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Food as Pharmacy: Eat to Boost Your Mood

Chances are, you’ve heard the term “brain food.” It’s usually used to describe certain healthy whole foods that boost your cognition, focus, memory, and concentration, but did you know there’s brain food that can boost your mood, too? There are four primary neurotransmitters that help regulate mood: serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins. Known as our “happiness hormones,” you can increase your levels of these important brain chemicals by tweaking your diet.

SEROTONIN is a vital hormone responsible for many brain and bodily functions including mood stabilization, feelings of happiness and well-being, sleep, blood clotting, appetite regulation, and digestion. Furthermore, it is an essential neurotransmitter that allows brain cells to communicate with other cells in the nervous system. When you have too little serotonin, you may develop depression, anxiety, and other behavioral and emotional disorders, which is why drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are often prescribed to treat them. To boost levels of serotonin naturally, you need to eat a diet rich in tryptophan, which is an amino acid essential to the production of serotonin. While tryptophan is commonly derived from animal proteins, there are also plenty of plant-based sources as well.

Foods that Boost Serotonin: Quality animal proteins such as wild-caught salmon, pastured poultry, and eggs; spinach, watercress, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, and walnuts.

DOPAMINE, also known as the “feel-good” hormone, plays a critical role in feelings of pleasure and reward. In addition to boosting mood, it can help us think and plan, as well as feel more alert, focused, and motivated. When levels are too low, we can feel listless and unmoored. In severe cases, scientists believe that a lack of dopamine may cause Parkinson’s. Unlike serotonin, our body does produce its own dopamine in response to pleasurable activities—including when we eat junk food—but to boost it healthily, you’ll want to eat foods high in the amino acid l-tyrosine, which is critical for dopamine synthesis.

Foods that Boost Dopamine: Sockeye salmon, pastured ground turkey, eggs, yogurt, lentils, black beans, bananas, almonds, walnuts, and dark chocolate.

OXYTOCIN, AKA the “love hormone,” plays an important role in social bonding and sexual pleasure. In women, it helps start labor contractions and lactation, and research suggests that it can help diminish sugar cravings in anyone. Raising your oxytocin levels is a natural stress buster, as an oxytocin release promotes feelings of security, joy, and calm. Our body releases oxytocin after physical touch and positive social interactions, and you may have low levels if you have chronic depression and anxiety, and/or trouble bonding and forming relationships. To boost oxytocin levels through food, you’ll want to seek out magnesium-, vitamin c-, and probiotic lactobacillus reuteri-rich foods.

Foods that boost oxytocin: citrus fruits, tomatoes, peppers, and broccoli (vitamin c); spinach, pumpkin seeds, lima beans, and tuna (magnesium); yogurt, kefir, miso, and sauerkraut (probiotic).

ENDORPHINS are a category of neurotransmitter that act on the opiate receptors in the brain. They reduce pain and boost pleasure, so they’re released when you’re injured or stressed, as well as during pleasurable activities like eating, drinking, exercise, and sex, and like oxytocin, they promote social bonding. Hallmarks of low endorphins include depression and anxiety, moodiness, impulsive or risky behavior, chronic pain, and increased risk of addiction. While food doesn’t contain any endorphins, you can boost production by eating foods rich in the building blocks that help your brain produce them: vitamin B12, vitamin C, iron, potassium, and zinc.

Foods that Boost Endorphins: strawberries, oranges, grapes, nuts, seeds, ginseng, dark chocolate, chilis and other spicy foods.

As you may have noticed, there’s a fair amount of overlap in the types of food that can give your happiness hormones a boost: quality animal proteins, vitamin-rich veggies and fruits; nuts, legumes, seeds, and even quality dark chocolate. If you suspect that one or more of your happiness hormones could use some nutritional assistance, contact me. Together, we can assess your diet and lifestyle and help you make the lasting lifelong changes you need to feel your best.


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