hacking happiness – food for your mood

brain health
How can you give your brain a helping hand to optimise your mood? Find out here!

My heart goes out to those who may be suffering even more with increased mental health issues right now – this post is for you and your loved ones. Coronavirus and social distancing may be having damaging effects on both your immune system and mental health. Some of those effects i wrote about in my post loneliness is a killer. Yet this current challenge can be an opportunity – to refine your self-care strategies. In my post Coronavirus – self-care in a time of stress I detail some ideas for stress management. Here in this post you will find my insights and dietary solutions to mental health together with the best strategies to optimise your brain function and effectively address mood issues.

In this post I go into factors that determine the physiological health of that lovely bobble of grey matter between your ears!

I begin in this post with a Nutritional therapy strategy to set the foundation for both brain and functionality by showing you how to select the right foods to nourish your neurotransmitters. Be sure to combine these ideas with my strategies on how to eat detailed in my posts on healthy digestion and the four R’s of digestive health.

Next I go deeper into Brain maintenance strategies into key causal factors that determine moods and give you strategies to identify and resolve a deficiency you may have in key neurotransmitters Serotonin and Dopamine.

Finally I go deeper still into mood and neuro-transmitter support with a Targeted amino acid support to boost your mood and optimise your neuro-transmitter balance

And in addition I end this post with some Daily practices for boosting your mood

Click on the lines directly below to scroll down

Nutritional therapy
Brain maintenance
Targeted amino acid support
Daily practices for boosting your mood

In addition to this post, be sure to check out my posts hacking happiness – the 4 key happiness chemicals and hacking happiness – the 7 brain molecules that make you feel good

Why I write this post and blog

I’ve spent 25 years of my life dealing with depression and anxiety and researching effective cures as well as coping strategies as well as the multiplicity of factors that determine moods. So I know intimately and very personally how a persistent low mood such as depression and anxiety is devastating. And I have learnt a lot. Huguru is my channel for bringing what I learned to life – so I can help others. Helping others is what I see as my spiritual purpose in life



2965181_0food for your mood!

The core foundation to determining healthy brain function is the physical health of our brains – and whether we are feeding ourselves the right nutrients to optimise brain functionality. This in turn will set the stage to influence our thoughts and moods.

The role of nutritional therapy is to provide body with sufficient nutrients so that it can:

  1. create the neurotransmitters it needs
  2. have them readily available in order to avoid deficiency due to overtaxing and overusing an organ system
  3. have sufficient reserves and avoid overuse of a system / depletion / de-sensitization

Key Neurotransmitters and brain fuel

  • Acetylcholine:
    • metabolized from dietary Choline  sourced especially from egg yolk, beef, orange and cauliflower
    • enzymatic co-factors: vitamins B1, B5, B6, C and minerals Calcium and Zinc
  • Dopamine:
    • metabolized from amino acids phenylamine and tyrosine which are sourced especially from meat and milk products
    • enzymatic co-factors: folate, Vitamin C, copper and S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe)
  • Norepinephrine:
    • made from Dopamine using Copper and Vitamins B3, B6, C
  • Serotonin:
    • metabolized from amino acid tryptophan sourced from turkey, milk, cottage cheese, chicken, eggs, red meats, tofu, almonds, peanuts, fish, milk, dates, chocolate, casein component of milk
    • enzymatic co-factors: vitamins B6, C and Folate and mineral Magnesium
  • GABA:
    • amino acid Glutamic acid and glutamate act as amino acid precursors in synthesis of GABA and Glutamic acid is sourced especially from eggs and whey protein using Calcium as co-factor in function

Key Nutrients

  • Omega 3 fatty acids
  • Protein
  • Anti-oxidants: Vitamin C and E (to protect fatty acids in brain from free-radical damage to which they are very susceptible)
  • B-vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12): from eggs, nutritional yeast and Marmite
  • Electrolytes:
    • get more potassium and magnesium
    • restrict excess sodium and salt
  • Choline needed for Acetylcholine and found in
    • eggs, soy lecithin, peanuts, wheat germ, soy foods, Brussel sprouts, oatmeal, soybeans, cabbage, kale, lettuce, potatoes
  • Flavonoids – such as anthocyanidins found in blueberries

