5 Amino Acids for Energy and Mood

Looking for a natural pick-me-up? Amino acids for energy naturally fuel your body throughout the day while also boosting your mood, and these five can be especially beneficial!

The popularity of natural energy drinks and aromatherapy products is a strong indicator of just how many people are seeking healthful ways to feel more energized and positive in their outlook on life. Even if you exercise routinely and eat a healthy diet with a variety of whole foods, sometimes you may feel like you need an extra pick-me-up. Substances like caffeine and alcohol in moderation can give you a boost, but this energy lift is often short-lived and sometimes followed by a let-down or energy “crash.” However, amino acids for energy naturally fuel your body throughout the day while also boosting your mood.

As building blocks of protein—the most plentiful substance in the body after water—amino acids help you function at your best in a variety of ways. In fact, processes as diverse as immune system function and muscle growth would break down without a steady supply of amino acids on hand to fuel growth, maintenance, and repair.

But what about the brain? If you’re curious to learn how amino acids affect this large and most complex of organs, as well as how your brain reacts to nutritional factors that can influence mood and energy, you first need to have a basic understanding of brain chemistry.

Brain Chemistry 101

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that work in concert to shape how we perceive and learn from the environment around us. These pathways are established during growth and development and are instrumental in forming our personalities and outlook on life.

These same pathways also respond acutely to specific amino acids that cross the blood-brain barrier to act as building blocks of important neurotransmitters—or, in the case of glutamate and aspartate, as neurotransmitters in their own right.

In addition, with the exception of glycine, all amino acids can be found in two forms: L and D. But only the L form is used by the body. Keeping that in mind, here are five individual amino acids for energy that may help optimize neurotransmitter synthesis to help balance your energy levels and mood.

Amino Acids for Energy

Glutamine and Glutamate

L-glutamine is used to treat fatigue and depression, and also to boost immune function and muscle recovery. Under stressful conditions, your body consumes large amounts of glutamine, which is readily converted to glutamate by removal of an amine group (a group of organic compounds that contain nitrogen).

In fact, extreme stress, such as that caused by disease or severe injury, can deplete levels of glutamine and result in a life-threatening situation, requiring immediate supplementation.

Glutamine also protects the brain from ammonia toxicity, which generates free radicals and is implicated in the development of neurodegenerative diseases. Ammonia interferes with neuronal metabolism and reduces the amount of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, the body is able to produce. This has a crucial effect on energy levels, as ATP is also known as the “molecular unit of currency” due to its role in storing and transporting chemical energy within cells.

Because of the number of neurons in the brain, this organ consumes more glucose than any other. And if glucose stores become depleted, the brain compensates by increasing glutamine metabolism. For this reason, glutamine is also known as “brain food,” and its consumption can result in less fatigue and elevated energy and mood.

Glutamate, the anion—or negatively charged ion—of glutamic acid, acts directly as an excitatory neurotransmitter and is also used widely in the brain. It plays a critical role in synaptic maintenance and plasticity, and even contributes to learning and memory.

Glutamate is also the metabolic precursor of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which inhibits neural transmissions and acts as an anxiolytic agent, reducing anxiety and calming nervous activity.

Phenylalanine and Tyrosine

Phenylalanine is an important building block for a number of proteins, including those involved in both hormone and neurotransmitter production. Dopamine, norepinephrine, and thyroid hormones are three key end products that are necessary for optimal brain and mental function.

Norepinephrine and epinephrine are catecholamines, which are responsible for the fight-or-flight response that increases heart rate, constricts blood vessels, and increases blood glucose. The adrenal glands secrete these neurotransmitters along with other stress hormones. Catecholamines are produced by the brain and sympathetic nervous system as well.

Dopamine is the main neurotransmitter supporting attention and motivation. It plays a key role in the “reward system” of your brain. Drugs and other substances that adversely affect memory, cognition, attention, learning, mood, and fine motor control do so via their effect on dopamine function. Both phenylalanine and tyrosine can serve as dietary precursors of dopamine.

When the amino acid phenylalanine is not used in specific reactions, it’s converted to tyrosine, a nonessential amino acid that is a direct precursor of both dopamine and mood- and energy-affecting catecholamines.

Supplemental L-tyrosine is promoted for alleviating fatigue, low mood and sex drive, depression, and anxiety. It’s also used in those suffering from thyroid problems resulting from an underactive thyroid gland, or hypothyroidism.

Tyrosine and phenylalanine can also be combined in supplement form, though some individuals appear to respond better to one or the other. However, as with many nutrient-based therapies, it’s worth exploring the various available options to find the appropriate balance for your individual needs.

