How to Improve Mood with Food and Nutrients

Changing your diet can improve Mental Health.

The brain produces neurotransmitters that control how you feel.

My diagram below, outlines how the protein foods you eat, are converted into brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. These chemicals control your feelings. If your diet or digestion are good, this can positively affect your mood. Explore my writing below and take simple measures, one step at a time to see if any of the steps help you.

6 steps to explore where Nutrition may help to improve Mental Health and Brain Function

1. Provide your body with the building blocks to make Brain Chemicals

Brain chemicals control sleep, mood appetite, energy, drive, motivation and more! Neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) and proteins are made from the protein foods we eat. Protein foods are broken down into amino acids and some of these are termed essential. Eat protein to match your ideal body weight plus a little more if they are very active.

  • Great sources of Tryptophan include Chicken, turkey, meat, fish, beans and lentils.
  • Great sources of Dopamine include Wild game, Chicken, duck, turkey, cottage cheese, walnuts, ricotta, wheatgerm, egg, oats, yoghurt and dark chocolate
  • Great sources of Choline: Egg, Shrimp, Prawns, Spinach, Beetroot, Almonds, Liver, Beef, Chicken, Turkey, Peanut butter, Oat Bran, Fish, Green Vegetables, Macadamia nuts, Wheat germ, Hazelnuts
  • Great sources of Glutamine: Oranges, Potato, Almonds, Walnuts, Rice Bran, Spinach, Lentils, Halibut, Broccoli, Banana, Beef, Whole Wheat

Protein foods are broken down, by chewing food very well, mixing with the acid in the stomach and digestive enzymes in the gut tract. When fully broken down, they are absorbed across the gut wall and taken in the blood steam to cross the blood brain barrier and built into brain chemicals. Good digestive health is needed for brain health.

2. Eat a healthy diet, rich in Vitamins and minerals

Certain vitamins and minerals are needed to help the conversion of the protein food into the brain chemical. These nutrients include Vitamin C, Vitamin A, B6, Folate, Iron in the form of Fe3+, Zinc, Magnesium, Manganese, Chromium. There are special formulations on the market which your health store can advise on.

The entire family of B vitamins are important for brain health and I suggest taking a B complex, especially during stressful periods of your life when we burn through them. Supplement Vitamin D in Ireland from October to May, especially if you wear sunscreen high factor daily and do not take sun holidays.

My food plans involve eating real food and include all the essential foods such as vegetables, nuts, seeds, meats, fish, egg, legumes, fruit and dairy. I tend to keep wholegrain low but I include food fibres such as wheat germ, oat bran and psyllium husk.

If you are experiencing low mood, take a brain supplement. There are formulated products on the market with the above nutrients. Again it is best to seek advice from the a professional as you may be on other medications or have a diagnosed condition that may not suit supplements.

3. Keep your receptors in good health

Imagine a space ship attaching onto its docking site in space. The above diagram shows a neurotransmitter docking onto the green receptor in the diagram. In the same way, neurotransmitters engage with the end of a nerve at a synapse and travel across to bind to a receptor site so that they cause an effect (feeling or action). The fats that you eat make up the wall of the nerve and play an important role as to how sensitive these receptor sites are. It is suggested by some studies that a long-term low-fat diet can produce symptoms of depression. On my low-fat programme I include healthy fats for this reason.

Food Sources of brain fats

Phospholipids make up the head of the cell wall. Egg Yolk is the richest source of phospholipids. Another source is soya. You can supplement lecithin at 1 teaspoon per day if you do not want to eat eggs every day. Lecithin comes from soya and it sells in the breakfast section of the supermarkets.

Attached to the phospholipid is a fatty acid tail. This tail can be an omega 3, an omega 6 or a saturated fat. Omega 3 is what you need for brain health. The best source of omega 3 is oily fish (salmon, herring, mackerel, trout, fresh tuna and anchovy) and ground flaxseeds but not everyone likes oily fish or eats seeds.

If you find yourself struggling with your mood, take a daily supplementation of omega 3 as an EPA and DHA. Eat oily fish twice a week and combine with a 1g per day supplement dose.

Vegetarian options are ground flaxseeds ( 2 teaspoons per day) or 1 tsp of flax oil added to a salad dressing. Krill oil is well absorbed and is a sustainable fish. Mackerel and sardines are the best source for supplemental oils. Avoid Cod liver oil because of ocean pollution and the liver of the fish being the detoxifier.

