May 19, 2020

Food for Mood

Your body works tirelessly, and you comprehend, create and experience things in this world largely thanks to the little chemical messengers in your brain called neurotransmitters. These guys are sent from nerve cells to target cells, each with their own chemical signal to activate or inhibit some aspect of the target cell’s functionality. Different neurotransmitters are responsible for different capabilities, behaviours and feelings. Think of them as having the ability to unlock superpowers, if you will (since without them you would just be a mass of tissue, arguably not even that). Different neurotransmitters give you different superpowers!

Serotonin has a relaxing, appetite regulating, feel-good effect, and supports healthy sleep and circadian rhythms. Insufficient amounts correlate with depression, anxiety, antisocial behaviour, and dependence(1).

Dopamine stimulates feelings of motivation, pleasure, and reward. It is also involved in muscle movement co-ordination and learning. Dysfunctional dopamine signalling is considered an important factor underlying loss of “hedonic tone” or feeling limited pleasure in partaking in typically pleasurable experiences e.g. sex, exercise, and social activities(2).

There are other neurotransmitters such as GABA, Acetylcholine and Epinephrine, which are less related to mood as much as to other super powers. GABA will help you relax, sleep, and dream. Acetylcholine promotes muscle contractions, REM sleep, learning and memory. It also allows you to experience pain sensations, and while this is not the most obvious superpower, it is essential to survival as we know it. Epinephrine triggers that all too familiar jolt of energy involved in the fight or flight response when you encounter stressful situations. And there are others …

Let’s look a little closer at Serotonin and Dopamine, the neurotransmitters most associated with mood. These neurotransmitters are derived from amino acids, which are building blocks of protein. And where do you get these neurotransmitter building blocks from? Yes, you guessed it – your diet.
Serotonin is synthesized from the amino acid, tryptophan, and problems with the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin is associated with depression(3). Dopamine is synthesised from the amino acids phenylalanine and tyrosine.

In order for the magical synthesis of these mighty neurotransmitters to take place, the body requires the cofactor nutrients (that’s technical speak for “helper nutrients”), Folate, vitamin B1, B6, and B12, Vitamin C, zinc, magnesium, calcium, and iron. Before that step, Zinc, Vitamin B1 and B6 are needed to produce stomach acid to break down dietary protein into constituent amino acids(4) . Other nutrients such as vitamin E, selenium and glutathione (comprised of the amino acids, glutamine, glycine, and cysteine) are also needed to protect the brain from inflammation, which is now accepted to be a causative factor underlying depression(5).

There are other nutrient dependent mechanisms which affect mood, such as nerve cell insulation (myelination), and gut microbiome diversity with its connection to the gut-brain axis, however these are outside the scope of this article.

And before you knew it, your mental health was a complex smorgasbord of nutrients!

So, what foods should you be putting on your feel-good smorgasbord? The key nutrients can be found in a number of foods as listed below;

Tryptophan – milk, cheese, and dairy products, eggs (white), meat, and seafood (fish and crustaceans), potatoes, chickpeas, soy beans, cocoa beans, and nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, and cashew)(6).

  • Phenylalanine, tyrosine, glutamine, glycine, and cysteine – present in most high-protein foods such as beef, poultry, pork, seafood, milk, yoghurt, eggs, cheese, soy products (including soy protein isolate, soy bean flour, and tofu), and certain nuts, seeds and legumes(7).
  • B vitamins can be found in many of the protein dense foods mentioned above, as well as in whole grains and liver.
  • Vitamin E – seeds, nuts, leafy greens, pumpkin, and avocado.
  • Vitamin C – papaya, peppers, broccoli, brussel sprouts, and strawberries.
  • Zinc – beef, lamb, spinach, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds.
  • Selenium – seafood, Brazil nuts, crimini and maitake mushrooms, and asparagus.
  • Calcium – tofu, dark leafy greens, yoghurt, sesame seeds, and sardines.
  • Iron – dark leafy greens, lentils, lamb, sardines, and beef.
  • Magnesium – pumpkin seeds, dark leafy greens, summer squash, soy beans, and sesame seeds(8).

The list of foods above demonstrates that choosing whole natural foods, and a variety thereof, is key to giving your brain the nutrients it requires to synthesize and utilize feel-good neurotransmitters. So if you want super powers such as feeling calm, well rested, motivated, and a sense of pleasure and reward, you know where to start. Your next plate!


  1. Niklas Nordquist & Lars Oreland (2010) Serotonin, genetic variability, behaviour, and psychiatric disorders – a review, Upsala Journal of Medical Sciences, 115:1, 2-10, DOI: 10.3109/03009730903573246
  2. Mark S. Gold., et al. (2018) Molecular role of dopamine in anhedonia linked to reward deficiency syndrome (RDS) and anti- reward systems, Frontiers In Bioscience, Scholar, 10, 309-325
  3. Baranyi A., et al (2017) Revisiting the tryptophan-serotonin deficiency and the inflammatory hypotheses of major depression in a biopsychosocial approach, Peer J, Inc
  4. Jacques Duff (2014) Chapter Fourteen – Nutrition for ADHD and Autism, Clinical Neurotherapy Application of Techniques for Treatmen, Pages 357-381
  5. Gary E Gibson and John P Blass (1999) Nutrition and Functional Neurochemistry. Basic Neurochemistry, 6th edition Molecular, Cellular and Medical Aspects, Philadelphia: Lippinncott-Raven
  6. Lionella Palego ., et al (2016) Tryptophan Biochemistry: Structural, Nutritional, Metabolic, and Medical Aspects in Humans. Journal of Amino Acids Volume 2016 |Article ID 8952520 | 13 pages |

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