Tryptophan

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that acts as a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is also known as a “happy chemical” because it creates feelings of calm and well-being. If serotonin levels are low, depression, anxiety, insomnia, extreme anger, and mood swings can occur.

Serotonin, or 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), is derived from both tryptophan and 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP). It is a primary regulator of not only mood and sleep but also sexual function, appetite, and digestion.

In fact, serotonin is crucial for normal gastrointestinal (GI) function and plays a critical role in GI motility and immune function, visceral sensitivity, and blood flow. Even more interesting is the fact that abnormalities in reuptake of this neurotransmitter have been linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Tryptophan supplements, sold commercially as L-tryptophan, have shown efficacy in alleviating symptoms resulting from low serotonin levels, including depression, anxiety, and insomnia. The amino acid also acts quickly to increase these levels. However, the amino acid 5-HTP has been found to be even more beneficial, as it crosses the blood-brain barrier and converts into serotonin more efficiently and has a more pronounced antidepressant effect.

Amino acids for energy and mood.

Amino Acid Therapy

There are many nuances to amino acid therapy, as various factors determine which amino acids are able to pass into the brain for conversion into mood-changing neurotransmitters. Protein intake, stress, intense exercise, and even sudden lifestyle changes can all affect amino acid metabolism.

If you’re experiencing issues with malnutrition or extreme stress, it’s a good idea to seek professional medical advice. However, if you’re one of the many simply seeking a natural source of energy to help you feel more energized in your day-to-day life, you might want to first make sure your diet is rich in high-quality proteins to ensure a steady supply of energy- and mood-boosting amino acids.

However, it’s also important to note that some individuals have experienced positive results with various free-form amino acid regimens. For example, most of us are probably familiar with the muscle soreness that follows a particularly intense workout. But a particular set of amino acids known as branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs, has been shown to actually increase the lactate threshold.

This means that you can actually exercise longer before lactic acid builds up in your muscles to the point where pain and soreness begin. BCAAs have also been shown to decrease post-workout muscle fatigue and increase muscle growth. However, BCAAs only work effectively when consumed as part of a complete essential amino acid blend.

So, as you can see, amino acids offer many benefits for energy and mood. Not only do they provide a natural way to shift brain chemistry, but they also offer up the possibility of achieving greater energy levels and a happier mood.

The Relationship Between Energy and Amino Acids

Energy is one of the primary markers of health. When people are asked about their health, low energy is often a common complaint. What many people don’t realize, however, is that energy and amino acids go hand in hand.

Energy is one of the primary markers of health. When people are asked about their health, low energy is often a common complaint. Likewise, when people are asked to identify a benefit from a nutritional supplement, “improved energy” is often the first thing they report. What many people don’t realize, however, is that energy and amino acids go hand in hand.

Almost everyone, even the most energetic among us, desires more energy. So it’s no accident that energy drinks have become so popular. However, the concept of energy is somewhat vague. What does having energy really mean?

To understand the relationship between energy and amino acids, we must first distinguish between physical and mental energy. These two types of energy are clearly related, but distinct. By considering physical and mental energy separately, we can better understand the physiologic basis for each.

Energy and Amino Acids: What Fuels Our Bodies?

Physical energy requires not just fuel for our bodies but also all the necessary vitamins and cofactors—the inorganic substances needed for certain enzymes to carry out their functions—required to convert food to an energy form our cells can utilize.

Assuming all vitamins and cofactors are available, the energy necessary for physiologic functions is derived from combining carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and (in some cases) alcohol with oxygen in a process known as oxidation. These energy substrates—molecules acted on by an enzyme—can thus be considered the “fuel” of the body.

The major form of chemical energy in the body is a compound called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Energy is released when ATP is broken down to adenosine diphosphate (ADP) and phosphate.

ATP is regenerated by the metabolism of the macronutrient (food required in large amounts for optimum nutrition) energy substrates mentioned above as well as by the oxidation of amino acids.

Chemical Energy and Mitochondria

The energy needed to perform physical functions such as exercise comes from the chemical energy stored in ATP. ATP is the universal fuel used by all cells.

In general, food is digested and absorbed as its basic components (glucose and other simple sugars, fatty acids, and amino acids), which are then used for structural needs, stored away, or oxidized for energy.

The oxidation of nutrients into chemical energy involves complex biochemical pathways. The Krebs cycle, named for its discoverer, Sir Hans Adolf Krebs—and also known as the citric acid or tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle—involves a series of chemical reactions in which carbon structures derived from carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are metabolized, with the production of ATP as a byproduct.