Core diet advice for mental health

Have 3 good meals with snacks in between those meals – and no skipping meals, especially no skipping breakfast

Protein: 20 to 30 grams per meal from sources that contain all 22 amino acids:

  • Vegetarians need to mix foods, eat more and watch out for food bulking effects
    • get a complete amino blend by combining grains together with legumes, nuts and/or seeds or combine legumes with nuts and/or seeds  (eg Hummus)
    • to get the overall quantity of protein required more food will be needed than on meat diet
    • bulk provided by carbohydrate (eg from legumes or grains) could lead to sleepiness and loss of calorie control
  • Responsibly sourced Meat and animal products are excellent sources of bioavailable nutrients and a complete amino blend
    • Organic and responsibly raised Beef, Lamb, Venison, Buffalo – which all are rich in highly bioavailable minerals Iron and Zinc needed for blood and immune health
    • Wild sourced Fish – farmed fish may be low in Omega 3
    • Organic Free Range Poultry and Eggs (3 needed)
    • Organic and responsibly produced Dairy and Cheese

The importance of dietary fat: Fat is fuel for your mood! In fact its crucial – as fat is a whopping 35% of our brain. The key point here – the type of fat that our brains use as fuel:

  • Fats/Lipids form the phospholipid layer of cell membranes, assisting (or hindering) cell communication throughout the body, and are especially important in the brain and nervous system
  • INCREASE Foods rich in omega 3 are associated with improved mental function
    • Omega 3 fat – is an MAO inhibitor and useful for depression, ADD and alcoholism and Omega 3 fat is the best possible fat for brain health
  • ELIMINATE Cholesterol, transfatty acids and high consumption of saturated fats and animal fats
    • high consumption of saturated fats and animal fats detrimentally affect our brain and nervous tissues and are associated with impaired mental function
      • I recommend low to moderate amounts of both saturated fat and responsibly sourced Butter
      • Saturated fat is less likely to be damaged from oxidation and aids absorption of Vitamins A, D E and Calcium
      • Butter is an excellent fat source and high in Vitamin A and butyrate
        • butyrate is a fast burning fat used by brain for fuel and also as a base for GABA
        • butyrate aids digestion as it is used as fuel by cells in colon


  • Eat a diet high in low carbohydrate vegetables with 4 to 5 cups per day of non starchy vegetables and leaves for minerals, vitamins and enzymes needed for protein and neurotransmitter formation and function
  • Restrict your intake of high carbohydrate foods according to your metabolic need (eg weight loss, sport) and fulfil your requirements by eating fruit and high-carbohydrate vegetables such as carrots, beets, yams, sweet potatoes, winter squash, grain and legumes – these are the best food sources of minerals, vitamins and enzymes

Recommended supplements

  • Hydrochloric Acid supplement to aid with digestion – useful for people dealing with high stress and type A personality (ie aggressive achiever)
  • Amino acid Acetyl L-Tyrosine
    • can restore adrenal ability to withstand stress and provide anti-depressant benefits
    • can be used to replace coffee first thing in day
    • NB excess Tyrosine can cause jitters and raise blood pressure
  • A good quality multivitamin and mineral supplement especially if you are under stress or use caffeine (ie key nutrients are depleted by stress and caffeine)

Recommended Herbal and botanical support from

    • Gingko Biloba
    • Rosemary to assist concentration
    • Rhodiola – a nervous system tonic and anti-depressant that enhances alertness, reduces fatigue, improves memory and relieves depressed state
    • Mucuna pruriens extract – provides L-Dopa, a pre-cursor to dopamine and a boost to motivation


