The brain in brief
Our brain is a small yet complex organ that influences our emotions, and it needs nutrition to function at its finest. The brain processes the information it receives and sends messages throughout the body which can impact how we feel. Changes in mood are natural and help us navigate the ebbs and flows of life, but if we’re feeling down, irritable, or tired often, nourishment may be a controllable factor to enhance our well-being. A pathway called the vagus nerve is a particularly important connection between nutrition and how we feel. It acts as a two-way street to sense and send information to the brain, which impacts emotion-related chemicals our brain releases, and consequently how the body physically responds. What we eat has the power to influence these emotion-related chemicals, in addition to body processes like inflammation, stress, and gut health which can further influence what gets said between the body and the brain. Let's take a closer look.
Neurotransmitter building blocks
The brain releases chemicals called neurotransmitters which influence how we feel and many of them are made with protein. When we eat protein, it's broken down into smaller building blocks called amino acids, and our body uses these amino acids to build brain chemicals. For example, the amino acid tryptophan is used to make the neurotransmitter called serotonin, which is a mood-regulating hormone. Similarly, the amino acid tyrosine is used to make the neurotransmitter called dopamine, which is a hormone connected to feelings of motivation and pleasurable reward.
If we don’t get enough protein, the body may not have optimal levels of tyrosine or tryptophan, which in turn limits the formation of serotonin and dopamine. This has been associated with low mood and aggression. As such, prioritizing protein including soy products, legumes, nuts, and seeds consistently helps make sure our brain has the right tools to make mood-influencing chemicals and hormones.
Other tips for food and mood
Aside from protein, there are other nutrients critical for the optimal function of mood-influencing chemicals and hormones.
No. 01 - Favour brain fuel
Although the brain makes up just 2% of our body weight, it uses at least 20% of the body's energy - meaning its fuel is critical! Carbohydrates are a key energy source for the brain and essential in forming serotonin important for mood regulation. When we consume carbohydrates they're broken down by the body into a sugar called glucose which is the preferred energy source for the brain. The body releases a hormone called insulin which helps cells access the sugar for fuel, while also supporting the entry of tryptophan (needed for serotonin formation) into the brain.
Aside from getting enough carbohydrates, choosing foods that break down and release sugar more steadily in the body has also been linked with less fatigue and mood disturbances. Some carbohydrates that release sugar more slowly to provide the brain with steady fuel include:
- Whole grains, such as barley, bulgur, quinoa, and steel-cut oats.
- Starchy vegetables, such as sweet potato or corn.
- Whole fruits, such as apples, berries, oranges, and pears.
- Beans, peas, and lentils.
No. 2 - Support hormones and brain chemicals
There are a few smaller nutrients critical for the optimal function of mood-influencing chemicals and hormones.
B vitamins, such as folate, vitamin B6, and B12, are crucial for optimal brain function and may be of particular importance to help manage poor mood and stress. A possible reason for this is that B vitamins are involved in the formation of serotonin and dopamine. Adequate levels of folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 also help the body break down a protein called homocysteine. High levels of homocysteine are associated with depression of mood and poor cognitive function.
Leafy green vegetables, seeds, and whole grains are some sources of B vitamins. Of particular interest to plant-based lifestyles, vitamin B12 is found in nutritional yeast, and fortified products such as meat alternatives, plant milk, and grains. Supplements can be a reliable source of vitamin B12. To learn more about getting enough vitamin B12 in plant-based lifestyles see our article.
Selenium is a mineral which helps fight damage within the brain, and optimal levels have been associated with reduced risk of negative mood and depressive symptoms. Aside from its antioxidant effects, selenium plays a role in thyroid and hormone function which can influence mood.
Some plant sources rich in selenium include sunflower seeds, whole grains, and Brazil nuts. One Brazil nut daily may be an effective approach to getting enough selenium. There’s potential to be too much selenium, though, so it’s advised to limit intake to a maximum of three Brazil nuts daily if these are consumed.
Not getting enough vitamin D is common worldwide, and it’s been suggested that increasing vitamin D status may be helpful for improving mood and sleep. Vitamin D is involved in the formation of serotonin which promotes well-being when awake, and may also be involved in the formation of melatonin which is a hormone that supports sleep. A good night’s sleep can improve mood, especially for the next day when we rise, so getting enough vitamin D has benefits all around. Plant sources of vitamin D include some mushrooms and fortified products such as plant milk. The body can also make vitamin D through sun exposure to the skin, but this is reduced by factors such as our age and wearing sunscreen. To learn more about vitamin D and if supplements may be beneficial, see our article.