The TCA cycle operates inside mitochondria, which are specialized organelles within cells that are responsible for “digesting” nutrients and turning them into energy.

The energy and amino acid relationship.

Oxidation of Amino Acids for ATP Production

The majority of physical energy comes from the oxidation of fats and carbohydrates. However, every amino acid in the body can potentially be oxidized to produce ATP.

The amount of oxidation undergone by the essential amino acids (or EAAs)—the nine dietary amino acids that can’t be produced in the body and must be obtained from food—determines how much of each essential amino acid you need in a day.

The amount of protein synthesized by the body will decrease if a steady supply of EAAs is not maintained, leading to conditions such as muscle loss and impaired immune function. Therefore, any EAA that is oxidized must be replaced through the diet.

The oxidation of EAAs is important physiologically even though only a minimal amount of total energy production is derived from this process. For example, at rest, less than 10% of energy production comes from the oxidation of amino acids.

Exercise greatly increases the requirements for ATP, and part of that ATP comes from amino acid oxidation. This is one reason why the consumption of a number of whole foods and supplements, including whey protein, is recommended in the field of sports nutrition both pre-workout and post. However, amino acid oxidation does not increase uniformly during exercise.

Among the EAAs, there is a selective increase in the oxidation of leucine. However, even with the increase seen during exercise, leucine oxidation provides only about 3% to 4% of energy for ATP production. Yet leucine plays a crucial role in regulating protein synthesis and other metabolic processes, so extra leucine needs to be consumed after exercise to replace what was oxidized.

While amino acids, particularly EAAs, do not play a major role in overall energy production, there are a number of aspects of amino acid oxidation that are important for the body’s metabolic regulation. To understand the critical nature of EAA oxidation is to appreciate that the body regulates the availability of all EAAs at a relatively constant level.

Consuming a high-protein meal causes EAA availability to increase. This increased concentration of EAAs stimulates their oxidation and minimizes changes in EAA availability. By contrast, if you do not consume enough EAAs through your diet, metabolic adaptations occur that reduce the rate of EAA oxidation.

The oxidation of specific amino acids is important for the body. For example, the availability of certain amino acids depends on the oxidation of other amino acids.

Take tyrosine, for example. This amino acid is produced in the liver from the oxidation of the EAA phenylalanine. Maintaining an adequate amount of tyrosine in the blood is critical, as tyrosine is a precursor of the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine.

Specific tissues and organs also have metabolic preferences for certain amino acids. Most prominently, glutamine (a nonessential amino acid) is a preferred substrate for the gut.

Amino Acids Augment Mitochondria

Only recently have we begun to appreciate the difference in energy levels the number of available mitochondria and their ability to operate at full capacity can make. Both amino acid supplementation and exercise are known to increase numbers of mitochondria and enhance their function.

By contrast, alcohol or drug use has been shown to induce mitochondrial defects by increasing oxidative stress and damaging mitochondrial genetic material—deoxynucleic acid, or DNA. When alcohol damages mitochondrial DNA, it impairs mitochondrial function, which further increases oxidative cell stress, leading to a vicious cycle of accumulating cell damage and decreased energy production over time.

Mental Energy: What Balances Our Brains?

Energy drinks typically contain caffeine (with a range of 6 to 242 mg of caffeine, according to Consumer Reports) and perhaps some B vitamins.

Whether used to help one wake up first thing in the morning or as an afternoon pick-me-up, these beverages clearly aid in sharpening concentration and increasing the body’s overall feeling of energy.

Surprisingly, when it comes to maintaining mental energy and focus, amino acids play as important a role as caffeine. In contrast to caffeine, however, amino acids impact mental energy by modulating neurotransmitters within the brain.

Many of the brain’s neurotransmitters are produced through the conversion of amino acids as they pass through the blood-brain barrier. In addition, two amino acids—glutamate and aspartate—are themselves considered neurotransmitters.

The interaction of neurotransmitters in the brain determines many aspects of behavior. To simplify a very complex system, the key determinant of mental energy is the balance between the neurotransmitters dopamine (excitatory) and serotonin (inhibitory).

The amounts of dopamine and serotonin in the brain are dependent on the availability of the precursors for their productionTyrosine is the amino acid precursor of dopamine, and tryptophan is the amino acid precursor of serotonin.

Tyrosine is also derived from the oxidation of phenylalanine. However, neither phenylalanine nor tryptophan is made in the body, as both are EAAs.