  • Bad fats and fats that are easily oxidised (see above for details)
  • Sugar and white starch (rice, flour) – due to effects of
    • raising insulin, increasing fat storage, leading to reactive hypoglycemia
    • resultant release of adrenal hormones to raise blood sugar which in themslves cause anxiety, irritability and shakiness
  • High carb and low protein meals which
    • raise serotonin levels in the brain, and this leads to sleepiness and calm
    • dysglycemia = blood sugar issues:
      • hyperinsulemic response to high carb meal resulting in reactive hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
      • adrenals released due to low blood sugar will
        • catabolize muscle and liver glycogen stores leaving little glycogen available for essential body functions
        • cause anxiety, irritability and shakiness
      • repeated high carb food intake has a conditioning effect on both insulin and adrenal release
  • Allergy (Gluten, Dairy, Corn, Soy, etc) foods
    • Gluten allergies linked to thyroid disorder
    • all allergy foods linked to mood disorders that disappear on elimination diet
  • Unfermented Soy
    • soy isoflavones impair thyroid hormone formation leading to low thyroid
    • high phytate content in soy impairs absorption of thyroid and brain nutrients zinc, iodine and iron
    • soy is an allergenic food that can impair digestion and can lead to leaky gut
    • soy disrupts sex hormones due to phytoestrogenic effects
    • soy can lead to Alzheimer’s and premature brain ageing
  • Skipping meals (like breakfast) – which leads to high stress and low energy
  • Low fat, low protein diets – that deprive brain of vital nutrients (eg butyrate in butter, ketones from protein metabolism)
  • Packaged foods and aspartame
  • Caffeine
    • Depletes natural uppers (eg serotonin, dopamine, endorphins) and leads to crashes in energy and irritability, anxiety – needs combining with protein and fat food intake
    • Depletes mood nutrients: B vitamins, Vitamin C, Potassium, Calcium, Zinc
    • Overstimulates and weakens kidneys, pancreas, liver, stomach, intestines, heart, nervous system, adrenal glands
    • acidifies pH of body and blood



Brain maintenance strategies:

  • Prolonged and chronic stress causes impaired memory function due to the prolonged existence of stress hormones in the brain disrupting brain function. So to deal with this, here are some key stress busters:
    • Take up regular exercise
    • Sleep is the brain’s time to repair and so good sound sleep is crucial. And have an effective sleep strategy, like avoiding caffeine, alcohol and stimulating foods in the evenings, all of which disrupt sleep
    • Relaxation: find effective ways to destress and unwind like Tai Chi, Yoga and meditation

Stress and adrenal overload

  • Are you suffering from endorphin burnout? Are you under too much stress? Answer the quick questions below to find out how much stress may be ruling your moods by asking yourself how easy is it to do the following:
    • face deadlines, confrontations and setbacks with gusto and humor
    • find excitement facing difficult challenge (eg diet, first job, marathons)
    • have relaxed shoulders and body
    • spend a day daydreaming and relaxing, or lounging with friends
  • Now ask how life could feel doing all the above if overwhelm was rare. Is overwhelm a constant feeling in your life?

Step one: using your answers to the questions above gauge the degree of burn out you may be facing

Step two: gauge your stress coping strategies, such as those learned from family or peers, and  coping mechanisms that include alcoholism and mood foods

Determine your level of Biological stress which results from

  • adrenal surges caused by blood sugar irregularity (excess or deficiency) 
  • infections, allergens, excess exercise and toxins
  • toxin overload and reduced ability of liver to manage toxic load

Symptoms of Biological Stress include increased sensitivity to toxins as well as irritability and anxiety

Sensitivity and Endorphin burnout

  • Sad feelings are natural. However, when they are unbearably painful, go on for too long or appear without obvious reason, low endorphins may be the cause
    • Dealing with any physical or emotional pain necessitates sufficient endorphins beforehand
    • Endorphins provide a shielding layer and they can easily be depleted
  • Causes of endorphin deficiency / burnout
    • Genes and nurture – being instructed to turn off feelings, being ignored, being taunted or being brought up by people with those traits
    • Excess stress –
      • endorphins are released and needed during stress
      • endorphins also aid in the regulation of stress, causing 50% drop in cortisol
    • Physical pain and repression of emotions – leads to the use of and depletion of endorphins to block pain and can also result in the use of other substances (eg alcohol and drugs) to block pain
    • Gender
      • women have lower endorphins, thus can become over emotional as levels drop lower
      • men by contrast have higher threshold to pain but can become depleted due to covering up sensitivities
  • Food support:
    • Protein for all essential and non essential amino acids
    • Fats – which encourage endorphin release
    • Vegetables – for mineral and vitamin enzymes
  • Exercise
    • If endorphin levels are low, release may be low
      • thus encouraging behaviour in search of endorphin high
      • Sex, sugar, alcohol, drugs and exercise can force a brief release but can lead to addictions
    • If behaviour is excessive in search of endorphin release, it is best to
      • take a supplement (eg DLPA)
      • exercise less and break food/drug/sex addictions
    • Hitting the wall in exercise / excess exercise
      • induces endorphin release – but is dangerous
      • no high after intense exercise indicates endorphin deficiency / burnout
  • Sunlight, music, romance and contact with nature can all raise levels of endorphins

