How to Eat for Your Neurotransmitters
Updated: Aug 9, 2021
Ever noticed how sometimes after a meal you feel motivated and mentally energized? While after other meals you feel drowsy or sluggish?
This is because some foods contain certain nutrients that can increase your neurotransmitter function, giving your brain an instant boost! A diet full of these nutrients will leave you motivated, energized, and focused for the entire day.
But first, what are neurotransmitters?
Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that carry, boost, and balance signals between neurons and other cells throughout the body. They can be small amine molecules, amino acids, or neuropeptides. Billions of neurotransmitters are constantly working to keep our brains functioning properly. They manage everything from our heartbeat and breathing to our concentration levels and learning. Neurotransmitters also affect your psychological functions like fear, mood, joy, and pleasure.
Because neurons cannot directly communicate with each other, they rely on neurotransmitters to do so. At the end of every neuron contains a tiny gap called a synapse, a signal must be able to cross this gap in order to communicate with the next cell. This is known as the process of neurotransmission. Neurotransmitters can cross that gap and attach to the receptor site of the following neuron, and will either excite or inhibit the neuron depending on what kind of neurotransmitter was released.
Neurotransmitters are classified by their function. They fall into one of three categories: excitatory, inhibitory, and modulating.
Excitatory neurotransmitters: These neurotransmitters have excitatory effects on the neuron. This means that they increase the likelihood that the neuron will fire an action potential. Examples of excitatory neurotransmitters include epinephrine and norepinephrine.
Inhibitory neurotransmitters: This type of neurotransmitter will have an inhibitory effect on the neuron. They decrease the likelihood that the neuron will fire an action potential. Examples of inhibitory neurotransmitters include serotonin and GABA.
Modulating neurotransmitters: These neurotransmitters are commonly referred to as neuromodulators. They are capable of affecting multiple neurons at the same time, as they influence the effects of other chemical messengers. Neuromodulators also induce a broad, long-lasting signal.
According to top neurotransmitter researchers, nutrients in the foods you eat are the precursors to neurotransmitters. The number of precursors you get from your diet will affect how much of each related neurotransmitter is produced. While this process may seem straightforward, it is made complicated by the fact that foods often contain multiple nutrients. And all of these different nutrients will uniquely affect neurotransmitters. However, there are several established pieces of information around how food affects your mood that you can integrate into your diet.
In the sections below, we will break down the most important neurotransmitters, what they do, and how you can alter your diet to boost their function.
Serotonin → sleep cycle, depression, anxiety, PMS, temperature regulation, pain suppression, appetite
Carbohydrates can actually affect your serotonin levels. This is because eating foods high in carbohydrates will trigger the release of insulin in the blood. Once in the bloodstream, insulin will effectively clear out all the amino acids except tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid that is normally crowded out by other amino acids and blocked from passing through the blood-brain barrier. But, thanks to insulin, with the other amino acids cleared out, tryptophan can easily enter the brain. This is beneficial, as tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin. Serotonin is one of the most famous neurotransmitters, with its pain-reducing, appetite suppressing, and calmness-inducing effects.
Research has demonstrated that people who begin strict low-carb diets often experience depression two weeks after beginning, as the lack of tryptophan in their diet will cause their serotonin levels to decline. Luckily, even if you’re sticking to a low-carb diet, there are alternative sources of tryptophan:
Nuts and seeds
Chicken and turkey
Dopamine → focus attention, memory, motivation, drive, mood, addictive disorders, voluntary movement
Foods high in protein can help increase dopamine levels. During digestion, proteins are broken down into their amino acid building blocks. One of such amino acids is tyrosine. Tyrosine is a precursor to dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for creating feelings of pleasure and reward, which motivates you to repeat specific behaviors. It’s also the neurotransmitter behind the euphoric “runner’s high” that many runners experience.
While a deficiency in dopamine cannot directly cause depression, it can cause symptoms typically associated with depression. Low levels of dopamine are often responsible for reduced motivation, hopelessness, helplessness, and decreased excitement for life.
