8 Uplifting Foods that Will Heal Your Heart

These superfoods are some of the latest picks for maintaining optimal heart and emotional health.

October 11, 2017
Reishi Mushroom
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Adapted from Heal Your Heart: The Positive Emotions Prescription to Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease

You may know more than you think you do about the connection between mood and food. Have you ever been stressed out and turned to a carb-heavy meal for solace? Or felt down in the dumps and shared your sorrow with Ben and Jerry? On the other end of the spectrum, have you ever felt foggy-brained and sluggish and "medicated" yourself with a double espresso or a hunk of dark chocolate? Emotional eating is familiar to almost all of us, and they don't call it comfort food for nothing.

More: 9 Simple Ways to Boost Your Heart Health

It turns out that there's a neurological basis for why some of us turn to an ice cream sundae for a little stress relief after a tense day at work. And it all has to do with the neurotransmitter known as serotonin.

You may be wondering how you can boost your levels of feel-good serotonin. If you're interested in a drug-free way of boosting your serotonin levels, you have four excellent options—all of which happen to have a positive effect on cardiovascular function, as well. They are exercise; exposure to sunlight; improving your mood through self-directed means, such as meditation or positive thinking; and diet.

More: 6 Unexpected Heart Attack Triggers

Here are eight foods that are just beginning to make it into the public eye. Take a look at these for the latest trends in superfoods for heart and emotional health.

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1. Dragon fruit

Dragon fruit, or red pitaya (pictured above), is native to Mexico and Central and South America. It has a pleasant, mood-uplifting taste resembling that of kiwifruit, with hints of pear. This fruit is an excellent source of antioxidants, and in animal studies it's been shown to improve glucose control and blood pressure and to reduce stiffness and aging of arteries.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has only permitted dragon fruit to be imported within the past decade, so you'll have the most success finding it at your local Asian market. Don't eat the skin, but rather spoon out the flesh and cut it into cubes. Try it in a salad or on its own.  

More: Heart-Healthy Versions of Your 11 Favorite Foods

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2. Guarana

Also known as Brazilian cocoa, guarana seeds are rich in caffeine and antioxidant tannins. Taking guarana extract at a dose as low as 37.5 milligrams daily is associated with improved mood and alertness.

With respect to heart disease prevention, guarana reduces oxidation of LDL and platelet clumping—both of which raise heart attack risk (along with these other heart attack triggers). Compared to those who don't eat it, elderly folks living in the Amazon who eat guarana tend to have a healthier metabolic profile, including lower blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as reduced waistlines in men.

While these studies neither prove that guarana use reduces heart attacks or strokes nor exclude the potential benefit of the caffeine content, they do represent a starting point to support additional research into and testing of this compound. You only need a very small amount (such as one drop of purified liquid guarana extract) to get about 50 milligrams of guarana to boost mood.

More: The Best Memory-Boosting Foods

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3. Indian gooseberry (AMLA)

Lots of exciting studies have recently come to light supporting Indian gooseberry as a mood-elevating food (along with these other mood-boosting treats) with a host of cardioprotective features. While cholesterol- and triglyceride-lowering effects have been shown after eating gooseberries raw or in powder form, the concentrated extract was recently shown to possess powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Healthy volunteers taking 500 milligrams of purified extract for 2 weeks showed significant reduction in artery stiffness.

Indian gooseberries may be available at your local Asian market. They have a very sour taste, though they'll taste sweeter if you have a sip of cold water with them. I would recommend starting with just one berry a day. Many enjoy using ½ to 1 teaspoon of the fruit in organic amla powder form in smoothies. You may also consider obtaining it in frozen form in Asian markets or purchasing it in bottled (pickled) or powder form. 

More: 10 Foods That Can Wreck Your Mood

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4. Lucuma

This subtropical Peruvian fruit is also known as Incan Gold because of its rich flesh color and deliciously sweet maple flavor. Lucuma is a rich source of the mood-uplifting chemicals magnesium and zinc, and in recent years, it has also been shown to exhibit antioxidant, antidiabetic, and antihypertensive properties.

