You know that lovely feeling of contentment when you hug someone or that surge of nervous energy you get when you’re anxious about a meeting or an event? Those feelings are triggered by neurotransmitters which are little chemical messengers that tell your brain how calm or excited to be.
Some of these neurotransmitters are called “happy hormones” because they help us feel calmer, content, and focused. The constant stresses of our modern society mean that we’re likely to feel the effects of our “fight-or-flight” hormones more often than our calming ones. Fortunately, there are eating and lifestyle habits that support the production of the feel-good hormones and can stabilise your mood.
GABA – the calming neurotransmitter
GABA is my favourite neurotransmitter for its calming effect. It inhibits the speed at which your brain cells communicate with each other. Ever felt your mind racing with a million worries? Then you’ll appreciate how GABA can slow down that racing and give you some breathing space. You can help GABA do its job properly by including fermented foods like tempeh or kimchi and B6-rich foods like salmon, chicken, sweet potatoes, and bananas.
Theanine, a compound found in green tea, can also increase GABA production, so taking 5 minutes each day to sit down with a cup is a great idea.
Serotonin – the happy hormone
Low levels of serotonin are linked to increased food cravings, depression, pain sensitivity, and aggression. When we have healthy levels, we feel happier and sleep better. In fact, many antidepressant medications work by increasing serotonin in the brain. Your body needs the amino acid tryptophan to make this hormone, so choose foods like fish, meat, tofu, pumpkin seeds, and oats. Getting enough carbohydrates is also essential so now is not the time to go low-carb! Include whole grains, legumes, or wholemeal bread in most meals to help your body produce serotonin efficiently.
There are some lifestyle habits that can increase serotonin—getting some sunlight for 20 minutes in the morning, enjoying regular exercise, and strengthening your social connections all help!
Dopamine – the motivator
Dopamine helps you feel satisfied and happy when you’ve achieved something and motivated to achieve it again. This is an important neurotransmitter for you if you procrastinate! Having low levels of dopamine have been linked to depression and apathy.
Your body converts the amino acid tyrosine into dopamine and needs folic acid, magnesium, and zinc to do this. A salmon and roast vegetable salad with spinach, avocado, and sunflower seeds would deliver all these nutrients and make a delicious lunch!
Dopamine levels have also been shown to increase when listening to instrumental music that you REALLY love (the type that gives you goosebumps) or after meditating. So make a dopamine-boosting playlist and block out some time for mindfulness and meditate!
Briguglio, M., Dell’Osso, B., Panzica, G., Malgaroli, A., Banfi, G., Zanaboni Dina, C., Galentino, R. and Porta, M., 2018. Dietary Neurotransmitters: A Narrative Review on Current Knowledge. Nutrients, 10(5), p.591.
Sahab, N., Subroto, E., Balia, R. and Utama, G., 2020. γ-Aminobutyric acid found in fermented foods and beverages: current trends. Heliyon, 6(11), p.e05526.
Young, S., 2007. How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. J Psychiatry Neurosci, [online] Nov(32 (6), pp.394-399.