PhotoEver wonder why eating some foods just make you feel better? New evidence suggests it's because their natural ingredients bear a striking chemical similarity to valproic acid, a widely used prescription mood-stabilizing drug.

Valproic acid is used to treat bipolar disorder and major depression and is marketed under the names Depakote, Depakote ER, Depakene, Depacon, Depakine, Valparin and Stavzor.

A research team attending the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society presented findings from a study of more than 1,7000 substances that contribute to the flavors of a wide variety of “comfort” foods, such as chocolate, berries and some teas.

Positive effects on mood

“Molecules in chocolate, a variety of berries and foods containing omega-3 fatty acids have shown positive effects on mood,” said Karina Martinez-Mayorga, Ph.D., leader of a research team that has been studying the effects of flavors on mood.

“In turn, our studies show that some commonly used flavor components are structurally similar to valproic acid.”

Martinez-Mayorga said her team relied on a large body of evidence showing that chemicals in chocolate, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, teas and certain foods could well be mood-enhancers encourages. That, she said, encouraged the researchers to look for other mood modulators in food.

Drug researchers, of course, spend a lot of time working on compounds that can help patients cope with mood swings. And while food will not supplant pharmacology, Martinez-Mayorga sees room for this kind of exploration in the food industry as well. Food industry research, however, will focus on less-severe mood changes, she says.

New view of 'comfort' food

People have recognized the mood-altering properties of various foods for years. It's the whole reason we call some types of food “comfort food.” Previously, however, we just assumed the texture, smell and taste brought about this result. It was assumed to be a psychological response, often associated with pleasant childhood memories.

Now Martinez-Mayorga’s team and other research groups are seeking to identify the chemical compounds that moderate mood swings, help maintain cognitive health, improve mental alertness and delay the onset of memory loss.

She expects to see more research in this area and the identification of more foods that can have benefits beyond those of general good health. For example, in the last two years researchers have identified compounds in blueberries that can guard against cancer and cognitive decline. And while eating the right foods may keep you in better health, it's no substitute if you are already ill.

“It is important to remember that just eating foods that may improve mood is not a substitute for prescribed antidepressive drugs,” Martinez-Mayorga said.

And for people not requiring medication, she notes that eating specific foods and living a healthful lifestyle can generally boost mood.

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