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The Mind-Food Connection
Many of our emotional memories involve food.
Family celebrations often revolve around the dinner table: Sunday brunch or dinner, birthday parties, Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts.
The preparing and giving of a meal is a way of showing love and appreciation; eating a meal by a loved one can feel like an embrace.
It’s no accident that we associate food with emotions – the foods we eat have a direct impact on the emotions we experience.
On a biological level, food feeds the brain. Food is also responsible for the production of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters that are responsible for receiving and sending messages around the brain. Neurotransmitters directly influence thoughts and feelings.
The goal of this post is to share what I have learned about supporting good brain chemistry (and the work of antidepressants, if you take them) through good nutrition.
We will look at the three major “emotional” neurotransmitters: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine (also called noradrenalin).
Serotonin – The “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” Chemical
Serotonin is involved in a lot of different brain functions: analytical thinking and decision-making, memory, eating, and sleeping. At night, the brain converts serotonin to melatonin, the chemical that sets our internal clocks and helps us get a good nights’ sleep.
Serotonin is also a primary “feel good” chemical – it lifts our mood, helps us feel more equal to handling stress, and relaxes us.
Signs of a serotonin deficiency include:1
- Feeling on edge
- Often feeling like something bad is going to happen
- Decreased frustration tolerance
A scarcity of serotonin probably contributes to several depressive symptoms: poor concentration, apathy, sleep/eating disturbances, despondency, and despair.2
Nutritional Plan for Serotonin
Eat foods rich in Tryptophan.
The essential amino acid tryptophan is a pre-cursor for serotonin. If we don’t get enough tryptophan in our diet, the brain can’t make enough for its needs. In the light, tryptophan is converted into serotonin. At night, when its dark, serotonin is further converted into melatonin.
Tryptophan is helpful for:1
- Depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Nicotine withdrawal
The recommended daily intake (RDI) for tryptophan is 1.8 mg per pound of body weight. So a woman weighing around 120 pounds should consume around 216 mg of tryptophan per day. A man weighing around 150 pounds should consume about 270 mg.
The good news is, the best sources for tryptophan are also best for the building blocks needed for the next two brain chemicals we want to talk about:
Dopamine – The Pleasure Pursuit Chemical
Dopamine helps us feel motivated to pursue rewarding goals and things that give us pleasure, like food, sex, and relationships.
Signs of a dopamine deficit include:1,3
- Impaired ability to experience pleasure
- Lack of motivation
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Withdrawal from social functions
- Lack of libido
- Lack of appetite
- Lack of desire for love, friendship, or social connectivity
- Lack of interest in learning new things
Dopamine is also necessary to make the third brain chemical:
NOREPINEPHRINE – The Stress Buster
Norepinephrine works like a jolt of caffeine in the brain: it sharpens our focus, improves memory, and makes us feel more alert.
It is also an important stress chemical: In response to potential threats, it is released in the brain to make us feel more wary and cautious. It is also released in the bloodstream as a hormone; its function is to raise heart rate and blood pressure.
Working in both the brain and body, norepinephrine is an essential part of the body’s “fight or flight” response.
Signs of a norepinephrine deficit include:1,4
- Brain fog
- Poor concentration
- Memory loss
Like too much caffeine, too much norepinephrine can make us feel jittery and overanxious. This helps to explain why we feel this way when we are stressed, and also might explain why this is a side effect of some antidepressants.
Nutritional Plan for Dopamine and Norepinephrine
Eat foods rich in Tyrosine.
The essential amino acid tyrosine is the precursor chemical used to make dopamine. Dopamine can then be used to make norepinephrine. So the first goal would be to include tyrosine-rich foods in the diet.
Note: the amino acid phenylalanine can also be used to make tyrosine. Many foods containing tyrosine also have phenylalanine. The recommended daily intake (RDI) for tyrosine and phenylalanine together is 11 mg per pound of body weight.