Increasing the amount of phenylalanine consumed in the diet will, via conversion to tyrosine, increase mental energy by increasing the amount of dopamine in the brain.

Conversely, increasing tryptophan consumption, such as through the use of the dietary supplement L-tryptophan, will induce a feeling of sleepiness or lack of energy by promoting serotonin production.

Amino Acid Balance and Mental and Physical Energy

Amino acids help support both physical and mental energy via a wide range of actions. While supplementation with individual amino acids may produce particular reactions, disrupting the body’s balance by consuming a single or small combination of amino acids may be counterproductive when it comes to other functions.

An amino acid supplement containing relatively high levels of phenylalanine (tyrosine is nearly insoluble and difficult to add to a dietary supplement) and low levels of tryptophan can provide mental sharpness and focus. However, an isolated increase in phenylalanine can also induce Parkinson-like symptoms in susceptible individuals.

Likewise, consumption of leucine can counter the accelerated rate of oxidation that occurs during exercise, but the use of leucine in isolation will activate the oxidation of valine and isoleucine, thereby limiting muscle protein synthesis.

Consequently, to replace the oxidized leucine and enhance post-workout muscle recovery, it is necessary to provide all three of the branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs—leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

Finally, all EAAs must be available in sufficient quantities to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, which is the metabolic basis for increased muscle growth, strength, and function.

Hence, the gold standard approach for the maintenance of both mental and physical energy involves choosing a free-form amino acid formulation that takes into account not only the direct actions of the component amino acids but also the importance of maintaining a relative balance of EAAs to sustain maximal benefit.

Eating for Brain Health: Learn How Amino Acids and Other Macronutrients Shape the Way You Think, Feel and Age

A well-fed brain is able to process information, remember, learn, focus, and maintain an active mind. The food we eat can greatly enhance the health and capabilities of our brains, especially as we age. Optimal eating for brain health depends on protein-rich foods full of brain-boosting nutrients called amino acids.

When you evaluate your diet, chances are you consider the ways it will affect your body. If we’re being honest, many of us are focused primarily on how the foods we eat impact our physical appearance. However, food not only affects your appearance, but also directly shapes the way you think, feel, and age. By choosing the best food for brain health, you can both protect and enhance your mental capacity. Researchers, including Lisa Mosconi, neuroscientist and author of Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Powerhave proven that well-fed brains show increased abilities to process information, recall memories, learn new things, focus on complex tasks, and more. Read on to learn more about optimal eating for brain health and the particular importance of a balanced supply of amino acids.

Understanding the Brain’s Unique Nutritional Needs

“What the brain needs to eat differs from what the rest of the body needs to eat,” explained Mosconi, who also serves as associate director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College, in an interview. The foods we eat, in combination with our lifestyles as a whole, have a profound impact on our brains, making it crucial to cultivate healthy habits.

Though the brain is one of the most studied parts of the body, it remains one of the most mysterious. The brain, which serves as the coordinating center of sensations as well as intellectual and nervous activity, performs countless functions that are essential to our survival.

To coordinate these essential functions, the brain must rely on a constant stream of signals. These take the form of tiny electrochemical currents, and the brain uses a variety of substances called neurotransmitters to convey them from one region to another.

Three of the most important neurotransmitters—dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine—belong to a class of chemicals called monoamines, which regulate our mood states and experiences of fear and pleasure. They also play key roles in many cognitive functions.

A lack of balance among these neurotransmitters contributes to the development of many psychiatric and neurological disorders, such as depression, schizophrenia, and Parkinson’s disease.

To generate neurotransmitters and carry out the rest of its duties, the brain commandeers approximately 20% of the calories you eat in a day. Without a consistent supply of calories, your brain power drops.

Where the calories come from matters too, if you’re invested in having a healthy brain. For instance, salmon contains omega-3 fatty acids, necessary ingredients for the creation and maintenance of brain cells. And one of the many benefits of increasing your intake of anti-inflammatory, antioxidant-rich foods is a reduction in cellular stress, which a wealth of research has shown contributes to cognitive decline and neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

The Basics of Eating for Brain Health

Mosconi and other scientists have used cutting-edge medical imaging and genomic-sequencing studies to further their comprehension of how diet influences brain health. “Nutrition plays a vital role in brain function and aging,” said Mosconi.

Some foods have neuroprotective qualities, meaning they help protect brain health and prevent cognitive impairment. Others, however, can actually cause harm to the brain and even raise a person’s risk of dementia. A poor diet has a more damaging effect on the brain than any other organ in the body, according to Mosconi.