Tyrosine, the precursor to dopamine, is commonly found in many different types of high protein foods:
Norepinephrine → energy, drive, stimulation, “fight or flight” response, insomnia, anxiety
Foods high in protein can also increase norepinephrine levels. Through digestion, as protein is broken down, the amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine are released into the body. Both of these amino acids are precursors to norepinephrine.
Norepinephrine, though not very well known, is responsible for making your heart beat faster and pumping blood from your heat. It can also increase blood pressure and help to break down fat and increase blood sugar levels to provide the body with more energy. Low levels of norepinephrine can lead to lethargy, lack of concentration, and potentially depression.
As described above, tyrosine and phenylalanine are present in most types of high protein foods:
Luckily, both of these amino acids are also present in dark chocolate!
Epinephrine → “Fight or flight” response, metabolism, energy, depression, cognitive function
Like dopamine and norepinephrine, the amino acid tyrosine acts as a precursor to the neurotransmitter epinephrine. This neurotransmitter is better known as adrenaline. It can produce various responses, depending on where the signal is sent. In the heart, epinephrine will increase the output of blood and raises blood pressure. The neurotransmitter will also stimulate the release of glucose and fatty acids into the bloodstream, which is useful in increasing alertness, strength, and physical performance.
Deficiencies in epinephrine have been linked to a number of physical and mental conditions, such as anxiety, depression, migraines, fibromyalgia, and hypoglycemia. Obviously, it’s integral to keep your levels of tyrosine optimal in order to prevent such conditions. As described above, tyrosine is present in most types of high protein foods:
Glutamate → learning, memory, agitation, sleeplessness, depression when low
The amino acid glutamine is used to create the neurotransmitter glutamate. Glutamate is one of the most important neurotransmitters for healthy brain function, it is the main excitatory neurotransmitter and is present in over 90% of all brain synapses. Glutamate plays an essential role in the brain’s plasticity, which is the ability for change and growth. The neurotransmitter is also critical for cognitive function, sensory information, emotions, and more coordination.
Arguably, glutamate is the most important neurotransmitter in the human body, which is why an imbalance can cause serious health conditions. Such health effects include: anxiety, insomnia, headaches, depression, and fatigue.
Luckily, the precursor to glutamate, the nutrient glutamine, is present in many foods:
GABA → reduces excess stimulation, stress relief, calming effects
The above neurotransmitter, glutamate, is actually the amino acid that serves as a precursor for the neurotransmitter GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid. Glutamate and GABA also serve as excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitter pairs. Both balance the effects of the other. While glutamate amps you up, GABA will calm you back down by inhibiting the activity of nerve cells throughout the nervous system.
GABA is responsible for helping your mind disengage from the alert, wakeful state of the day and transition into relaxation and sleep. The neurotransmitter can help ease feelings of anxiousness, decrease muscle tension, and reduce physical and mental stress. A deficiency in GABA can cause symptoms like anxiety, stress, and worry.
Thankfully, GABA’s precursor, glutamate, is actually present in many different kinds of foods:
Cured, aged, and preserved foods including cheeses and meat
Acetylcholine → memory, motivation, learning, attention, activation of muscles, REM sleep
The nutrient choline is a precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Nerve cells use the nutrient to make acetylcholine, which acts as a messenger between a large variety of different nerves. Importantly, acetylcholine plays a large role in communicating to your hippocampus to store a memory. It also plays an essential role in alertness, learning, attention, and muscle movements.
Deficiencies in acetylcholine have been associated with Alzheimer’s disease. This makes getting a proper supply of choline in your diet integral to your health. Unfortunately, it’s very likely you suffer from a choline deficiency, 90% of the population does. Luckily, choline is present in many delicious forms of protein:
While eating for your neurotransmitters is an important part of optimal health, the Johnson Center recommends a genomic-based nutritional plan. Through DNA testing, we can precisely identify the patterns and imbalances of your unique metabolism and use nutrients to suppress the expression of disease, illness, and other unhealthy patterns.
If you're interested in genomic testing, click here to learn more! Or contact our office at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule your complimentary 15-minute discovery call.
The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!