It’s probably fair to say we all experience funky moods from time to time. Maybe you wake up a little grumpy and don’t know why. Sometimes you might feel like your mind just won’t turn on, and you’re walking around in a brain fog. Don’t worry. You’re not alone, and there’s good news to help manage and avoid some of these grumpy feelings.
While this certainly isn’t a fix-all for those suffering from severe mood and neurological disorders, these foods can help provide your body with the nutrients it needs to perform some mood-boosting chemical processes, including neurotransmitter production.
Things are going to get a little nerdy here as we explore neurotransmitter synthesis and the nutrients required for these chemical processes. If you’re not so interested in the sciency/nutrient/neurotransmitter part of this article, and just want to know what to eat, check out Part 2 of this series. It won’t hurt my feelings. I love food too. However, if you’re like me and want to know more detail about how nutrients interact with your biochemistry, continue here.
In part 1 of this series, you’ll learn some important mood-related definitions. You’ll also read about some of the key nutrients needed to support a happier mood. In part 2, you’ll learn about some of the best food sources of these key nutrients.
And now, a few key definitions:
(Also, keep in mind that “excitatory” neurotransmitters (NTs) here doesn’t mean they will make you feel “excited.” It means they stimulate the brain. While inhibitory NTs are more mood-balancing.)
Neurotransmitters: Chemical messages that send and communicate information throughout the brain and body. They send these signals between nerve cells to tell your body to perform specific functions. For example, neurotransmitters tell your stomach to digest, your body to produce certain hormones, and can even affect your mood and state of mind, depending on what signal they’re sending. You may already be familiar with some neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, GABA, norepinephrine and epinephrine. However, the main neurotransmitters that affect mood and mental function are glutamate, GABA, dopamine, serotonin and acetylcholine.
Glutamate: Glutamate, or glutamic acid, is an excitatory neurotransmitter and is the most abundant NT in the brain. Excess glutamate can lead to an overstimulation of neurons resulting in excitotoxicity and possibly even neuron death. For this reason, tight controls exist, mostly in the form of GABA, to keep your body from producing excess. Glutamate is most associated with cognition, learning and memory.
GABA: GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter and the most ubiquitous inhibitory NT in the brain. GABA makes us feel calm, with deficiencies leading to anxiety, panic, seizures, mania and insomnia. Glutamate and vitamin B6 are both required for the formation of GABA, while l-theanine and l-taurine enhance GABA’s function. GABA is also produced in the pancreas and can improve insulin secretion and reduce the inflammatory process.
Dopamine: Dopamine is a catecholamine (along with epinephrine and norepinephrine). It is primarily inhibitory, but can sometimes have an excitatory action in the body. Dopamine requires the amino acid precursors of tyrosine and phenylalanine for formation. It’s involved in motor control and your pleasure-reward system (motivation), which is also why it’s the NT of addiction. Since it’s part of the catecholamine pathway*, B2, B3, B6, zinc, copper and folate are needed.
Phenylalanine > Tyrosine > L-Dopa > Dopamine > Norepinephrine > Epinephrine
Serotonin: This neurotransmitter can have an inhibitory or excitatory action. If your serotonin is elevated, you will typically have more feelings of positivity and confidence. Conversely, if your serotonin is low, you may feel more negative, obsessive, anxious and irritable. Serotonin is involved in your hormone secretion, sleep-wake cycle, motor control, immune function, sensory perception, mood, & appetite. It is a monoamine neurotransmitter, meaning it contains only one amino group and requires the precursor, tryptophan. The primary required cofactors for serotonin are vitamin B6, folate and vitamin C.
Acetylcholine: Acetylcholine is almost always excitatory. It’s synthesized from choline and acetyl-CoA and is essential to memory storage and carrying messages along neuronal paths. An acetylcholine deficiency is associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Dietary choline from shrimp, egg yolk, lecithin, scallops, organ meats and meat, is essential to produce adequate amounts of acetylcholine.
Key Nutrients to Boost Your Mood:
Adequate, high-quality fat is vital to brain health and function. The brain is made up of at least 60% fat! Don’t worry, you no longer have to fear fat, since studies show that quality fat is one of the most important things you can put in your body. Here are a few ways dietary fat can affect your mood:
- Research shows that diets low in omega-3 fatty acids can lead to a considerable disturbance in neural function.
- Eating a proper amount of fat at meal-time can cause an endorphin release, helping you feel more satiated and allowing your brain to produce endorphins at optimal levels.
- Omega 3 fatty acids have a beneficial influence on brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin
- DHA is the most prolific omega-3 fatty acid in brain cell membranes. Since human bodies don’t produce DHA efficiently, we are heavily dependent on dietary DHA from sources like fatty fish.
That’s not to say all fats are created equal. It’s important to avoid oxidized fats, trans fats, and industrial seed oils, since these are inflammatory and can throw your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio way out of balance! Not only is excess omega-6 inflammatory, but it can also increase symptoms of depression by affecting dopamine pathways, and that’s certainly not what we’re going for here. Studies show it may be best to aim for an omega 6 to omega 3 ratio of 4 to 1, or even as low as 1 to 1.
Polyphenols are plant-sourced phytochemicals that have antioxidant properties. Polyphenol-rich foods aren’t just anti-inflammatory, they are necessary for mood-regulating processes in your body. Here are some cool things about polyphenols:
- Studies show they can enhance brain function and are neuroprotective.
- Polyphenols can reduce oxidative stress on the brain.
- Research shows you don’t need to supplement to get adequate amounts of polyphenols to benefit from their mood-boosting effects. You can find enough of these nutrients through food!