How the Blood-Brain Barrier Works

Once our digestive system has broken down the food we eat into its constituent nutrient parts, those nutrients can enter the bloodstream and travel through it to reach the brain. Because of the brain’s vulnerability, it’s protected by a specialized defense system known as the blood-brain barrier. This barrier controls which nutrients can access the brain and which cannot.

“There are also gates in the brain that open and close depending on whether the brain is “hungry.” No other organs in the body have the same strict rules,” Mosconi said.

Which Foods Are Best for Brain Health?

Many of the nutrients the brain requires—Mosconi puts the total number of nutrients needed for optimal function at 45—it makes itself. However, there are some indispensable nutrients that must be provided from your diet. Furthermore, during times of illness or stress, it can be quite helpful to bolster the brain’s stores of self-produced nutrients.

An Overview of Brain-Essential Nutrients

Here are 10 of the best foods for brain health, all with impressive, research-validated benefits.

1. Caviar

Though it does not often appear on lists of superfoods, caviar may just be the most brain-healthy food in existence. The term caviar traditionally refers only to roe (eggs) from wild sturgeon caught in the Caspian Sea and Black Sea, but in some places today, you may see it applied to roe of other species of sturgeon or other fish altogether such as salmon, steelhead, trout, lumpfish, whitefish, or carp.

Though traditional caviar (Beluga, Ossetra, and Sevruga) remains the most sought-after, and the most expensive, other varieties contain the same special mix of nutrients: omega-3s, several B vitamins (choline as well as B6 and B12), magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, selenium, and plenty of amino acids.

2. ColdWater Fatty Fish

Given that caviar’s price-point exceeds many households’ budgets—even relatively affordable picks like wild salmon roe clock in at $19.99 for 3.5 ounces—it’s fortunate coldwater fatty fish offer many of the same valuable nutrients at a significantly lower cost.

Fish like Alaskan salmon, mackerel, bluefish, tuna, herring, sardines, and anchovies all contain high quantities of brain health-boosting omega-3s.

According to a 2017 study, individuals with high levels of omega-3s showed correspondingly higher cerebral perfusion (blood flow in the brain). High cerebral blood flow is associated with a decreased risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Per the study cited above, it appears that there may also be a connection between omega-3 levels and improved cognition.

3. Nuts and Seeds

If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you can still find a plethora of food sources for the omega-3 fatty acids your brain craves.

Chia seeds are a fantastic source of plant-based omega-3s that also provides tons of fiber and protein in each serving. A single ounce of chia seeds not only meets, but exceeds, your daily recommended intake for omega-3s, netting you 4,915 milligrams.

Hemp seeds, flaxseeds, and walnuts are also loaded with omega-3s and other healthy fats.

Many nuts and seeds contain troves of vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that can help keep cells safe from the ravages of free radical-induced oxidative stress. The effects of this form of oxidative stress can become even more pernicious as we age, leading researchers to hypothesize that vitamin E-rich foods may offer protection against Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

According to a 2014 review published in Nutrients, research consistently shows a clear association between higher blood levels of vitamin E and improved cognitive function.

Sunflower seeds, almonds, and hazelnuts have some of the highest concentrations of vitamin E.

4. Berries

As discussed above, foods replete with antioxidants can ward off signs of cognitive decline such as memory loss. Many types of berries contain an array of valuable flavonoid antioxidants.

By reducing oxidative stress and inflammation, the antioxidants found in berries produce a range of benefits, including a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. A review published in Neural Regeneration Research stated that new research shows that antioxidant compounds found in berries, including anthocyanin, caffeic acid, catechin, and quercetin, “can prevent age-related neurodegenerative diseases and improve motor and cognitive functions.”

Some of the brain-health benefits noted in the review are:

  • Enhanced communication between brain cells
  • Lower inflammation levels throughout the body
  • Increased plasticity, which encourages the formation of new connections between brain cells, thereby improving learning and memory
  • Decreased risk or delayed onset of dementia and cognitive decline

Berries known for their impressive antioxidant content include blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, mulberries, blackcurrants, and goji berries.

5. Dark, Leafy Greens

These well-known power players of the health food world have highly desirable benefits for the health of your brain, thanks to the wealth of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants they contain.

Here, as in other realms, kale takes a place of pride in the superfoods royal court. Kale (and other cruciferous vegetables) provide your body with compounds called glucosinolates, which your body then breaks down into isothiocyanates.

