The brain is a magnificent organ – just think about it. It remains turned on all the time, even during sleep. Not only does it govern important functions such as breathing and heartbeat, but also movements, senses and thoughts. The fuel required for the brain to function optimally also affects the structure and neurons within the brain.  Good quality “fuel” enhances performance, much like how premium fuel works best in an expensive car. Put simply, the “fuel” comes from food, which gets broken down into nutrients. Those are then used to create brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters. It turns out there is a direct link between food and mood, and these vital molecules are major players when it comes to better mood and happiness.

Bad moods are everywhere. We live in a society where the burden of cognitive and emotional dysfunction is increasing and is fueled by poor dietary habits, consumption of highly processed and chemical-laden foods, overeating, and the adverse effects of stress.

So how does food affect mood?

Without a doubt, nutrition influences cognition and emotion. Feeling fuzzy headed and sleepy after lunch is one example, where rising blood sugar levels after a meal suppress a chemical called orexin, which is responsible for alertness. On the other hand, low blood sugar levels from hunger activate more primitive regions of the brain, resulting in impatience and irritability. The brain is a high-energy organ and blood sugar fluctuations, along with the quality and quantity of available nutrients, impact emotional resilience and stability.

Nutrients also influence the chemical composition of the brain and affect cognitive possibilities and mood through the production or release of neurotransmitters. These brain chemicals are the frontline regulators of mood.

Neurotransmitters on tap

Some neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) promote a feeling of calmness and improve sleep. Others, such as dopamine, have a stimulating effect. The exchange of vitamins and minerals, complex carbohydrates, fatty acids such as omega-3 fatty acids, and amino acids such as tryptophan and tyrosine, form the foundation of neurotransmitters. Acetylcholine, epinephrine and norepinephrine are other well-known neurotransmitters. Through a series of enzymatic reactions, neural impulses are generated, which regulate mood, behaviour, sleep, mental function and energy levels.

Nourishment is necessary for effective neurotransmitter function. It turns out that the complex mood machinery in the human body functions optimally with fresh, whole foods that provide a wealth of protein, vitamins, minerals and healthy omega-3 fats.

In the mood for good food? What to eat

Serotonin elevates mood and is made from tryptophan. Ironically, eating carbohydrates causes a release of insulin, which indirectly allows for increased levels of serotonin in the brain, enhancing a sense of wellbeing. It is responsible for comfortable sleep but it also increases pain tolerance and reduces food cravings. The amino acid tryptophan is found in protein-rich foods, bananas, wheat germ, oats, and cheese and requires iron, zinc and B vitamins to be converted into serotonin. Deficiencies can lead to low serotonin levels which may result in insomnia, depression and anxiety.

Dopamine is a powerful stimulating neurotransmitter, responsible for feeling “high” and more mentally alert. (Another stimulating neurotransmitter norepinephrine is also made from dopamine and is the main “fight or flight” chemical experienced during stress.) The brain converts the amino acid tyrosine into dopamine with the help of folic acid, B6, magnesium and zinc. You can consume tyrosine in protein, almonds, avocados, dairy, lima beans, pumpkin and sesame seeds. Low levels have been linked to depression, social anxiety and even the development of Parkinson’s disease.

GABA promotes focus and calmness and is found in halibut, legumes, brown rice and spinach. The principle building block is the amino acid glutamine, which requires B vitamins for conversion into GABA.

Acetylcholine is synthesised from choline, which is best found in egg yolk. This neurotransmitter is essential for memory and general mental health. Reduced levels are associated with mental fatigue, memory loss and forgetfulness, decreased cognitive function and Alzheimer’s disease.

… remember happy fats

Although not technically neurotransmitters, omega-3 fatty acids act as “happy fats” and boost your brain’s function and mood by facilitating communication between brain cells, enhancing brain-cell plasticity (adaptability) and reducing inflammation that can damage brain cells. Cold water fish, raw nuts and seeds, olives and avocados are great sources of healthy fats.

… and antioxidants

Foods high in antioxidants and flavonoids also impact emotions. The euphoria and emotional boost that comes from consuming chocolate is well-known. The high flavonoid content, particularly from dark chocolate, improves heart health, reduces cancer development, and boosts longevity. Cocoa beans enhance dopamine release and can have an anti-depressant effect. Chocolate also contains tryptophan and stimulates the release of endorphins, which generates feelings of pleasure and wellbeing.

…and don’t forget your gut

It goes without saying that gut health is of great consequence in the relationship between nutrient absorption, neurotransmitters and emotions. Stress plays a crucial role in this regard because most of the receptors for neurotransmitters reside in the gut. Poor digestion or chronic “fight-or-flight” responses increase cortisol, inflammation and malabsorption. Emotional eating increases because stress eaters lose the ability to detect hunger and satiety signals, leading to more cravings for comfort foods to distract or cope with negative feelings. Not only does food affect mood, but mood affects food choices. It has been shown that individuals who suffer from depression tend to choose foods that actually worsen the depressive symptoms. Practicing effective stress management, such as deep breathing techniques, boosts digestion, because when your body absorbs the most nutrients when you are relaxed.

Dr Faryal Luhar is a Canadian naturopathic doctor at The Hundred Wellness Centre in Dubai. To book a consultation, call (04) 3447333.