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Food for Mood - The Link Between Diet and Emotional Health

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By Blake Graham, B.Sc AACNEM • • April 4, 2008

Blake Graham is a clinical nutritionist specializing in integrative nutritional and environmental medicine. This article is reproduced with permission from his Nutritional Healing Newsletter at


If your emotional state is not what you would like it to be, the answer may lie at least partly in your diet.

At first consideration, this may seem a bizarre idea, but after taking a closer look, it makes perfect sense. Our emotional response is strongly related to our brain health and chemistry. Neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, which regulate mood, are made from amino acids. These chemical pathways also require vitamins and minerals as cofactors for their normal function.

The brain is made largely of fatty acids and requires a healthy supply of other nutrients to function normally. Almost every vitamin or mineral deficiency can cause psychiatric symptoms such as depression, anxiety, irritability, low stress tolerance, etc. A large array of other dietary factors such as caffeine, allergies, alcohol and blood sugar also influence our mood.

A growing number of health professionals are now utilizing this information to improve the mood of their patients.

Nutrient deficiencies are not an all or nothing issue, as varying degrees of severity exist.

For example, while full blown scurvy is now rare, mild vitamin C deficiency is not uncommon. In the nutritional treatment of altered mood states, correcting these nutrient deficiencies is a primary initial consideration. This may consist of dietary changes and moderate nutrient supplementation.

Nutrient supplements, however, are not purely used to correct nutrient deficiencies. Using nutrients in doses considerably higher than that achievable through diet is referred to as using “pharmacological” doses. For example, high doses of vitamin B3 were shown in the 1950’s by Dr. Abram Hoffer to reduce schizophrenic symptoms. Doses of 3000 mg were used, while adults typically only need 15 mg/day.


Before they were stopped in the 1970’s for ethical reasons, scientists used to study the effects of nutrient deficiencies by depriving individuals of specific nutrients. Psychiatric symptoms were very commonly found. For example, vitamin B1 - thiamine - deficiency was associated with irritability, depression, fearfulness, agitation and emotional instability.

Vitamins and minerals typically each have a number of different functions. For example magnesium is required by over 300 biochemical reactions in humans. Just to name a few examples, vitamins/minerals are required for the normal production of:
n Neurotransmitters,
n Hormones,
n Cellular energy,
n Antioxidants,
n DNA, and
n Digestive substances.

When these are not synthesized in optimal levels, our health and mood are subsequently affected.

Deficiencies of key vitamins and minerals are found in significant numbers of people with altered mood states. For example folate deficiency is present in 17% to 31% of major depression patients. Correcting these imbalances is in the person’s best interests.

As a secondary consideration, supplements of specific vitamins and minerals may have a pharmacological effect in improving mood. For example, in the absence of nutrient deficiencies, boosting antioxidant status via vitamins C and E, and utilizing high dose vitamin B6 supplements to enhance neurotransmitter pathways, are examples of therapeutic applications of vitamin/mineral supplements. [To read Blake Graham's summary of research linking depression and deficiencies in B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, and zinc, see "The Role of Minerals and Vitamins in Mental Health."]


Amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, form structural components of neurotransmitters, nucleotides, membrane structures, hormones, and many other substances. A deficiency in one or more amino acid can directly or indirectly impact on mental health by leading to a deficiency of its metabolites. For example, tyrosine is a component of dopamine and thyroid hormones.

The basic building blocks of the mood regulating neurotransmitters are referred to as the neurotransmitter precursors. Supplements of these amino acids can be used therapeutically to boost the levels of specific neurotransmitters.

Tryptophan and 5-HTP supplements can be used to boost the serotonin pathway, while tyrosine and L-Dopa are used to increase levels of dopamine and norepinephrine.
n Tryptophan >> 5-HTP >> Serotonin
n Tyrosine >> L-Dopa >> Dopamine >> Norepinephrine

Supplements can also be used to modulate other mood regulating neurotransmitters, including endorphins, acetylcholine, and GABA [gamma-aminobutyric acid].

NOTE: These supplements should not be combined with psychiatric medications and should only be taken under the guidance of a knowledgeable health professional.


Omega-3 (N3) fatty acids are a class of essential polyunsaturated fats. Well known dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fish and flax seeds. The role of omega-3 fatty acids in mental health has received the attention of vast amounts of research in recent years. Omega-3 fatty acids participate in a large array of physiological actions. They:
n Are structural components of brain tissue,
n Improve brain cell membrane fluidity,
n Have anti-inflammatory properties,
n Regulate stress response,
n And participate in a vast array of other functions.

Research consistently reveals that lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids are associated with poorer mood. To date, the vast majority of research has documented that fish oil supplements reduce symptoms in almost every brain related condition it has been tested against, including major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, ADD/ADHD and dementia.


Hypoglycemia - low blood glucose - can cause psychiatric symptoms, including anxiety and depression, due to the reduction of glucose (blood sugar) supply to the brain and the compensatory increase in adrenaline production.

Hypoglycemia is indicated by the occurrence of psychiatric symptoms between meals and a quick reduction of symptoms after commencing a meal. [See also "Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)- a problem for many."]


In laboratory studies, large doses of caffeine consistently increase levels of anxiety, while caffeine withdrawal is also capable of producing symptoms of anxiety.

Individuals with anxiety disorders typically have increased sensitivity to the effects of caffeine and may benefit from the gradual elimination of caffeine-containing products.

On a short term basis, caffeine appears to improve mood, although it is unclear if this effect is due to the correction of temporary caffeine withdrawal or net gains in mood due to caffeine.


Celiac disease is a disorder of gluten intolerance. Gluten is a class of proteins found in wheat, barley, rye, oats and spelt [a species of wheat historically grown in Europe]. Celiac disease causes malabsorption, increased intestinal permeability (‘leaky gut’), immunological disturbances, and other complications. Studies have revealed higher rates of depression and anxiety in patients with untreated celiac disease.

Research at the Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Illinois has documented that roughly 4% of those diagnosed with schizophrenia have celiac disease - and their symptoms rapidly dissipate after adoption of an appropriate gluten free diet. [The Pfeiffer Treatment Center is a not-for-profit medical research & treatment facility specializing in biochemical imbalances and mental health.]

Many people do not realize they have celiac disease and suffer the health consequences for their entire lives.


If you feel your emotional balance is off, improving your diet is one positive step you can take. You may also wish to see a health professional who works in the field of nutritional medicine, who can develop an individualized program of dietary and nutrient supplement recommendations for you. [Nutritional medicine - a branch of alternative medicine/complementary medicine - employs the principle that nutrition plays an important role in virtually every medical condition. The International & American Associations of Clinical Nutritionists ( offers a number to call for a certified professional in your area .]

Nutritional therapies complement other mood enhancing therapies such as exercise and counseling/psychological therapies.

* * *

Blake Graham, BSc, AACNEM
Clinical Nutritionist
Perth, Western Australia

Note: This material has not been evaluated by the FDA. It is for general information purposes and is not meant to prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure any condition, illness, or disease. It is very important that you make no change in your healthcare plan or regimen without researching and discussing it in collaboration with your professional healthcare team.

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