing of their herbs, especially with supplements,” she says. With patience, you might see a little extra joy in your future, too.