9 Nutrients for Balanced Neurotransmitters

You can prime your neurotransmitters by choosing the right foods. Not sure where to start? These are the key nutrients your body's main messengers need.

Photo: Olimpia Davies

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Your brain’s neurotransmitters play a pivotal role in learning, memory, sleep, pleasure, motivation and mood. And since nutrients in food are the building blocks for these chemical messengers, shortages in certain vitamins, minerals, amino acids and other compounds can hamper their production, balance and function. The result: alterations in mood, impaired cognitive function, disrupted sleep and more. 

Keep your chemical messengers – and your brain – happy with these 9 neurotransmitter-nourishing nutrients. 

1. Tryptophan

An amino acid known for its soothing, sleep-promoting effects, tryptophan is vital for neurotransmitter production. It’s the sole precursor to serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical that’s also involved in learning, memory, sleep, digestion and other important functions. Research shows a low intake of dietary tryptophan decreases levels of serotonin, and insufficient tryptophan is associated with mood disorders like depression and anxiety. Plus, tryptophan is required for the production of melatonin, the sleep-promoting hormone that’s also linked with anti-aging benefits. 

Best sources: Turkey, chicken, fish, edamame and pumpkin seeds.

Try: Turkey Lettuce Cups or Shishito Pepper & Edamame Mockamole

2. Choline

Choline is a water-soluble nutrient that’s similar to B vitamins, and it’s critical for brain development. Deficiencies of this nutrient during pregnancy can increase the risk of neural tube defects. Research also suggests prenatal choline supplements can enhance later learning and cognitive function. 

In adults, choline acts as a precursor for acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in memory and cognition as well as muscle control, circadian rhythm and other crucial neuronal processes. 

Best sources: Eggs, shrimp, navy beans, chicken and tofu.

Try: Egg in a Hole with Pesto Swirl or Jerk Tofu with Mango Lime Salsa

3. Omega-3 fats

Known for their brain-protective benefits, omega-3s can dampen inflammation, maintain brain cell membranes and aid in communication between brain cells. Studies show EPA and DHA omega-3 fats also influence neurotransmitter production and actions. EPA boosts serotonin by inhibiting inflammatory molecules that blunt its release. DHA also impacts this happy brain chemical, making receptors more accessible to serotonin and increasing brain levels. 

Plant sources of omega-3s occur in the form of ALA, which must be converted by the body into the brain-enhancing EPA and DHA forms. But the conversion rate is low – so if you follow a plant-based diet, look for a vegan-friendly EPA plus DHA supplement. 

Best sources: Sardines, herring, mackerel, salmon and trout.

Try: Mint-Infused Baked Trout with Mixed Greens & Orange Salad or Smoked Trout Salad with Creamy Dill Dressing

4. Phenylalanine

Phenylalanine is an amino acid known for its mood-enhancing effects. It’s necessary for the synthesis of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure, motivation, focus and reward-seeking behavior. 

Phenylalanine is also involved in the production of epinephrine and norepinephrine. Classified as hormones, these two compounds also act as neurotransmitters, playing a key role in the body’s fight-or-flight response. 

Best sources: Beef, tofu, grouper, pinto beans and milk.

Try: Mango Tofu Salad with Peanut Dressing or Crispy Tofu over Quinoa with Almond Lime Sauce

5. Tyrosine

Tyrosine is another amino acid, and it’s necessary for the production of several neurotransmitters, including dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine. It’s classified as a non-essential nutrient, since the body can make it from phenylalanine. But some research suggests that under certain conditions (like stress) the body can’t synthesize sufficient levels of tyrosine from phenylalanine. Other studies show that supplementing with tyrosine helps enhance memory and cognitive performance, especially during psychological stress. 

Best sources: Cheese, chicken, beef, hemp seeds and oatmeal.

Try: Crispy Lemon Rosemary Brick Chicken or Honey-Almond Oatmeal

6. Vitamin B12

This B vitamin is crucial for healthy brain and nervous system function, and even low-level deficiencies can manifest with serious symptoms. If you’re lacking B12, you might experience numbness and tingling, problems with balance, confusion, memory loss, weakness and fatigue. 

The vitamin also plays a critical role in neurotransmitter synthesis, acting as a cofactor in the production of serotonin, dopamine and GABA, a mood-boosting brain chemical associated with feelings of calm and relaxation. Other B vitamins, like B1 and B6, also impact neurotransmitter synthesis and brain health, but B12 is one of the most important. 

However, it’s important to note that plants don’t make B12; it occurs naturally only in animal products. This means vegans and vegetarians are at risk for deficiencies. If you follow a plant-based diet, look for a vegan-friendly B12 supplement. 

Best sources: Liver, sardines, tuna, beef and eggs.

Try: Tuna & White Bean Salad or Pizza with Sardines & Fennel

7. Vitamin D

Vitamin D is best known for its immune-supportive, mood-enhancing and bone-building benefits. But it also influences neurotransmitters and brain health. 

In the brain, vitamin D receptors are located in areas associated with mood and behavior. Research suggests it impacts enzymes involved in neurotransmitter production and nerve function, and helps regulate the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin. 

Dietary sources of vitamin D are somewhat limited, so if you don’t get regular exposure to D-promoting sunshine, nourish your neurotransmitters with a D3 or plant-based D2 supplement. 

Best sources: Salmon, egg yolks, herring, fortified cow’s milk, soy milk and orange juice.

Try: Tamarind-Roasted Chipotle Salmon or Deep Dish Smoked Salmon Quiche

8. Zinc

This mineral plays a part in learning and memory, and a zinc deficiency can be linked to depression, anxiety, mood disorders and cognitive impairment. Though its role isn’t fully understood, some studies suggest that zinc influences the release of neurotransmitters, including dopamine and serotonin, and facilitates communication between brain cells. And research shows when certain neurons in the brain are activated, they release zinc to cooperate with various neurotransmitters. 

Best sources: Oysters, seafood, almonds, cashews, chickpeas and lentils.

Try: Toasted Rosemary Marcona Almonds or 3 Easy Ways to Turn a Can of Chickpeas Into a Meal 

9. Iron

Iron is essential for red blood cell production, and it also impacts the synthesis and actions of important neurotransmitters, including dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine and serotonin. All of these are associated with emotion, mood, reward, attention and other key brain functions. Iron is also involved in several other steps of neurotransmitter activity. 

If you aren’t getting sufficient iron, the deficiency can interfere with your brain’s ability to use dopamine. Research links iron deficiency in early childhood with poor executive functioning, low impulse control and impairments in cognition. 

Best sources: Beef, spinach, chicken, lentils and kidney beans.

Try: Spinach Salad with Crispy Artichokes & Basil Dressing or Chicken Wings with Roasted Cauliflower & Garlic Spinach

Want more healthy brain tips? Keep reading and discover how you can nourish your brain both now and for the future:

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