Food is a foundational pillar of health. What we eat can affect our mood and our mood can sometimes influence what we eat. Giving our body the building blocks to make important mood-boosting chemicals is a quick way to get on top of our mental health.
Neurotransmitters & Nutrients
Since our neurotransmitters are the master modulators of our mood and brain function, it’s worth understanding how they’re made and why nutrition is so important. This complex and nuanced chemical messenger system is essential for the function of the brain, every organ and cell in the body. For simplicity, I’ll focus on brain neurotransmitters, as they are the most widely recognised.
At a basic biochemical level, neurotransmitters are made directly from amino acids, enzymes and cofactor nutrients. Starting with an amino acid, adding a vitamin or mineral and through several steps of conversion, a neurotransmitter is born. If we’re not getting enough of these building blocks, our body may struggle to find the resources to make them and we suffer as a result.
Here’s some common neurotransmitters and the nutrients required for their synthesis.
- GABA - a fast inhibitory neurotransmitter responsible for a relaxing, calming or sedative effect in the brain. GABA requires glycine, glutamine, magnesium and B6.
- Acetylcholine - active in the peripheral and central nervous systems. It helps with memory, processing and reducing brain fog. ACh activates skeletal muscles in the somatic nervous system and internal organs in the autonomic system. ACh requires choline, acetyl-l-carnitine and B vitamins.
- Serotonin - produced by and found in the intestine (approximately 90%), and also in the central nervous system. Serotonin regulates appetite, sleep, memory and learning, temperature, mood, behaviour, muscle contraction, and more. Serotonin requires tryptophan, iron, magnesium, calcium, B vitamins, vitamin C, zinc.
- Melatonin - is made following on from serotonin. Release from the pineal gland, melatonin is involved in our circadian cycles of sleep-wake, has antioxidant properties and acts on the immune system. Melatonin requires folate, B12, B6.
- Dopamine - a modulatory neurotransmitter involved in motor function and movement, motivation, memory, pleasure and emotional arousal. Dopamine is integral to the innate reward system and requires tyrosine, B6, zinc, folic acid, mag, mn, Fe, Cu, Zn, C.
- Norepinephrine - norepinephrine modulates the responses of the autonomic nervous system, sleep patterns, focus and alertness. Dopamine converts into norepinephrine and the same precursor elements are required. To move from dopamine to norepinephrine, Vitamin C is needed.
- Epinephrine - Epinephrine, sometimes known as adrenaline, is released in the adrenal glands and the brainstem. It plays a role in sleep, with one's ability to become and stay alert, and is crucial in the fight-or-flight stress responses in the body. Continuing from the norepinephrine pathway, epinephrine requires Vitamin C, B12, folate and B3.
We can see how important it is to ensure that main meals and snacks are plentiful sources of both amino acids, minerals and vitamins wherever possible for neurotransmitters to work optimally.
Mood-boosting nuts, nut-butters and seeds
We know that nuts and seeds are a quick and easy option to help achieve better health. Highlighted for their tryptophan, tyrosine, choline and essential fats, you can’t go wrong with a handful of these snacks (or spoonful of nut butter) everyday for a better mood. If eating nuts daily sounds like a lot of work, there are always options like LSA which has all the same benefits.
Almonds have tyrosine, magnesium, fibre and Vitamin E. This makes almonds neuroprotective and a great way to ensure you get a boost of the essential nutrients for dopamine and norepinephrine production. If you want a natural way to boost pleasure, alertness and focus, almonds should be in your lunch box.
Aside from their nutrient profile, almonds have prebiotic potential which supports a healthy microbiome. The microbiome has a dramatic influence on brain health, as our gut bacteria communicates with neurons via the gut-brain axis. Research shows that almond supplementation significantly increases Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus species, which then has upstream benefits in this gut-brain signaling.
All this amounts to a generalized anti-depressive effect. A double flex for almonds in boosting your mood and brain health.
Cashews are naturally sweet and delicious. They have a higher carbohydrate content than other nuts (right at the top). Cashews contain decent amounts of tryptophan and are loaded with magnesium and B6. This is a winning combination of nutrients to support serotonin production and to support a happy mood. Cashew Nut Butter is an easy and delicious way to enjoy more of these benefits.
Notable nutrients in peanuts are tryptophan and choline. Peanuts also have a range of other healthy amino acids including methionine, cystine, tryptophan, phenylalanine, tyrosine, arginine, among others. Peanuts are packed full of healthy fats, which means you feel happy and satisfied all from one snack.
Choline is a very interesting nutrient as it’s important in neural development and brain health as well as being the precursor amino acid to acetylcholine. Acetylcholine helps with memory, wakefulness and calmness.
An interesting study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition evaluated the health habits of people who regularly consumed peanuts (including peanut butter) and peanut products. The results showed that peanut consumers on average had higher intakes of protein, unsaturated fat, and fibre. While the energy intake was higher in people who consumed peanuts, the mean BMI for this group was lower for all gender and age categories. The authors concluded that these results reflected a higher diet quality among peanut consumers, indicated by the correlating nutrient levels.
It makes sense that hemp seeds would be a mood food, right?
Hemp seeds are a very underrated little seed. Technically a nut, hemp seeds have a very good omega 3: omega 6 ratio, are full of fibre and digestible protein. They also boast vitamin E, which is lipoprotective and neuroprotective. Hemp seeds also contain B vitamins, magnesium and zinc. All these nutrients combined help support almost all neurotransmitter synthesis and function.
The unique gamma linolenic acid in hemp seeds is widely beneficial to all nerve and brain tissue, which helps reduce inflammation, balance hormones and improve symptoms including irritability, depression and anxiety. The natural anxiolytic and pain relieving properties in hemp products is cannabidiol or CBD. It helps sustain a feeling of wellness, happiness and lifts your mood. Hemp seeds have very trace amounts of this plant chemical and are safe to consume. Hemp seeds are another natural and delicious mood-boosting food.
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