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Mental Health. The Neurotransmitter Edition. Part II


Brain 1 300x300 - Mental Health. The Neurotransmitter Edition. Part IIFoods, Supplements and your Neurotransmitters


Neurotransmitters are made from amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. So, is there any evidence that eating more of or supplementing with these amino acids helps to improve brain or mental health?


Theoretically, this makes sense, however the evidence is inconclusive.


NOTE: Always heed the label and speak with your doctor or pharmacist before taking supplements if you have a condition or are taking medications, as they can have negative side effects.


Foods and Supplements for Serotonin?


Many foods contain the amino acid tryptophan: eggs, tofu/soy, sesame and sunflower seeds, spirulina, and cod. Ideally you would get enough of all of your essential amino acids from food. There isn’t any good evidence that eating more foods containing tryptophan directly helps with brain and or mental health.


There is one supplement sometimes recommended to increase serotonin. It is 5-HTP. Tryptophan (the amino acid) is converted into 5-HTP which is then converted into serotonin (5-HT).


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Theoretically, 5-HTP supplements should be effective at helping with moods. There has been research on this topic, and it shows promise, but 5-HTP is not proven to help with symptoms of major depression. Results are small, even in people who are deficient in tryptophan.


Several  studies looked at the use of 5-HTP for anxiety, and a few have found a small benefit.


NOTE: 5-HTP has not been found to improve mental health symptoms and likely interacts with medications used for those conditions. It may also reduce the activity of dopamine. Always heed the label and speak with your doctor or pharmacist before taking supplements.


Foods and Supplements for Norepinephrine and Dopamine?


Because both norepinephrine and dopamine are made from the amino acid tyrosine, is there evidence that foods or supplements high in tyrosine can help with these two neurotransmitters? There is some evidence that tyrosine supplements can help with working memory, improve focus which I’ve written about here Hacks I Use To Manage My Anxiety.


Many foods contain the amino acid tyrosine: eggs, tofu/soy, spirulina, parmesan and romano cheese, peanuts, cod, and sesame seeds. As with tryptophan, ideally you would get enough of all of your essential amino acids from food. Also as with tryptophan, the answer is that eating more of these foods probably doesn’t have a huge effect on levels of norepinephrine or dopamine. Studies show that increasing the amount of tyrosine in the body does not result in increased levels of norepinephrine, or dopamine, nor does it directly help with brain and/or mental health symptoms.


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L-tyrosine supplements may be useful if there is a deficiency in l-tyrosine, however, not if there is no deficiency. Taking them does not seem to increase production of the neurotransmitters. L-tyrosine may slightly improve cognition and reduce memory loss during short-term physical stress. It’s unclear whether it helps with normal (non-stressed) memory, or long-term stress or fatigue.


But, there is something that CAN help with brain health, mental health, and neurotransmitters!


Exercise for Brain and Mental Health


Back in 1969, a researcher (Morgan) found that physically unfit people were more depressed than “fit” people. This study was the first to look at the links between exercise and mental health. It was groundbreaking at the time and sparked decades of research. We’re learning more and more about the effects physical exercise has on the functions of our brains and our moods.


Regular exercise reduces symptoms or slows progression of stress, depression, anxiety, dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and autism. Some studies show that, for certain types of depression, regular exercise may be as effective as medication or psychological therapy.


Both strength training and aerobic training have been shown to have positive effects on people with depression. Some researchers say that moderate-intensity aerobic training and high-intensity strength training may be the most effective exercises to provide positive mental and brain health benefits.


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Exercise and Your Neurotransmitters


If exercise can help with brain and mental health, what does this have to do with neurotransmitters?


Regular exercise can protect the nervous system and increase metabolism, oxygenation, and blood flow to the brain. Exercise also improves our mood by activating certain areas of the brain, and induces the release of neurotransmitters and other brain chemicals. These chemicals can motivate us to continue to exercise regularly, helps to stimulate new neurons, and can result in improved neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change itself). People who exercise tend to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than sedentary people. All of these are positive for both brain health and mental health.


Animal studies show that exercise increases the feel-good brain chemicals called “endorphins,” and also affects the production and release of those three key neurotransmitters we talked about:


  • Serotonin (happy)
  • Norepinephrine (alertness and stress)
  • Dopamine (motivation, reward, pleasure and behaviour)


In rodents, certain parts of the brain have higher levels of serotonin after exercise. And frequent exercise increases the amount of serotonin produced and used in the brain. Similarly with dopamine – exercise increases dopamine levels in different parts of animal brains. If you’ve ever felt that exercise helps with your mood and memory, this may be partly due to the effect it has on dopamine.


While regular exercise can promote mental health. Excessive exercise and overtraining, on the other hand, can have adverse effects. If there is a lot of pressure to perform well, this can be detrimental to mental health, and has been seen among elite athletes.




Neurotransmitters are key chemicals our neurons use to communicate with each other. They are made from amino acids and are essential for optimal brain and mental health.


Eating and supplementing with key amino acids may not do much – but something else does. That is: regular exercise!


Regular exercise is a way to help boost our moods and ability to think and remember well. Exercise does this through improving the blood and oxygen flow to the brain, stimulation of our brains’ ability to change itself, as well as has positive effects on brain chemicals including neurotransmitters.


NOTE: If you think you may have any brain or mental illness, please see your licensed healthcare professional.



Cooney, G.M., Dwan, K., Greig, C.A., Lawlor, D.A., Rimer, J., Waugh, F.R., McMurdo, M. & Mead, G.E. (2013). Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, (9):CD004366. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD004366.pub6. Supplements: Branched-chain amino acids. Accessed May 7, 2018. Supplements: l-Tyrosine. Accessed May 7, 2018. Supplements: Noradrenaline. Accessed May 7, 2018.


Heijnen, S., Hommel, B., Kibele, A., & Colzato, L. S. (2015). Neuromodulation of Aerobic Exercise—A Review. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1890.


Kim, T. W., Lim, B. V., Baek, D., Ryu, D.-S., & Seo, J. H. (2015). Stress-Induced Depression Is Alleviated by Aerobic Exercise Through Up-Regulation of 5-Hydroxytryptamine 1A Receptors in Rats. International Neurourology Journal, 19(1), 27–33.


Morgan, W.P. (1969). A pilot investigation of physical working capacity in depressed and nondepressed psychiatric males. Res Q, 40(4):859-61.


National Institutes of Health. National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Brain Basics: Know your brain. Accessed May 2, 2018.


Portugal, E.M.M., Cevada, T., Sobral Monteiro-Junior, R., Guimarães T.T., da Cruz Rubini, E., Lattari, E., Blois, C., & Camaz Deslandes, A. (2013). Neuroscience of exercise: from neurobiology mechanisms to mental health. Neuropsychobiology, 68(1):1-14. doi: 10.1159/000350946.


Tada, A. (2017). The Associations among Psychological Distress, Coping Style, and Health Habits in Japanese Nursing Students: A Cross-Sectional Study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14(11), 1434.


Wipfli, B., Landers D, Nagoshi C, Ringenbach S. (2011). An examination of serotonin and psychological variables in the relationship between exercise and mental health. Scand J Med Sci Sports, 21(3):474-81. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2009.01049.x.


Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto based integrative and functional nutritionist and dietitian with a focus on digestive, gut, and mental health.  Follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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