If you could peek inside your brain, you’d find trillions of cells and a biological computer far more complex than anything ever made by Apple, Intel, or Microsoft. It grows, learns from experience, and adapts to new information.
To accomplish all this, the brain needs a variety of nutrients, which form the foundation of its biochemistry. With an ample supply of these neuronutrients, the brain works normally, enhancing cognition and supporting healthy moods. Fill it with junk foods—or ignore nutritional deficiencies and imbalances—and the brain sputters and misfires, affecting our mood.
Decades ago, Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, PhD, observed that the brain was far more sensitive than any other organ to nutritional deficiencies or imbalances. When your blood sugar crashes, for instance, your mood usually does too, leaving you impatient and irritable.
If you’re on a low-fat diet, you could be starving your brain’s gray matter. That’s because 60 percent of the brain consists of fat. Specific dietary fats are crucial for the developing brains of infants, and they help thinking and memory throughout life. These nutrients also play key roles in regulating neurotransmitters, chemicals that influence mood.
Omega-3s. People need the two principal omega-3 fats, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), for normal development of the brain, eyes, and nervous system. Abundant in fish oils, EPA and DHA are incorporated into the walls of brain cells, where they turn on genes involved in neurotransmitter activity and promote connections between brain cells. Considerable research has found that EPA and DHA benefit a wide range of mood problems, including depression, impulsiveness, hostility, and physical aggressiveness. Recent studies also support the benefits of omega-3s in reducing anxiety and symptoms of bipolar disorder.
Try: 1–3 grams of omega-3s from fish oil daily. Vegetarians can optfor algae-sourced EPA and DHA supplements
Phospholipids. The two principal dietary phospholipids are phosphatidylserine and phosphatidylcholine. Both get incorporated into the fatty membranes of brain cells, where they enhance cell-to-cell communication. They can also improve memory and mood, and some research suggests that they can slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a combination of EPA, DHA, and phosphatidylserine helped improve the attention spans of hyperactive children. And more recent research suggests that phosphatidylcholine might even help protect against schizophrenia.
Try: Both phosphatidylserine and phosphatidylcholine are available as dietary supplements. You can also try lecithin granules, which are rich in these nutrients. Follow label directions for use.
B-Complex Vitamins. These key vitamins play diverse supportive roles in mood and brain energy levels. Vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid are needed to make neurotransmitters. Vitamins B1, B2, and B3, are involved in “bioenergetics,” the process that energizes cells. Supplements can often take the edge off anxiety and lift depressed moods. The B complex vitamins have long been recognized as anti-stress nutrients—which is important because stress negatively affects moods.
Try: A high-potency B-complex supplement.
Amino Acids and Mood
L-Taurine. This amino acid functions in the body as a calming neurotransmitter, and supplements have a mild sedative effect. L-taurine seems to be of particular benefit in epilepsy.
L-Theanine. Found in high-quality green and black teas, L-theanine is an amino acid that increases the activity of alpha waves in the brain, thereby improving mental focus and producing a greater sense of relaxation. Supplements may reduce anxiety and tension.
L-Tyrosine. This amino acid serves as the basic building block of our stimulating neurotransmitters, including dopamine, noradrenaline, and adrenaline. It’s also the foundation of thyroid hormones.
5-HTP. This form of the amino acid L-tryptophan is readily converted to serotonin, a calming neurotransmitter of benefit in depression, anxiety, and insomnia.
N-acetylcysteine (NAC). This form of the amino acid L-cysteine is especially helpful in obsessive-compulsive behavior (nail biting, hair pulling, skin picking, etc.) and drug addictions. It might also help reduce alcohol cravings. Try: 500 mg, one to four times daily, with or without food.
Common Mood and Cognitive Problems
Mood Swings. Some people can be pleasant one moment, then dark and brooding the next. These mercurial folks can be difficult to deal with because of their unpredictability. Mood swings often track with blood sugar levels, and low blood sugar triggers feelings of hunger, impatience, and irritability.
Try: A diet high in quality protein and low in starchy, sugary foods often stabilizes moods. High-carbohydrate and high-sugar diets deplete vitamin B1, so extra amounts combined with a quality B-complex supplement can help, while chromium and biotin supplements can improve blood sugar levels.
Irritability and Anger. Some people go through life with a chip on their shoulders and often direct their anger at people and situations unrelated to the actual cause of their emotional turmoil. Blood-sugar fluctuations, toxic metal exposure, and nutritional deficiencies can set the stage for anger and aggressiveness. Researchers at the Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Warrenville, Ill., found that the majority of patients with intense angry outbursts had abnormally high copper and low zinc levels.
Try: Adopt a high-protein, low-carb, low-sugar diet. Then, at least two types of supplements can help. One is a high-potency B-complex (or high-potency multivitamin). The other is omega-3 fish oil. A little extra zinc can be beneficial as well.
Depression. Depression will affect 20 million Americans at some point during their lives. Sometimes it has an obvious cause, such as grief, which can lead to profound long-term changes in brain chemistry. Other times depression has no obvious cause, which suggests a problem with brain chemistry and neuronutrients. Taking a high-potency B-complex supplement can often brighten moods. In addition, the herb St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) works as well as the leading prescription antidepressant medications. St John's wort by itself may cause sensitivity to sunlight in fair individuals and may interact with some medications.
An analysis by the respected Cochrane Collaboration concluded that the herb also helped in cases of major (the most severe) depression, which is difficult to treat conventionally.
Try: For the Bs, opt for a high-potency B-complex supplement. For St. John’s wort, take 300 mg daily of a standardized extract three times daily (900 mg total), but double the amount for major (severe) depression. Vitamin D might also be helpful, especially for the wintertime blues.
Anxiety and Tension. Stress generates anxiety and tension. Consuming large amounts of caffeine in coffee, energy drinks, and soft drinks can amplify those feelings. Caffeine increases the body’s production of adrenaline and other stimulating neurotransmitters.
Try: The B-complex vitamins can often reduce feelings of anxiety; they have been considered anti-stress vitamins since the 1940s. The omega-3 fish oils and L-theanine are helpful as well.
Memory Problems. Although occasional forgetfulness isn’t a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, it can be worrisome. At the very least, it may interfere with our performance at school or work and undermine our self-confidence. Trying to stay focused on specific tasks can help reduce the effect of distractions.
Try: Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), one of the key omega-3 fats, can sharpen memory. Ginkgo biloba, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), and acetyl-L-carnitine supplements might also help memory.
Finally, just about everyone would like a few extra brain cells. Neurogenesis is the term used to describe the process of creating new brain cells, and it depends on a variety of nutrients, including—but not limited to—vitamins A, C, E, and folic acid. Scientists used to believe that we stopped making new brain cells after reaching adulthood. But recent research indicates that we can maintain neurogenesis well into our later years.
Along with proper nutrition, it helps to engage in brain stimulating exercises, such as reading, pursuing creative activities, and enjoying the arts.
Jack Challem has been writing about research on nutritional supplements for more than 35 years and is the author of more than 20 books, including No More Fatigue. Visit him online at nutritionreporter.com and jackchallem.com/photography.