No. 3 - Acknowledge our second brain
The trillions of bacteria that live in our gut produce and release chemicals that can influence mood. The power of gut health is growing - with many experts calling it our second brain. For example, 95% of the body's serotonin is made in the gut, which has functions related to digestion but may also communicate with our brain. Probiotics provide live bacteria themselves and have been associated with impacting anxiety-related behaviours. Prebiotics help feed the beneficial bacteria so they can populate which potentially enhances mood. Sources of prebiotics include whole grains, beans, and cruciferous vegetables. Food sources of probiotics include fermented foods such as kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, and miso.
No. 4 - Fight inflammation with omega-3 fats
The brain is made up of 60% fat and omega- 3 fats, in particular, play an integral role in the brain’s structure and function. It's been suggested that omega-3 fats are related to mood through complex chemicals, inflammation, and involvement in the brain's ability to adapt to experiences. Overall, omega-3 intake has been associated with improved cognition and mood.
The main three omega-3 fats include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The release of brain chemicals is in part thanks to EPA and DHA which help provide fluidity to the brain. We must get ALA from foods, such as canola oil, chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts. Our body can make EPA and DHA from ALA, but plant sources also include microalgae and sea vegetables.
Aside from getting enough omega-3, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is important for brain health and supporting optimal levels of omega-3. Omega-6 fats promote inflammation and are found in corn oil, grapeseed oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, fried foods and packaged products. If omega-6 fats dominate, it reduces the body's ability to make EPA and DHA from ALA. The optimum ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats is up for debate, but it's thought to be around 1:1. Currently, in most Western diets, the ratio is closer to 15:1! This means that omega-6-rich foods are typically consumed much more than omega-3-rich foods.
No. 5 - Cut back on mood downers
Some foods may negatively impact our mood which we can experiment with cutting back on. Some examples include the following.
- Alcohol: is known as a depressant because it impacts brain chemical messages, promotes attention deficits, and sedation connected to depressive mood.
- Caffeine: increases alertness and mood in some, though, may promote anxiety in others, especially in those who already experience anxiety.
- Non-sugar sweeteners: such as aspartame found in cola beverages, may alter the balance of brain chemicals which can have negative impacts on mood.
Other influences on mood
Aside from nutrition, the following are other more controllable factors that impact our well-being.
Physical Activity: engaging in exercise proves promising to boost happy hormones, blood flow to the brain, and stress relief. A weekly target of 150 minutes is a common recommendation, but any amount is a wonderful starting point.
Sleep quality: has the potential to impact our mental health and mood, especially for the following day. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule and avoiding blue light before bed are two strategies that can improve sleep quality. To learn more about influences on sleep and tips to feel energized, see our article.
Smoking: those who quit smoking are associated with less anxiety and stress, plus an improvement in well-being. The process of quitting can promote a poorer mood though, so it's best to work with a professional for support.
|No. 04||Social connection: surrounding ourselves with support can increase our sense of belonging and enhance our mood. Some ideas to increase our social connections include joining a volunteer organization, sports team, or club for a hobby of interest, such as pottery.|
Stress management: Pinpointing where emotions stem from helps to support addressing the root cause, and we can use stress management strategies to help further support our mood. Practicing mindfulness with a professional is one strategy for example.
Time in nature: prescriptions for time in nature are on the rise for good reason, as being outdoors is connected to improvements in mental health, mood, and well-being. One reason for this is that green environments, such as trees in nature, may reduce cortisol which is a hormone that promotes stress.
A note on mental health
There is a growing amount of evidence that supports the connection between food and mood. With that said, if you're struggling with mental health, it's best to work with a qualified therapist or healthcare professional for individualized support. Our food choices can always be complementary to the other supports we deserve to receive.
- Our brain releases chemicals and hormones which influence our mood. These include serotonin and dopamine - both made from protein building blocks - and contribute to feelings of happiness.
- Food is a nourishing approach that can enhance how we feel. Dietary patterns high in fibre, omega-3 fats, fruits, vegetables, and legumes may promote better mood and less stress.
- Some nutrients are key in the balance of brain hormones and chemicals. For example, B vitamins, selenium, and vitamin D.
- Other factors are involved. Enjoying physical activity, spending time in nature, connecting with loved ones, smoking cessation, managing stress, and optimal sleep also promote positive well-being.
- How we feel is very complex. Reach out to professionals to help navigate any complex emotions for mental health support.