4. Water promotes brain waves within a few minutes of drinking it

Half of our brain is water and nearly all of the body’s chemical reactions occur in watery medium. Brain neurons generate electrical signals called brain waves and water consumption has been shown to promote alpha-wave activity within a few minutes of consumption. Studies have shown that mood and brain function decline when we are dehydrated. Bad breath, dry mouth and lips, not peeing very much, tiredness, clumsiness, not able to think clearly are all signs of mild dehydration.

When we drink alcohol, we urinate more and we lose fluid, dehydrating the brain, reducing brain waves. After a night out, if we go to bed without re-hydrating, we can see the dehydration in our skin the following morning (we look older) and we feel it in our heads (headache) The neurons find it difficult to function without water so it is no surprise that we experience increased anxiety, ‘fear’, and lower mood after alcohol.

Aim to drink filtered or mineral water, caffeine-free tea across the day as you work at home or in an office. Vegetables and fruit are a particularly good source of clean water. If you experience low mood after alcohol, make it a rule to re-hydrate before you sleep so that your brain can function well the next day. I liked the simplicity of this article.

5. Protect the Brain

The brain is inherently sensitive to oxidative stress due to its high calorie requirements (600 kcals per day approx.), high fat and iron content. Avoid or reduce the following 4 negative factors.

Caffeine: Coffee triggers a release of adrenaline, spiking blood sugars followed by a drop in blood sugar. Repeatedly, you need higher doses of caffeine to get the same dopamine hit. Reduce your caffeine intake to 1 to 2 cups a day with the last cup at mid-day. Caffeine is useful in the morning to get you going. Some people are very sensitive to caffeine and experience anxiety, insomnia, PMS and nervousness and have to avoid it completely.

Sugar: People who experience depression tend to crave carbohydrates. The brain chemical Serotonin is more quickly absorbed across the blood brain barrier when you eat carbohydrates which may explain this cravings.

Eating refined and excess carbs drives up blood sugar and stresses the body. A blood sugar peak is always followed by a dip. Avoid the highs and lows of mood and energy associated with blood sugar swings by eating a Low Carb diet high in fibre from legumes and vegetables.

Alcohol: temporarily increases serotonin making us feel good which supports having a drink from time to time to relax. However regular drinking builds tolerance with more and more needed to experience the ‘feel good’ effect. The result is a drop in the production level of serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline. Have a look at the diagram again and this is will explain how you feel after alcohol and a bad diet.

Mindfulness: Learn techniques to help you change your pattern of thinking and how you respond to triggers. Meditation is enormously helpful at resting and calming the brain.

6. Exercise

Thousands of studies have proven that exercise is as effective as antidepressants in mild depression and many of us know will have experienced a lift in a mood after a walk. On a walk, we increase our breathing, flooding our brain with fresh blood and tuning down our thinking brain to keep an eye on our route. Our eyes and senses are distracted by nature. All forms of exercise work.

In Summary to maintain mood and good mental health, eat protein foods and foods high in protective anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals, avoiding sugar. Stay Hydrated every day and critically replace lost fluid after alcohol. Have your last coffee by mid-day. Eat healthy fats especially omega 3 and if you currently experience low mood, supplement omega 3 fats and the vitamins mentioned. Walk in the outdoors every day and especially on the days you feel low. Learn techniques to relax and calm the mind.

Joan Moloney is a Weight-Loss Nutritionist, practicing in Dublin, Ireland. She works on a 1-to-1 basis with clients and provides information to clients to help them change their lifestyle. She shares this information online but is not responsible for readers behaviour. Everyone needs to seek one-on-one professional advice before taking supplements.


The following is for information purposes only. If you are depressed you will need a consultation with a professional. Do not buy these off the internet and self-medicate. The brain is too complex to risk self-medication.

Alpha lactalbumin (LAC) enhances serotonin production and lowers cortisol, reducing anxiety.

Carnitine, in the form of acetylecarnitine, raises brain acetylcholine levels.

SAMe is a major methyl donor produced when the amino acid Methionine (see diagram) is metabolised. This compound has been shown in trials to be effective for depression.

Ginkgo, a herb used for years by people to treat low mood.

Oestrogen replacement therapy has been shown to reduce anxiety and low mood in peri and menopausal women.

Music Therapy, Massage, Meditation, Yoga, Aromatherapy and Phototherapy are all effective to lift low mood depending on what sense works best for the individual.

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