Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
The brain needs a variety of nutrients that form the foundation of its biochemistry. With an ample supply of these neuro nutrients, the brain works normally, enhancing cognition and supporting healthy moods. Fill it with junk foods instead of natural mood boosters such as fresh fruits and veggies, and clean protein—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. For instance, when your blood sugar crashes, your mood usually does too, leaving you impatient and irritable. The good news is that improving your outlook can be as easy as adding a few of these natural mood boosters to your daily routine.
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.
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. Studies also support the use of these natural mood boosters for reducing anxiety and symptoms of bipolar disorder.
Try: 1–3 grams of omega-3s from fish oil daily. Vegetarians can opt for algae-sourced EPA and DHA supplements.
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 boost 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.
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.
These key vitamins play diverse supportive roles in mood and brain energy levels. Vitamins B6, B12, and folate 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 boost mood. 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 vitamin supplement.
Common Mood and Cognitive Problems
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 can stabilize moods. High-carb, high-sugar diets deplete vitamin B1, so a quality B-complex supplement can help, while chromium and biotin supplements can improve blood sugar levels.
Irritability and Anger
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 patients with intense anger often 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.
Sometimes, depression has an obvious cause, such as grief, which can lead to long-term changes in brain chemistry. Other times depression has no obvious cause, which suggests a problem with brain chemistry. A B-complex supplement can often brighten moods. In addition, St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) works as well as prescription antidepressants.
Try: For the Bs, opt for a high-potency B-complex supplement. For St. John’s wort, take 300 mg of a standardized extract three times daily (900 mg total), but double the amount for major depression. Vitamin D might also be helpful, especially for wintertime blues.
Anxiety and Tension
Stress generates anxiety and tension. And caffeine 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.
Amino Acids and Mood
Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, also serve as key constituents of our neurotransmitters. These natural mood boosters are best taken individually, either 15 minutes before eating breakfast or at least two hours after a meal. Otherwise, their absorption will be limited by other amino acids in foods.
- 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. Try: 500–1,000 mg daily.
- 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. Try: 100–200 mg, once or twice daily.
- 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. Try: 500 mg daily of L-tyrosine before breakfast.
- 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. Consider: 50–100 mg three times daily, with the last dose before bed.
- 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.), ADD, and drug addictions. It might also help reduce alcohol cravings. Try: 500 mg, one to four times daily, with or without food. Unfortunately, this highly effective amino acid has become harder to find due to pending FDA regulations over its legality as a supplement (and not a drug).