By Jason Bosley-Smith, MS, LDN, CNS, FDN
When considering factors that influence mood and mental health, sleep and stress are often top of mind. An essential component that is often overlooked in the stability of mood and cognition is diet. Dietary intake plays a significant role in performance of cognitive tasks, response to stress, and the promotion of positive mood.(1)
Food can affect mood through insufficient or inadequate intake of certain nutrients that impact physiological factors such as neurotransmitter synthesis, the gut-brain axis and inflammation.
Neurotransmitters are the signaling molecules in our nervous system that allow for communication from one neuron to the next and between neurons and muscle cells. To facilitate this communication, our bodies produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and acetylcholine.
Serotonin may sound familiar from the medications that are commonly prescribed for depression - selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs. The role of these medications is to keep serotonin available for imparting its function in the nervous system which serves to enhance mood. The structural basis of serotonin synthesis involves a specific amino acid that we can derive from food. This amino acid provides a building block for the neurotransmitter in our bodies. Tryptophan is the amino acid that serves as the foundation for serotonin production and is found in a number of foods including seeds and nuts (pumpkin seeds and pistachios are particularly good sources), spinach, eggs, spirulina, halibut, shrimp, lobster and pork. Pairing a tryptophan-rich food with a small amount of carbohydrate enables the amino acid to be more readily absorbed by our cells. To further support the effects of tryptophan in your diet, be sure to get an adequate supply of vitamin B-6, which can influence the rate at which tryptophan is converted to serotonin. Foods touting high levels of B6 include chickpeas, beef liver, tuna, and salmon.
Dopamine is another neurotransmitter associated with mood and positive outlook, and similarly to serotonin, is comprised of an amino acid base in the form of tyrosine. Tyrosine is abundant in cheese, soybeans, beef, lamb, pork, chicken and pumpkin seeds.
Similar to serotonin and dopamine, the neurotransmitter acetylcholine is integral in neurological function. Choline forms the basis of this important molecule and can be consumed in eggs, liver, whey, and shiitake mushrooms.
One of the most prolific areas of current clinical research centers around the microbiome - the ecology of our intestinal tract and the bacterial population that inhabit it. Emerging evidence supports the connection between the health of our microbiome and our mood.(2) Luckily, we have plenty of opportunities to support diverse, healthy gut ecology that can promote positive mood through the foods we eat each day. Fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut and Kombucha all provide healthy bacteria or probiotic organisms to bolster the microbiome. Pairing these fermented foods with a diet high in prebiotic fibers and resistant starches helps these beneficial bacteria proliferate. Vegetables such as leeks, Jerusalem artichoke, onions, garlic, and root vegetables are all rich in these bacteria-boosting nutrients.
In contrast to a healthy microbiome, a disruption or imbalance in gut ecology can promote nervous system inflammation through a direct link to the brain via the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve initiates in the central nervous system and innervates the digestive tract forming what is commonly referred to as the gut-brain axis.(3) With our digestive system serving as a direct interface with the foods we consume, this gut-brain axis is largely influenced by dietary composition.(3) Inflammation in the digestive system can trigger an inflammatory response in the brain, impacting mood. Research has shown that mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression are common in patients with chronic bowel disorders, including IBS and inflammatory bowel disease.(4,5)
Once again, we have an arsenal at our disposal to influence inflammation in our bodies by adopting an anti-inflammatory diet. One of the pillars of an anti-inflammatory diet involves consuming adequate omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats metabolize to produce specific anti-inflammatory molecules in the body. There is ample evidence in the scientific literature of omega-3s promoting positive outcomes on mood and ameliorating mood disorders.(6-9) Significant sources of omega-3 fatty acids include cold water fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and sardine, as well as walnuts (although the conversion and metabolism of the fats in these sources does not result in the same quantity of anti-inflammatory compounds). Generally, consuming 250-500mg of omega-3 fats daily from either foods or a high-quality omega-3 supplement can supply optimal levels of omega-3s.(10) From a food perspective, this can be achieved by eating a 4 oz. portion of salmon twice a week.
Through a complex interaction of several physiological functions and factors, the foods that we eat every day can serve to help or hamper our moods. Adding the foods mentioned will help supply your body with mood-supporting nutrients and set the stage for a healthy, happy you!
About the Author: Jason Bosley-Smith, MS, LDN, CNS, FDN
Jason is a 15 year veteran in the health and wellness field. He has a Master of Science in Nutrition and Integrative health and is a Licensed Dietetic Nutritionist, a Certified Nutrition Specialist, and is Certified in Functional Diagnostic Nutrition. Additionally, he is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and a Certified Lifestyle Coach. He is a faculty member at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, a guest lecturer a George Washington University and at the Institute for Integrative Health, and a collaborator with the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Read his full bio here.
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