The easiest way to obtain lucuma is in powder form from your local health food store or from an online outlet. Powdered lucuma can be added to smoothies or used to make the popular Peruvian lucuma-flavored ice cream. The typical serving size is 1 tablespoon (10 to 15 grams). 

More: 5 Proven Ways to Naturally Lower Your Cholesterol

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5. Maqui berry (Chilean wineberry)

With a taste like blackberries, the delicious and mood-uplifting Chilean maqui berry is superhigh in the purple antioxidant pigment anthocyanin. Like other foods with powerful antioxidants, maqui berries reduce oxidation of LDL, thereby keeping angry macrophages at bay and reducing foam cells, the precursor of cholesterol plaques. They also protect us against the oxidative damage we face each day caused by stress and pollutants in our environment. Maqui berries also have anti-inflammatory properties and antidiabetic effects; they improve insulin sensitivity so that glucose can be more readily taken up by our muscles.

Unless you are visiting Chile, the best way to get maqui berries is in freeze-dried, organic maqui powder. The serving size is about 1 gram daily. 

More: 11 Foods to Avoid for Anti-Inflammatory Eating

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6. Mucuna bean

Also known as velvet beans, this Indian herbal aphrodisiac contains L-dopa, the precursor of dopamine, and has been used to treat depression as well as combat symptoms associated with Parkinson's disease.

In animal models, the mucuna bean has also been shown to lower cholesterol and triglycerides and to possess both glucose-lowering and anti-inflammatory properties.

Organic velvet bean farms are sprouting up here in the United States, and the beans can now be purchased online whole or in mucuna bean powder form. While the taste of velvet beans is delicious, the amount to consume for positive emotional benefits and heart health has yet to be established. Raw velvet beans can be toxic, however, so the beans must be thoroughly soaked and cooked before eating. (The downside of cooking is that it reduces the bean's L-dopa content.) Using 5 grams daily of a purified roasted powder reduces some symptoms of Parkinson's disease. If you are healthy and trying mucuna bean powder for the first time, I would recommend much smaller doses, such as 2 or 3 grams. Side effects such as vomiting or mind-altering effects would not be expected at low doses, but they have been reported at a dose of 30 grams per day. 

More: The Fatty Food That Can Lower Your Cholesterol

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7. Reishi mushroom

Also known as the lingzhi or supernatural mushroom, reishi mushrooms have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for millennia. They have a host of cardioprotective effects that include lowering blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose, and blood clot formation.

These medicinal mushrooms may be found and purchased in fresh, dry, or powder form at your local Asian market. Adding about 1 gram of the reishi mushroom powder to smoothies, coffee, or tea may provide you with a modest boost in mood and energy. I add it, along with a teaspoon of cacao powder, to my coffee on superbusy mornings.

More: 8 Healthiest Foods You Aren't Eating

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8. Sea buckthorn berry

These delicious but tart little orange-mango-tasting berries are packed with vitamin C (10 to 15 times more than in oranges) and antioxidant flavonoids like quercetin. The sweet, aromatic scent has mood-uplifting effects. Originally found in the Himalayan regions, sea buckthorn shrubs have now been cultivated in cooler North American climates, including certain parts of Canada and the United States.

More: The 11 Best Smoothie Ingredients

A Finnish study of 110 overweight women found that replacement of part of the normal diet with 3½ ounces of these berries for one month was associated with lowering of cholesterol and triglycerides. This study adds to prior studies showing mild weight reduction and reduced inflammation. Similar results were obtained with bilberries.

If you do not live in a climate conducive to finding these berries at your farmer's market, they can be purchased as sea buckthorn berry powder online. Make sure to choose a reputable manufacturer who has a record of only selling products free of mercury, cadmium, and other toxins.

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