Health is multifaceted, and we are starting to talk more about mental, physical, and emotional health and paint the picture of how each influence the other. To keep it simple, they are all important. I wanted to use this article to highlight different ways that nutrition can affect your neurotransmitters and brain chemistry, because I don’t think we talk about it enough. Truth is, many nutrients are involved in the production and function of our neurotransmitters, it’s biochemistry. I want to use this article to help you feel empowered to use nutrition and a tool to improve your mental health.
An Overview of Neurotransmitters
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers, essentially the “middle man” for how your neurons talk to each other for effective and optimal brain functioning. We need a proper concentration of specific neurotransmitters in specific regions of the brain, and if they are off, certain mental illnesses can present themselves. It is complex, and an imbalance of a multitude of neurotransmitters are involved in anxiety, depression, ADD, and more. Here, I’d like to highlight some of the main neurotransmitters and what they do. Dopamine generally is involved in reward, motivation and learning. Serotonin is most commonly known as the “feel good” and “happiness” neurotransmitter, overall contributing to a sense of wellbeing amongst other things. GABA acts as an “off” switch that can reduce anxiety and promote sleep. Glutamate, on the other hand, is the “on” switch that can optimize learning, memory and mood. Nutrient relationships with these neurotransmitters (and more!) are complex and individualized, but I’d like to share some nutrition priorities when it comes to neurotransmitter health.
Vitamin B6 is 100 times more concentrated in the brain than in the blood. It is required for synthesis for GABA, dopamine, and serotonin, thus low levels can lead to changes in mood, concentration, sleep, and stress and anxiety. Some sources of B6 include salmon, chicken, beef, potatoes, tempeh and bananas to name a few. Intake of and how we metabolize B12 and folate also are key players in optimal mental health.
Zinc plays a role in the activation and inhibition of certain receptors that are important for mental health, and it’s deficiency is one of the most commonly observed chemical imbalances in mental health populations. It plays a role in the synthesis of many of the neurotransmitters. Sources include oysters, chickpeas, dark chocolate, grass-fed beef, crab, lobster, pumpkin seeds, cashews, and almonds. So, needless to say, check your zinc intake and get these sources in consistently.
The brain is comprised of omega 3’s, so do you think intake affects your brain and mental health? You bet. Mainly regarding neurotransmitters, omega-3’s play a role in serotonin synthesis and action. Sources include salmon, cod, mackerel, oysters, flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.
Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, are also essential for neurotransmitter function. Many of the amino acids play a role, but I always like to highlight tryptophan as essential for the creation of serotonin, thus a happy mood. An intake of beans, fish, nuts, poultry, grass-fed beef, and eggs are important here. L theanine is also a non-protein amino acid, highest in matcha tea, that can elevate levels of GABA, serotonin, and dopamine.
Magnesium is one of the most common overall deficiencies, yet involved in so many processes in the body including brain and mental health. When it comes to neurotransmitters, it is involved in stimulation of GABA receptors, regulation of glutamate and serotonin, and synthesis of dopamine. Sources include dark green leafy vegetables, beans, nuts, oats, avocados, quinoa, potatoes, and more.
The Bottom Line
I always emphasize that these nutrients work together with other nutrients. These nutrients are repeat offenders when it comes to mental health, but other macronutrients and micronutrients are very important as well. This is one reason working with a practitioner is beneficial in assessing the big picture and personalizing your changes. Also, supplementation can be very helpful, but not all supplementation is created equal! This is another reason why it is important to consult a practitioner for quality, minimal and individualized supplementation prescriptions.