The role of key neurotransmitters

Serotonin and being flexible, warm and happy

  • Serotonin transmits positive feelings and thoughts and enhances pride, sound sleep, enjoying family and friends, peace, half full attitude, looking forward with positive anticipation
  • Deficiency very common and leads to symptoms that are both psychological and physical such as anxiety, depression, perfectionism, panic, irritability, insomnia, PMS and muscle pain
    • Other symptoms comprise lack of accomplishment vs pride; insomnia vs sleep; irritated by family members vs enjoying their company; anxiety vs peace; half empty glass vs half full; feeling dread vs positive anticipation
  • See my previous post for more details about Serotonin

Catecholamines (CA) and being motivated and focused

  • Dopamine, adrenaline, norepinephrine
  • Arouse and excite both mentally and emotionally; primer for action; determine extent of being extroverted or introverted
  • Exciting prospects for the future arouse them in anticipation:
    • If Catecholamines levels are low there will be little to no reaction (ie apathetic depression)
  • Symptoms of being low:
    • easy distracted and poor mental concentration
    • easily drawn to stimulants such as coffee, but these lead to CA depletion
  • Stress depletes adrenal resources for making CAs
  • Exercise can raise CA levels
  • See my previous post for more details about Dopamine


mood and neuro-transmitter support

There are times when we need a quick hack to happiness, or a solution to break a pattern of a persistent low mood or low energy state. A solution to this is targeted amino acid support and below I share core ideas for this from Julia Ross’s excellent book The Mood Cure. The quantities listed are guidelines – not prescriptions. Effects meanwhile can be fast!

AM = early morning, B = breakfast, MM = mid morning, L = lunch, MA = mid afternoon, D = dinner, BT = bed time

Amount AM B MM L MA D BT
Catecholamines and being motivated and focused
L-tyrosine / N-Acetyl Tyrosine 500mg 1=>4 1=>4 1=>4
L-phenylalanine 200 to 500mg 1=>4 1=>4 1=>3
SAM-e 400mg 2 2
Serotonin and being flexible, warm and happy
5-HTP 50mg 1=>3 1=>3
Tryptophan 500mg 1=>3 1=>3
St John’s Wort 300mg 1=>3 1=>3 1
SAM-e 400mg 2 2
Melatonin 1=>6mg 1
Endorphin boosting aminos
D and L Phenylalanine 500 to 1000mg 1=>3 1=>3 1=>3
Soothing aminos
L-tyrosine / N-Acetyl Tyrosine 500 to 1000mg 1 1 1
Taurine and Glycine
5-HTP, Tryptophan, St John’s Wort Varies (1) 1 1

Catecholamines and being motivated and focused

  • L-tyrosine 500mg x 1 to 4 per dose, early morning, mid morning, mid afternoon (limit 2 in pm)
  • Also L-phenylalanine 200 to 500mg x 1 to 4 at same times as above (limit 3 in pm)
  • SAM-e 400mg x 2 mid morning and mid afternoon: SAM-e has antidepressant action and aids joints and liver

Accompanying supplements

  • L-theanine – extract from black and green and mushrooms that promotes a relaxed alertness as well as a focused and motivated state

Additional resources: see my post on Dopamine

Serotonin and being flexible, warm and happy

  • 5-HTTP: effective in curing depression – 50mg x 1 to 3, mid PM and bed time (BT)
  • Tryptophan: can be more effective than 5-HTP but more expensive – 500mg x 1 to 3, mid PM and BT
  • St John’s Wort: 300mg 1 to 3, lunch, dinner and BT (x1)
  • SAM-e:
    • treats depression, arthritis and liver damage and needed for production of serotonin and other neurotransmitters
    • low in depressed people; vit B12 and Folic acid required for production; alcohol and stimulant drugs deplete levels
    • 400mg x 2, breakfast and lunch
  • Melatonin: for sleep – 1 to 6mg BT

