Your moods are greatly dependent on the correct functioning of four major brain chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters: serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and norepinephrine. The following foods provide the fuel that helps ensure these neurotransmitters perform at their peak.

Leafy greens

The levels, and possibly the function, of serotonin and dopamine are influenced by the supply of their nutrient precursors - folate (vitamin B9), vitamin B6, vitamin C, and zinc. Without them, neurotransmitters cannot function, with research showing that up to 35 percent of depressed patients are folate-deficient. Spinach and all dark leafy greens, including kale and Swiss chard (silver beet), are rich in folate and other B vitamins, as well as vitamins A, C, E, and K, minerals, and antioxidants, all of which benefit the immune system and fight inflammation – and brain inflammation may be related to depression.


Avocado contains tryptophan and high levels of folate and omega-3 essential fatty acids, which combat inflammation in the brain and also regulate serotonin. A deficiency in serotonin can trigger depression, insomnia, and carbohydrate cravings.


Cocoa, and its end-product chocolate, increase our feel-good brain chemistry by activating the release of dopamine. Ayurvedic medicine also uses chocolate’s sweet quality to improve mood and stimulate the mind and body. Salsolinol, one of the main psychoactive compounds present in cocoa and chocolate, is possibly a factor in chocolate addiction. Eating chocolate stimulates the release of serotonin (from the sugar) and endorphins (from the fat), which combine to produce a relaxed, euphoric feeling. Phenylethylamine, chocolate's 'love drug' endorphin-like chemical, is thought to be the reason behind its reputation as an aphrodisiac: the chemical mimics the brain chemistry of a person in love, so when levels are high in the body it relieves depression arising from unrequited love. Phenylethylamine’s mood-elevating effect is one reason why some people crave chocolate when they're feeling down or depressed. Choose minimum 80 percent dark chocolate to avoid the sugar content present in milk or compound chocolate, and supplement with an appropriate neurotransmitter nutrient precursor.


Renowned as the world’s most expensive spice, saffron (Crocus sativus) has long been used in Persian cultures as both a culinary herb, and a powerful medicine with calmative, antidepressant and anti-inflammatory properties. It is also a known appetite enhancer that relaxes the muscles of the gut to reduce spasms and aid digestion. Findings from clinical trials suggest saffron supplementation can improve symptoms of depression in adults with major depressive disorders.


Proteins are made up of smaller building blocks called amino acids, of which there are 20. One of these is tryptophan, which is the sole precursor to serotonin. Turkey is very high in tryptophan. However, protein-rich foods eaten alone can actually block serotonin production, which may explain why people who feel depressed prefer carb-loaded meals and snacks. A carbohydrate is needed with tryptophan to raise brain serotonin levels, so combine the turkey with tryptophan-rich foods (bread, oats, avocadoes, bananas, dried prunes, nuts, milk, beans or peas) to produce a temporary increase in brain serotonin and create a calming, anxiety-reducing effect.

Ann Vlass BSc(Hons), BHSc(Nat) is a member of the Australian Traditional Medicine Society (