Neuro-Nutrition: Improve Mood with Food


Stress. Anxiety. Depression.Anyone who isn't living in a cave these days is familiar with the stress of our fast-paced and under-rested society. For some it's a healthy dose of cortisol that helps us get shit done every day. For many though, constant demands and struggles begin to slowly chip away at us until we're experiencing some form of anxiety disorder, adrenal fatigue, depression, or a lovely cocktail of all. 

There are many factors that contribute to our mental and emotional health including stress levels, sleep, social life, spiritual life, predisposition, and of course, nutrition. Whether you like or not, what you put in your mouth directly interacts with your nervous and endocrine systems. It's these two systems that govern our behaviors, state of consciousness, learning, emotional responses, motivation, memory, thoughts, and reasoning. 

Here's a little science-y information about how the mind works. Don't care? Scroll down to find out how to improve mood with food!

Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers responsible for communicating along the various pathways within the nervous system. They are what transmit signals between neurons (nerve cells). Most neurotransmitters are synthesized by amino acids, and are either excitatory or inhibitory. In other words, they either initiate an action within the body or prevent an action and are therefore calming. The neurotransmitters that are most prevalent in the body include:

  • Serotonin: (inhibitory) Regulates appetite, mood, pain threshold, sleep, sensory perception
  • GABA: (inhibitory) calming, inhibit action potential
  • Glutamate: (most excitatory NT) enhances action potential, keeps us awake
  • Dopamine: (Both inhibitory and excitatory) controls motor function, motivation, emotion, libido, “reward” system-the “addiction NT”
  • Norepinephrine: (excitatory) drive, ambition, alertness, focus. Deficiencies often associated with depression, apathy, and lack of focus
  • Epinephrine: (excitatory) also known as adrenaline and raises heart rate and blood sugar, as well as prepares body for fight or flight
  • Histamine: (excitatory) allergic reactions, wakefulness, regulates HCl secretions. Elevated histamine associated with deep depression and suicidal tendencies
  • Acetylcholine: (excitatory) memory, learning, motor function

Another key player in the nervous system and therefore mental health are neuromodulators. Neuromodulators are substances other than NT’s that can act on neurons to alter their activities. Some common neuromodulators include estrogen, insulin, testosterone, oxytocin, glucagon, gastrin, and aldosterone.

Any unbalance of our NT's can cause mental and emotional disturbances. The most common are depression and anxiety. Other nervous system-related issues include ADD/ADHD, Alzheimer’s, autism, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic inflammation/infection, fibromyalgia, headaches, metabolic syndrome, and neuropathy.


7 Ways to Improve Mood with Food 

1. Balance Blood Sugar: Because of the complexity of the nervous system, thoughts, and emotions, one of the best steps to take toward mental health is a balanced diet. Eat regular meals (3 x day) with snacks in between that contain adequate protein, carbs, and fats.  Also include a wide variety of organic fruits and vegetables, and eliminate substances that irritate the nervous system such as caffeine, alcohol, processed foods, refined sugar, and additives.

2. Gut Health:  Neurons that produce serotonin (responsible for mood, sleep, appetite) reside in the gut. The gut is in constant contact with the brain and nervous system, so disturbances in the gut can contribute to mood disorders. Include probiotic-rich foods and fermented foods in your diet such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and tempeh. Herbs and spices that support digestion are ginger, cayenne, garlic, black pepper, and cinnamon.

3. Magnesium:  Mg can help ease tension in those with anxiety or who have trouble sleeping. Mg is a natural relaxer, but is quickly depleted with ongoing stress. Best sources of this mineral are dark leafy greens, sea veggies, nuts and seeds, avocado, and legumes.

4. Tryptophan: Tryptophan is an amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin. Foods rich in tryptophan include almonds, pumpkin seeds, soybean, and cottage cheese.

5. Essential Fatty Acids: Many recent studies have shown links between depression and deficient EFA’s. EFA’s are also a key nutrient for brain health. Foods containing EFA’s are flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and fish. For further supplementation, 6g/day of DHA and 3g/day of EPA is recommended.

6. Vitamin B12 and Folate: Depression is the most common symptom of folate deficiency, and both folate and B12 are key components of many of the body’s pathways. Sources of B vitamins and folate are nutritional yeast, eggs, meat/poultry, dairy, legumes, spinach, and broccoli.

7. St John’s Wort (Hypericum Perforatum): St. John’s Wort is an excellent substitute for medications in relieving depression symptoms. Supplement at 300mg 3x daily. Not to be used with MAO inhibitors or prescription medications without supervision of a medical doctor.

One Last Note: Depression and anxiety disorders often have multiple contributing factors. Nutrition is but one piece of your mental health puzzle. Remember to manage stress, rest, play, and spend time with loved ones.  Also consider seeing a doctor or therapist when necessary. 


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Bauman, Ed. Therapeutic Nutrition. Vol. 2. Penngrove, Ca: Bauman College, 2014. Print

Pizzorno, Joseph E., Michael T. Murray, and Herb Joiner-Bey. The Clinician's Handbook of Natural Medicine. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 2002. Print.