Macronutrients and Your Mood
An understanding of how food affects mood and the risk of substance abuse begins with macronutrients. Carbohydrates are the body's main source of energy; without this macronutrient, the brain can't properly function, blood sugar becomes unstable, and neurotransmitters become disrupted. Unstable blood sugar can lead to feelings of frustration, anxiety, and cravings.
Carbohydrates aid in the production of serotonin, which facilitates a happy, stable mood; aids in sleep; and helps curb food cravings. Low serotonin levels can result in sleep problems, irritability, and depression.
Insulin release following carbohydrate intake helps glucose enter cells, where it's used for energy and triggers tryptophan's entry into the brain.3 Then folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12 help the synthesis of tryptophan to serotonin. Adequate carbohydrates and tryptophan-rich foods, such as dairy and meats, help stabilize these reactions.
Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, also are the foundation of neurotransmitters. Low levels of neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine, can trigger an individual to turn to substances to feel better. Dopamine is made from the amino acid, tyrosine, and serotonin is made from tryptophan.3 If an individual lacks either of these amino acids, synthesis of the respective neurotransmitter is disrupted, which affects mood, aggression, and the desire for drugs or alcohol.3
Dietary fat also plays a role in maintaining mental health. Because it affects inflammation and cell membrane integrity, limiting dietary fat directly influences mood. Research has shown that increased inflammation result in more depressive symptoms.4
Omega-3 fatty acid intake may help with depression by assisting in the uptake of neurotransmitters and decreasing inflammation. Having a proper balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids helps neurotransmitter receptor function, which in turn helps increase the number of neurotransmitters that can be active in the brain.2
Other vitamins important for mental health include iron, folate, and vitamins B6 and B12. Deficiencies of any of these nutrients can mimic mental health problems such as depression, fatigue, poor attention, and altered sleep.1