Assuming a person gets half their daily requirement from each amino acid, he or she should consume 5.5 mg each per pound of body weight. So a woman weighing around 120 pounds should consume around 660 mg of tyrosine per day. A man weighing around 150 pounds should consume about 825 mg.
How to Feed the Feeling Brain
So to make enough serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, we need adequate amounts of two amino acids: tryptophan and tyrosine.
The good news is, both come from the same dietary source: high quality proteins.
These include fish (like salmon or tuna), poultry (like chicken or turkey), soybeans and soy products like tofu, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grains, especially oats and brown rice.5
If chicken or fish are used, it’s best to buy organic sources. Also, watch out for mercury contamination in fish.6
The best fruit and vegetable sources are: sweet potatoes, spinach and other dark leafy greens, green peas, broccoli, and avocados.
Other foods high in tryptophan and tyrosine include red meats, cheese, and eggs. Some of these should be used with caution since they also contain cholesterol and/or saturated fats.
This is a good start, but there’s a little more you should know about feeding the feeling brain.
For one thing, the enzymes that make these brain chemicals often rely on other nutrients to run properly. Just like we need to keep factory equipment in good working condition, we need to make sure our food choices are supporting the factories of our minds.7
There are several important nutrients needed here. A short list would include:
- The B vitamins, especially B1, B6, B9 (also called folate), and B12;
- Omega-3 fatty acids;
- And minerals including magnesium, calcium, and zinc.
- Eating complex carbohydrates can improve the amount of amino acids actually reaching the brain to be converted into brain chemicals.
Eating a diet high in high-quality protein, fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats will help you reach these nutritional goals.
There are a couple other things you can do as well:
Get some sun.
Along with calcium, vitamin D is needed to optimize the function of serotonin in the brain.8 The body makes its own supply of Vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. The National Institutes of Health suggest getting at least 5 to 30 minutes of good sun exposure a day.8
Exercise makes the brain more sensitive to serotonin and is effective in treating stress-induced depression.9
I have compiled lists of the best sources for tryptophan and tyrosine, based on percentage of the Recommended Daily Intake. They are available for your convenience in the following downloadable pdf:
You may also be interested in the following resources:
Please note, that as an Amazon Affiliate, I will receive a small commission if you purchase through these links — at no extra cost to you.
1 Nedley, N. Depression and Anxiety Recovery Program.
2 Berton, O., & Nestler, E. J. (2006). New approaches to antidepressant drug discovery: beyond monoamines. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 7(2), 137.
3 Nestler, E. J. (2015). Chapter Six-Role of the Brain’s Reward Circuitry in Depression: Transcriptional Mechanisms. International review of neurobiology, 124, 151-170.
4 Goddard, A. W., Ball, S. G., Martinez, J., Robinson, M. J., Yang, C. R., Russell, J. M., & Shekhar, A. (2010). Current perspectives of the roles of the central norepinephrine system in anxiety and depression. Depression and anxiety, 27(4), 339-350.
7Markus, C. R. (2016). Stress, the brain and behavior: what is the influence of food?. Maastricht University.
Goetz. Textbook of clinical neurology, 3rd ed. Vitamin deficiencies.
Wang, J., Um, P., Dickerman, B., & Liu, J. (2018). Zinc, magnesium, selenium and depression: A review of the evidence, potential mechanisms and implications. Nutrients, 10(5), 584.
8Patrick, R. P., & Ames, B. N. (2015). Vitamin D and the omega-3 fatty acids control serotonin synthesis and action, part 2: relevance for ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and impulsive behavior. The FASEB Journal, 29(6), 2207-2222.
9 Kim, T. W., Lim, B. V., Baek, D., Ryu, D. S., & Seo, J. H. (2015). Stress-induced depression is alleviated by aerobic exercise through up-regulation of 5-hydroxytryptamine 1A receptors in rats. International neurourology journal, 19(1), 27.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.