In the intricate tapestry of human emotions, neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that play a key role in our wellbeing and happiness. There are around 100 of them in total. GABA, serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins are the superheroes of the brain – responsible for creating sensations of calm, joy, love and pleasure.
Let’s explore these five superstar neurotransmitters and how you can ensure your body is able to produce them in ideal amounts from a nutritional perspective.
GABA acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. Its primary function is to reduce the activity of neurons thus promoting a sense of calm and relaxation. An optimal supply of GABA in your system can offer a range of benefits that contribute to overall wellbeing. It can help alleviate anxiety, promote deep and restorative sleep and also plays a role in reducing habits of addiction.
To enhance GABA production, engage in mindfulness practices, exercise regularly, prioritise quality sleep and consume foods rich in glutamate and B vitamins, such as meat, fish, vegetables, whole grains (if you digest them well) and nuts.
Serotonin, often referred to as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, plays a crucial role in regulating mood and emotions, sleep, appetite, memory and even some of our social behaviours.
It is primarily synthesised in the gut and the brain, where it influences various physiological processes. It helps to modulate our emotions, enhancing feelings of happiness, contentment and general emotional stability. It plays a role in helping to prevent a sustained, depressed mood.
Interestingly, serotonin is also involved in regulating appetite and food intake. It helps to control feelings of satiety, or fullness and influences our cravings for certain foods. That’s why alterations in serotonin levels may lead to disruptions in appetite, contributing to conditions such as binge eating or appetite suppression. They are usually myriad other factors involved though.
Serotonin also has a profound impact on our sleep patterns as healthy serotonin levels in the daylight hours, help to promote good melatonin levels in darkness. So it plays a role in helping to regulate the circadian rhythm (our sleep-wake cycle).
Some ways to boost serotonin levels include engaging in regular exercise, exposing yourself to natural sunlight (especially in the morning), practising gratitude and acts of kindness. Nutritionally, the amino acid tryptophan found in protein-rich foods and nutrients such as B vitamins, Vitamin C, magnesium, zinc and folate are important for serotonin production. So consuming plenty of whole real foods, especially those rich in protein, will support this neurotransmitter. A good quality dark chocolate also provides us with tryptophan.
Dopamine, commonly known as the “reward” neurotransmitter, is a chemical messenger that plays a crucial role in our brain’s reward and pleasure pathways. It is involved in supporting various functions, including motivation, movement, attention and reinforcement of behaviours.
When we engage in pleasurable activities such as eating delicious food, receiving praise, or achieving a goal, dopamine is released, creating a sense of contentment and reinforcing the behaviour that led to it. This reinforcement mechanism helps motivate us to seek out pleasurable experiences and repeat rewarding behaviours. This is one reason we can end up eating way more sugar or junk than we intend to – we can get addicted to the dopamine hit it gives us.
Dopamine also plays a critical role in motivation and goal-directed behaviour. When dopamine levels are optimal, it can enhance our mood, focus, drive and determination. Additionally, dopamine contributes to movement coordination.
To increase dopamine levels, set and achieve small goals, engage in creative activities, practise mindful eating, exercise regularly and cultivate healthy social connections. Notice when you are taking part in/doing something you love. Nutritionally, amino acids from protein sources, B vitamins from a wide variety of whole, real foods and minerals such as magnesium and zinc are essential for the production of this neurotransmitter. Leafy greens vegetables are rich in magnesium so consuming plenty of vegetables is essential. Zinc is found in oysters and red meat and there is a small amount in eggs and seeds, like sunflower seeds.
Oxytocin, often referred to as the “love hormone,” is released during social bonding, physical touch and lactation. It promotes feelings of trust, love and connection. In addition to its role in social bonding, oxytocin also has effects on stress regulation. It has been shown to reduce the activity of the body’s stress response system, helping to alleviate feelings of anxiousness and promoting a sense of calm and wellbeing. Oxytocin can also enhance resilience to stress, allowing individuals to cope more effectively with challenging situations.
To boost oxytocin production, hug loved ones, engage in meaningful conversations, practise acts of kindness and engage in activities that foster trust and emotional intimacy. Patting a pet, like a dog, has also been shown to support production of oxytocin.
Endorphins, often referred to as the body’s “natural painkillers” or “feel-good chemicals,” are fascinating neurotransmitters that play a crucial role in our experience of pleasure and pain modulation. They are part of the opioid system in the brain and are released in response to certain stimuli. They are known to produce a sense of pleasure and can create a state of temporary analgesia, reducing the perception of pain.
Endorphins are released during various activities, with exercise being a well-known trigger. When we engage in moderate to intense physical activity, such as running, dancing, or cycling, the body responds by releasing endorphins. This is often referred to as the “runner’s high” and is characterised by feelings of euphoria, reduced pain sensitivity and an overall sense of wellbeing.
Endorphins can also be released in response to stress or pain. When the body experiences stress or discomfort, endorphins are produced to help alleviate these sensations. This natural pain relief response can help us cope with challenging situations and promote a sense of resilience. Apart from pain modulation, endorphins can also have mood-enhancing effects. They contribute to a sense of happiness and can help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. The release of endorphins can lead to improved mood, increased relaxation, and a general sense of optimism.
To stimulate endorphin production, engage in regular exercise, try laughter therapy or humour-based activities, listen to uplifting music, practise slow breathing exercises and indulge in activities that bring you joy.
Nutritionally, the amino acid tryptophan found in protein-rich whole real foods, B vitamins, magnesium and zinc are important for the synthesis of endorphins. Red meats, seafoods, nuts and seeds are sources of zinc, however it is becoming difficult to consume adequate amounts. Given its important role in neurotransmitter production, supplementation can be of benefit.
It’s important to note that gut health and the presence of specific gut bacteria play a crucial role in neurotransmitter production, particularly serotonin, GABA and dopamine. For more on this, read this article on food and mood.