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An Airport in the UK is Offering Meals Designed to Make You Happier

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London’s Gatwick airport intends to make flying a little less miserable. Last month, the airport announced that its terminal restaurants were working with a nutritionist to design meals chock-full of serotonin, a mood-influencing neurotransmitter believed to be important to feelings of well-being (the most common antidepressants, SSRIs, are designed to increase serotonin levels). 

These meals, indicated by a smiley face on menus, include ingredients like salmon, chickpeas, bananas, and oats, according to The Telegraph“Happiness is a complex thing," airport nutritionist Jo Travers told the British newspaper, "but there are certain foods that will help the ‘happy’ chemicals in your brain to keep flowing.”

But don’t expect to find a newfound joy in flying after grabbing a banana and a salmon salad. The chemical cocktail of happiness is a little more complicated than that, and eating serotonin isn’t going to lift your mood. 

While eating healthy at the airport might help you feel a little better than hitting up McDonald's (just as it would on a normal day), a lot of serotonin in your stomach doesn’t translate into serotonin in your brain. “Although it is true that bananas contain serotonin, it does not cross the blood–brain barrier,” Simon Young, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at McGill University, wrote in a 2007 study on the neurotransmitter. 

The same may be the case for other chemicals rumored to have anti-depressant qualities, like tryptophan (the chemical in turkey and other foods like cheese, soybeans, and egg whites). The amino acid is key to producing serotonin in the brain, but Young argues that “although purified tryptophan increases brain serotonin, foods containing tryptophan [like turkey] do not.”

However, α-lactalbumin, a whey protein in milk with a high tryptophan content, has been shown to improve people’s ability to cope with stress. The best way to get that protein is through breast milk, where it’s the dominant protein. Unfortunately, regular cow’s milk has it in much lower concentrations.

And some studies have found that in adolescents, better nutrition can translate into better behavior. In a study of violent young adult prisoners ages 18 to 21, kids who received food supplements with all their daily requirements of vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids committed 26 percent fewer offenses than kids who received a placebo. 

The links between nutrition and chemical happiness are complex, and eating a nutrition-rich food like salmon isn’t quite the same as taking an anti-depressant. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t opt for a healthy salad instead of a burger and fries at the airport. Just don’t expect to be skipping down the terminal to your plane afterward. 

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Feeling Down? Lifting Weights Can Lift Your Mood, Too
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There’s plenty of research that suggests that exercise can be an effective treatment for depression. In some cases of depression, in fact—particularly less-severe ones—scientists have found that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants, which don’t work for everyone and can come with some annoying side effects. Previous studies have largely concentrated on aerobic exercise, like running, but new research shows that weight lifting can be a useful depression treatment, too.

The study in JAMA Psychiatry, led by sports scientists at the University of Limerick in Ireland, examined the results of 33 previous clinical trials that analyzed a total of 1877 participants. It found that resistance training—lifting weights, using resistance bands, doing push ups, and any other exercises targeted at strengthening muscles rather than increasing heart rate—significantly reduced symptoms of depression.

This held true regardless of how healthy people were overall, how much of the exercises they were assigned to do, or how much stronger they got as a result. While the effect wasn’t as strong in blinded trials—where the assessors don’t know who is in the control group and who isn’t, as is the case in higher-quality studies—it was still notable. According to first author Brett Gordon, these trials showed a medium effect, while others showed a large effect, but both were statistically significant.

The studies in the paper all looked at the effects of these training regimes on people with mild to moderate depression, and the results might not translate to people with severe depression. Unfortunately, many of the studies analyzed didn’t include information on whether or not the patients were taking antidepressants, so the researchers weren’t able to determine what role medications might play in this. However, Gordon tells Mental Floss in an email that “the available evidence supports that [resistance training] may be an effective alternative and/or adjuvant therapy for depressive symptoms that could be prescribed on its own and/or in conjunction with other depression treatments,” like therapy or medication.

There haven’t been a lot of studies yet comparing whether aerobic exercise or resistance training might be better at alleviating depressive symptoms, and future research might tackle that question. Even if one does turn out to be better than the other, though, it seems that just getting to the gym can make a big difference.

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