Neurotransmitters and Mental Health

By DeLois Weekes, RN PHD


Proper amounts of neurotransmitters are necessary for maintaining optimal mental and physical health.
Neurotransmitters are defined as chemicals that determine how communication occurs in the brain. While there are numerous neurotransmitters, this focus of this article will be on: dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, acetylcholine, and GABA: (gamma-aminobutyric acid)/it is really an amino acid but classified as a neurotransmitter.  This discussion also focuses on the function of neurotransmitters in the body, causes of deficiencies, food sources, and how they relate to medications.

Functions of Dopamine:

  • Feelings of pleasure/bliss
  • Feelings of attachment/love
  • Sense of altruism
  • Integration of thoughts and feelings
  • Appetite control
  • Controls motor movements

Deficiencies of Dopamine result in:

  • Anhedonia/lack of pleasure, lack of interest and enthusiasm
  • Lack of ability to feel love/love another
  • Lack of remorse about actions
  • Distractibility
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Headaches—especially migraines
  • Premenstrual Syndrome
  • Very strong cravings for sweets
  • Appetite and Eating Disorders (e.g., binging or bulimia)
  • Depression, Anxiety, or Panic Attacks

Optimal levels can result in: wellbeing even during stressful situations. Excess levels can result in: anxiety disorders

Functions of Norepinephrine:

  • Energy, drive, alertness
  • Stimulation
  • Fight or flight
  • Long-term memory and learning

Deficiencies of Norepinephrine result in:

  • Lack of energy
  • Lack of motivation
  • Depression

Norepinephrine is produced from dopamine with the help of amino acids: phenylalanine, lysine, and methionine, and cofactors (Vitamins C and B-6, magnesium, and manganese). 

Natural sources of building blocks for Norepinephrine:

  • Tofu
  • Avocado
  • Nuts
  • Pineapple
  • Grains
  • Most green vegetables
  • Almonds
  • Bananas and apples
  • Blue-green algae

Functions of Serotonin:

  • Emotional stability
  • Reduces aggression
  • Sensory input
  • Calms and stabilizes emotions
  • Feel hopeful/creative               
  • optimistic/focused
  • patient/good natured                 
  • Reduced craving for carbohydrates
  • Improved sleep cycle
  • Appetite control
  • Sleep cycle
  • Reflective/thoughtful
  • More loving and caring

When we have a shortage of serotonin, lookout! We’re more at risk for depression, anxiety, irritability, impatience, and impulsivity. We may fly off the handle easily. In addition, we tend to have a shorter attention span and may appear to have scattered thought patterns. It is not unusual to crave sweets and high carbohydrate foods. In addition, we may suffer from insomnia and have poor dream recall.

Functions of GABA: (gamma-aminobutyric acid)/it is really an amino acid but classified as a neurotransmitter:

  • Induces relaxation and sleep
  • Balances excitation and inhibition in the brain
  • Stimulates HGH (human growth hormone) – HGH helps build muscle and prevent fat sedative effect – best taken before going to bed 

General Causes Neurotransmitter Deficiencies:

The most common cause of self-induced neurotransmitter deficiencies is limiting food intake to lose weight. This restricts the amounts of basic building blocks (neurotransmitter precursors) needed to produce enough neurotransmitters. Abnormal Sleep: neurotransmitters are needed for proper sleep, especially serotonin. Neurotransmitters are produced during REM sleep around 2-3 a.m. which converts to melatonin, the sleep hormone.

When serotonin levels are low, melatonin levels will also be low. Disrupted sleep occurs and production of neurotransmitters is decreased causing a vicious cycle. Studies from major universities, including Harvard, MIT, and Oxford, have documented that women on diets significantly deplete their serotonin within three weeks of dieting. Induced serotonin deficiency eventually results in cravings, moodiness, poor motivation, as well as rebound weight gain – the most common yet unfortunate consequence of dieting. Intake of dietary neurotransmitter precursor supplements during dieting is strongly encouraged to avoid yo-yo dieting.