Additional resources: see my post on serotonin

Endorphin boosting aminos

DLPA: D and L Phenylalanine: 500 to 1000mg 3x per day between meals (early and mid morning and mid afternoon)

  • L form enhances pleasure and forms endorphins and enkephalins (powerful painkillers); raises energy and decreases depression; forms PEA (phenylethylamine) that is found in chocolate and induces euphoria and energy
  • D form more potent and acts by inhibiting enzymes (endorphinase and enkephalase) that destroy endorphins and enkephalins; should only be used when deficiency in endorphins present as enzyme action needed to stop damage from excess endorphins
  • Stimulating L form may be needed in depression whilst D form alone (250 mg 3x daily) may be needed when excess stimulation causes burnout (and use of numbing drugs) or when jittery, hyper, have headaches, high blood pressure, insomnia, melanoma

Accompanying supplements

  • Serotonin support(eg 5-HTP) stimulates endorphin levels; serotonin support combined with endorphin support prompts synergistic result that can address both endorphin and serotonin deficiency symptoms more effectively and faster
  • Multimineral and vitamin – due to depletion of B-vitamins, Magnesium and Vit C which are needed for pain relieving body processes
  • Omega 3 – to block inflammation (with assistance from vit D, E, B complex and Zinc)

Soothing nutrients

  • Aminos tyrosine (500 to 1000 mg in morning and afternoon before 3pm) and phenylalanine restore adrenal and endorphins better than excess caffeine to cope with stress demands that deplete vitality, stamina and concentration
  • Aminos Taurine and Glycine aid in muscle relaxation
  • Serotonin support with 5-HTP (50 to 150 mg) or tryptophan (500 to 1500 mg) mid afternoon and at bedtime, or St John’s Wort (300 mg 3 times a day with meals)

Accompanying aminos and botanicals

  • Valerian root and L-theanine both help to reduce anxiety and promote sleep
  • Kava Kava – mild sedative that reduces anxiety and induces a relaxed state of goodwill as well as relaxed muscles

Additional resources: see my post on Gaba

Daily practices for boosting your mood

Here are some daily practices I find are brilliant for your mood and mental health:

  • Exercise and the mysteries of body energy – check out my post exercise and how energy flows
  • Respect, love and admiration for nature – have you ever noticed that plants are always giving?
  • Mindfulness practice – breathing, meditation, slowing down, consciously observing your mind and body
  • Self-Care practices – saying “I love you” to yourself and slowing down and being consciously loving to yourself and others
  • Looking others in the eyes – mirroring and deeply connecting
  • Giving significance – to yourself and others
  • Finding balance – between activity and rest, action and contemplation, doing and being receptive
  • Planting positive feelings – gratitude, appreciation, awe, celebration, joy, wonder
  • Purpose and Passion – find your spiritual purpose and passion in life and do at least 1 thing each day to act upon them

CALL TO ACTION! Choose at least one of the practices above – try it / them out. What did you experience? How did you feel? What changed for you?

Adapted from:

Ross, J. (2002). The Mood Cure. New York, N.Y.: Penguin

Kharrazian, D. (2013): Why isn’t my brain working? – the best book for understanding brain health

Fox, A. (1985): DLPA to end chronic pain and depression

Braverman, E. (2002): The healing nutrients within

Ehrenpreis, S. (1983): Degradation of endogenous opioids: its relevance in human pathology and therapy

Murray, M. (2001). Total body tune-up. New York, N.Y.: Bantam Press

Haas, E. (2006). Staying Healthy with Nutrition. Berkeley, Ca. Celestial Healing Arts

Bland, J., Costarella, L., Levin, B., Liska, D., Lukaczer, D., Schlitz, B., Schmidt, M., Lerman, R., Quinn, S., Jones, D. (2004). Clinical Nutrition: A Functional Approach, Second Edition. Gig Harbor, WA: The Institute for Functional Medicine.

Additional resources

Excellent article about Valerian

Psychology today article on L-theanine

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