Would you describe yourself as Little Miss Happy or Mr. Cranky Pants? While your mood can be influenced by many variables, your diet can play a direct role in your disposition. In short, the science behind how food affects your mood can be summed up by saying that your diet (good or bad) alters your brain structure—both chemically and physiologically—and can also affect your mood and behavior.
Dr. Richard Wurtman (MIT) explains that the nutrients in foods are precursors to neurotransmitters—also known as brain chemicals. Depending on the amount of precursors present in the food you eat, more or less of a certain neurotransmitter is produced. Brain chemicals have a profound influence on mood and emotions, but certain good mood-supporting brain chemicals—like serotonin, dopamine and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid)—can be wisely fed.
Serotonin is a major neurotransmitter produced in the brain and is responsible for communicating the various needs of the body between brain cells and peripheral cells of the nervous system, and is a “feel good” brain chemical. Interestingly, serotonin is also found in the gut, and it plays an important role in mood regulation and also supports relaxation and digestion. Among other things, serotonin keeps your focus sharp and your concentration keen, enables you to get a good night’s sleep and to awake happy and energized.
In the body, serotonin is produced from tryptophan, an amino acid that is formative in proteins. Through enzyme activity, tryptophan is converted to serotonin. Foods that are high in tryptophan include meat, poultry, fish, dairy foods, walnuts, flaxseeds and sprouted grains or breads. Bananas, pineapples, plantains, kiwis, plums and gooseberries register high in their serotonin content, while other good sources of serotonin include tomatoes, spinach and other dark, green veggies, dates, figs, grapefruit, melon, eggplant and avocados. While we’re at it…regular exercise and getting enough sunlight also support healthy levels of serotonin.
Likewise, dopamine is a neurotransmitter which either increases or decreases the activity of nerve cells. It is involved with several functions, including mood, attention regulation, pleasure, cognition, hormonal processes and movement. Dopamine is produced from the amino acid tyrosine; it occurs naturally in the body and is also found in foods such as eggs, poultry, cottage cheese and other dairy products as well as various high-protein foods.
The amino acid GABA is known for suppressing nerve impulses related to anxiety by acting as a neurotransmitter. You might say it soothes and reduces frenetic responses to the outside world. GABA-rich foods include fish, walnuts, brown rice, spinach, broccoli, lentils, bananas, oranges, almonds and oats.
Supporting good mood neurotransmitters can make you feel like Little Miss Happy, but to avoid being Mr. Cranky Pants, you’ll want to steer clear of processed foods, especially those high in sugar, preservatives and additives.
Choose good mood food instead.