- Chocolate is a great source of polyphenols. (so are vegetables, herbs, spices, teas, coffee and olive oil. But c’mon! CHOCOLATE!)
There is so much I could say about B-vitamins. B-vitamins are essential for a proper stress response and can improve symptoms of mood disorders (they are also key nutrients for detox). Vitamins B1, B2, niacin (B3), B6, folate (B9), and B12 are all vital for brain health and balanced moods. Cold water fish, grass-fed meats, pasture-raised eggs and poultry are all good sources of b-vitamins. Let’s break this down:
- Plays a role in neurotransmitter synthesis, including GABA, epinephrine, serotonin and norepinephrine.
- Studies show a B6 deficiency can selectively reduce brain production of serotonin and GABA.
- A cofactor for the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin and for the conversion of tyrosine into norepinephrine.
- It’s also important for the synthesis of monoamine neurotransmitters.
- The most common neuropsychiatric sign of folate deficiency is symptoms of depression.
- Plays a major role in monoamine synthesis.
- B12 is necessary for myelin health and is essential in methylation, especially in the recycling of homocysteine.
- Along with folate, vitamin B12 is involved in the production of SAMe, a nutrient that donates methyl groups for neural function.
Vitamin B3 (niacin)
- An essential nutrient for those experiencing mood-related problems, especially if there is a deficiency.
- When it is in short supply, it will preferentially be converted from tryptophan, possibly resulting in decreased levels of serotonin.
- Required for the synthesis of norepinephrine, 5HT and dopamine.
Adequate high-quality protein is necessary for proper neurological function. Amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, are essential for neurotransmitter production, especially for serotonin, catecholamines, GABA, and endorphin.
- The monoamine neurotransmitters are all derived from dietary amino acids, making adequate protein paramount.
- Serotonin, for example, is formed from the amino acid, tryptophan, found in turkey, beef, and cheese. However, it’s difficult for tryptophan to cross the blood-brain barrier and it will preferentially be converted to niacin (if niacin levels are too low), so getting enough tryptophan-rich food and niacin is important.
There are few dietary sources of vitamin D. Cod liver oil, eggs, some mushrooms, and sardines all have some of this vital nutrient. Vitamin D is important to your mood because:
- Vitamin D3, more of a hormone than a vitamin, can improve feelings of well-being and positivity.[16, 17]
- Studies show that low levels of vitamin D are associated with poor cognitive function and depression.
- Vitamin D also aids in the conversion of tyrosine to catecholamine neurotransmitters.
You can find probiotics in kimchi, sauerkraut, beet kvass, grass-fed yogurt, and kefir. You can also get a decent dose of probiotics by playing in the dirt. The gut-brain axis closely ties gut health to mental health. Anything that disrupts the microbiota can alter proper communication of neurotransmitters. Here are some interesting ways probiotics affect your mood:
- A human study showed that participants taking a multi-strain probiotic for four weeks had reduced vulnerability to sad moods and ruminating thoughts.
- When you eat fermented foods or take probiotics, you introduce and create probiotic bacteria that can alter bioactive peptides. These peptides are capable of influencing the central nervous system.
- When you ferment foods, you also magnify the bioavailability of mood-influencing vitamins such as B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, and even vitamin D.
Other important nutrients
- The typical US diet provides less than half of the minimum daily requirement of magnesium.
- Can help stabilize mood because it regulates the electrical stability of cell membranes, including neurons.
- Needed for the formation of dopamine and serotonin.
- A magnesium deficiency is associated with increased inflammation and a negative impact on your body’s stress response.
- Low selenium intake is associated with negative feelings and moods. Conversely, dietary selenium can improve mood.
- Selenium is essential for healthy thyroid function and the production of thyroid hormones. Selenium deficiencies are associated with a 3x greater risk of major depressive disorder!
- It is also a powerful antioxidant that can fight inflammation and increases endogenous glutathione.
- Zinc’s effect on the brain is powerful. It can even act, at times, as a neurotransmitter.
- Zinc acts as an antioxidant for the brain and can protect it against free radicals.
- Zinc plays a major role in regulating neurotransmitter systems.
- It also helps regulate antioxidants, neurotrophic factors and neuronal precursor cells.
- Vitamin C plays an important role in catecholamine synthesis in neurons.
- There are high levels of vitamin C in the brain, as it acts as a neuromodulator in the transmission of glutamate, dopamine, choline, and GABA.
- It’s also an important antioxidant and helps recycle vitamin E. When a vitamin C and vitamin E deficiency occur at the same time, these deficiencies can result in severe neuronal loss.
Read Next: How to Boost Your Mood: The Best Nutrients and Foods (Part 2)
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1. Bauman, E. (2015). Therapeutic Nutrition Textbook, Part 2. Penngrove, CA: Bauman
5. Ross, Julia. The Mood Cure: The 4-step Program to Rebalance Your Emotional Chemistry and Rediscover Your Natural Sense of Well-being. New York: Viking, 2002. Print.
15. [Reference removed]
Medical Advice Notice: The information presented on this website is not intended as specific medical advice and is not a substitute for professional medical treatment or diagnosis.
I love how much actual science and research you bring to your blog. I’m always learning something! Also, the food pics are just … mouthwatering. 10/10 will comment again! 😉
Thank you so much, Marie! I love seeing your comments on the blog. And I’m so happy you’re learning from these posts. Yay for food! 🙂
Very helpful, I appreciate the scientific background that explains the “why”….nutrition can be confusing!
Thanks, Laura! And I totally understand…knowing what to eat can certainly be confusing, with all the conflicting research out there. One of the goals of this blog is to comb through all of that research and find the most current, relevant, and legitimate information to pass on to readers and clients. Hopefully, this post achieved just that 🙂