Foods that make your brain function optimally

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Neurotransmitters are chemical substances that are used to transmit signals between the cells or neurons of the brain and central nervous system (CNS). 

To work properly, our bodies need to transmit signals and messages through the CNS by means of the following neurotransmitters: Serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine, and norepinephrine. 

a) Serotonin

This ‘happy’ neurochemical serotonin makes us feel positive and able to take on the world with confidence. Serotonin is manufactured from an amino acid called tryptophan which is found in the following foods:

chicken, turkey breast, cheese, milk, turnips greens, seaweed, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, cacao and potatoes.

Vegetables such as turnip greens contain a compound known as 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HT), which is the precursor for serotonin which our bodies manufacture in the presence of vitamin B6 (this vitamin is found in beans and other legumes, nuts, eggs, meats, fish, breads and cereals) (Escott-Stump, 2014).

The reason why people eat chocolate and sugary carbohydrates to ‘get a lift’ is that chocolate contains serotonin, whereas sugar and other carbohydrates boost the uptake of tryptophan by brain tissue.

Read: The brain's serotonin system differers between men and women

b) Dopamine

The following foods are good sources of dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved in pleasure and reward:

eggs, milk, cheese, yoghurt, beef, pork, turkey and soy foods.

Folic acid and vitamin B12 are also important for dopamine to work properly. (Escott-Stump, 2014)

Read: Dopamine may determine how hard people work 

c) Acetylcholine

To stock up on acetylcholine - which plays a role in attention and arousal - eat the following foods:

milk, nuts, fish, egg yolks, organ meats and legumes.

Although we are able to synthesise choline, which is nowadays recognised as an essential nutrient, humans tend not to make enough choline to meet our needs and have to obtain most of our choline from foods including eggs yolk, beef and chicken liver, soy flour, salmon, eggs, quinoa, chicken, wheat germ and milk. (Escott-Stump, 2014; Zeisel & Da Costa, 2009)

Read: Up your choline intake and protect your heart

d) Norepinephrine

This neurotransmitter is involved with impulse control and is found in:

nuts such as almonds, pistachios and peanuts, as well as pumpkin seeds, chicken, eggs, milk, cheese, yoghurt, soy foods, turkey and goose. (Escott-Stump, 2014)

It is evident from the above, that if we want to keep our neurotransmitters working well, we need to eat a varied diet containing many different types of food.

Eating only one or two kinds of food or food groups (e.g. only proteins and fats), may lead to the malfunction of neurotransmitters and damage our brains and nervous systems.

Read more:

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How your diet affects your brain function

Ask The Dietitians free diet and nutrition advice

References: (Escott-Stump S (2014). No-Nonsense Nutrition for a Healthy Brain. Paper presented at: Nutritional Solutions CNE Event, Johannesburg, 11 April 2014; Zeisel SH, Da Costa K-A (2009). Choline: An essential nutrient for public health. Nutrition Reviews, Vol 67(11):615-623.)


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