Most neurotransmitters are made from protein or its subunits, amino acids. Eating adequate amounts of dietary protein is critical. The average person requires 40-70 grams (up to 90 grams for a very active athlete) of protein daily. Serotonin originates from the amino acid tryptophan, least common amino acid in food and most difficult to absorb into the brain making serotonin synthesis more difficult. Carbohydrates cause an insulin response that favors tryptophan absorption over other amino acids and as tryptophan absorption rises, so will serotonin production. High protein/very low carbohydrate diets lower serotonin levels, making us more prone to weight gain relapse, depression, excessive craving, bingeing, bulimia, severe PMS and seasonal affective disorder. Many people who need more serotonin and are overly-stressed or depressed start to “self-treat” by eating more sweets or starchy carbohydrates.

Dopamine is made from the amino acid tyrosine. Eating high protein foods promote dopamine production. Tyrosine is abundant in chicken, fish, dairy products, almonds, avocados, bananas, legumes, soy products, pumpkin and sesame seeds.

About two thirds of our brain is made of fat (lipids). Lipids are incorporated into the brain cell walls promoting membrane flexibility and strength. A filmy fat layer covers the branches of neurons allowing proper electrical transmission of brain signals. Dietary Fats such as lipids can be made directly by the body. Two lipids can come only from food such as essential fatty acids (EFA). The cell membranes of neurons are made from the essential fatty acids: alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) and linoleic acid (LA). Alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) belongs to the “omega-3” fatty acid family. Main food sources of omega-3 ALA include flax seeds, walnuts, sea plants, green leafy vegetables, canola, soy, and walnut oil. Linoleic acid (LA) belongs to the “omega-6” fatty acid family. LA is found in the oils of seeds and nuts. The main food sources of omega 6 LA include expeller cold-pressed sunflower, safflower, corn and sesame oils.

Acetylcholine – helpful in learning and memory.  Made from B vitamins choline, found in eggs and organ meats, lecithin, and legumes/ 5 grams per day recommended dosage. (Alzheimer’s is due in part to low acetylcholine because of death of the cholinergic neurons that make it).

B Vitamins – help to manufacture neurotransmitters, and regulate energy release in brain cells. The B-Vitamins include: Cobalin (B12), Thiamin (B1, Riboflavin (B2), and Niacin (B6).

Other supplements that help brain Functioning:

  • Multivitamins – can raise non-verbal IQ scores
  • Antioxidants –help clean up the brain like rust cleaners to help keep the “rust: off our brain matter. (prunes, raisins, blueberries, blackberries, garlic, cooked kale, cranberries, strawberries, raw spinach, raspberries).
  • Omega-3 – helps brain functioning and mood. (e.g., walnuts, flax seed oil).
  • Selenium – naturally elevates mood. (grains, garlic, and Brazil nuts).
  • Vitamin E – blood circulation and heart conditions.
  • Folic Acid – low levels result in depression and increases the risk for Alzheimer’s disease. (supplements)
  • Ginko Biloba – helps prevent memory loss. Increases circulation of oxygen and blood to the brain.
  • Phosphatidylserine – stimulates acetylcholine and improves memory.
  • Chromium – suppresses a sharp rise in blood sugar.
  • B Vitamins – helps combat stress.  Improves memory and brain development.

Neurotransmitters and Certain Medications

Long-term use of diet pills, stimulants, pain pills, etc. can deplete neurotransmitter stores. For example, the use of ma huang, ephedra and prescription diet pills (like phen-fen, Fastin, phentermine) use up large amounts of dopamine and serotonin. The most commonly prescribed medications for abnormal moods (dysphoria) are the serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, called SRI’s (e.g., Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, etc.)

SRI’s prevent serotonin from reabsorbing back into storage vesicles leaving more available to stimulate the neurons.


Neurotransmitters play a vital role in brain function. Thus, it is essential that the necessary dietary building blocks are eaten on a regular basis. SO, eat right and keep your brain healthy.