Research indicates that isothiocyanates show formidable neuroprotective effects. According to a 2015 study, isothiocyanates “could be regarded as a promising source of alternative medicine for the prevention and/or treatment of neurodegenerative diseases.”

6. High-Glucose, Fiber-Rich Foods

Your brain requires a vast supply of energy (20% of the body’s total burn, remember?), and its preferred form of energy is a simple sugar called glucose. It loves glucose so much that the blood-brain barrier allows it to pass directly through to your brain cells.

The downside of our brain’s reliance on glucose is that when our blood sugar levels dip too low, that can have a rapid and adverse impact on brain function. Think brain fog, headaches, and other unpleasant and inconvenient symptoms. High blood sugar can also interfere with brain function.

Your brain works best when blood sugar levels remain stable. While simple carbohydrates provide quick energy, using these for brain food leaves you vulnerable to dips and spikes. Complex carbohydrates, however, serve as a more stable energy source.

Foods that pair a high-glucose content with a high-fiber content are ideal for brain health, as they have a more moderate effect on blood sugar levels while still offering your brain the glucose it needs.

Some wonderful options for high-glucose, fiber-rich foods include sweet potatoes, whole grains, beets, and kiwis.

7. Eggs

Not only are eggs a great source of amino-acid laden protein, but they also provide plenty of B vitamins, specifically, vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid.

Those three B vitamins can lower blood levels of homocysteine, a biological compound scientists have identified as a risk factor for brain atrophy, cognitive impairment, and dementia.

According to a randomized, controlled trial published in PLOS One, a preeminent peer-reviewed scientific journal, supplementing with vitamin B6, B12, and folic acid can slow the rate of brain atrophy for individuals with mild cognitive impairment.

8. Soy

Soybeans, as well as foods made from soy beans like tofu, provide tons of polyphenols,—specifically, isoflavones like daidzein and genistein—antioxidants linked to a decreased risk of dementia and increased cognitive abilities across age groups.

Soy also contains tyrosine. Though tyrosine is a nonessential amino acid (the body can synthesize it from phenylalanine), research, including this article published by a Belgian scientist, indicates that when you increase your dietary intake of tyrosine, you also increase the ratio of tyrosine to other amino acids like leucine, isoleucine, valine, and tryptophan.

As the article cited above notes, animal studies reveal that a supplemental intake of tyrosine can offset the negative impact of acute stress on cognitive performance, while human studies show it can counterbalance the ill effects of sleep deprivation and chronic stress on cognitive function.

We’ll talk more about tyrosine in the section below.

9. Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

When it comes to healthy fats, extra-virgin olive oil ranks unquestionably high on the list.

Extra-virgin olive oil is loaded with beneficial monounsaturated fat as well as potent nutrients proven to keep your brain healthy as you age, like omega-3s and vitamin E. It’s also a cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, an eating approach associated with numerous health benefits, including a lowered risk of dementia.

A research team from the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University found that extra-virgin olive oil safeguards memory and learning ability while reducing the formation of amyloid-beta plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, two abnormal developments in the brain that signal the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

10. Dark Chocolate

The higher the cocoa, or cacao, content of a particular chocolate bar, the better it is for you. Cacao is a rich source of flavonoids—and the flavonoids found in cacao seem to be especially beneficial for the brain.

Findings published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology indicate that the flavonoids found in cacao, most abundantly, epicatechin, induce widespread stimulation of cerebral blood flow, as well as “angiogenesis, neurogenesis and changes in neuron morphology, mainly in regions involved in learning and memory.” The flavonoids in chocolate can lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease as well as your risk of stroke.

As many of us know from lived experience, chocolate can also have a positive effect on mood.

The results of a 2018 study with human participants indicates that dark chocolate with cacao concentrations of 70% and up generate changes in brain activity that correlate to “enhancement of neuroplasticity, neural synchrony, cognitive processing, learning, memory, recall, and mindfulness meditation.”

10 of the Best Foods for Brain Health

Why Amino Acids Are Particularly Important for Brain Function

Amino acids are the precursors of neurotransmitters, a technical way of saying that amino acids make the neurotransmitters our brains depend on for balance and function. Changes in the production of neurotransmitters can occur when we fail to provide our brain with an adequate supply of amino acids from protein-dense foods. Alterations in the production of these transmitters can, in turn, directly influence the brain’s health.

Three amino acids—tryptophan, tyrosine, and phenylalanine—function as precursors to the production of three key neurotransmitters: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Other amino acids also make significant contributions to brain health, like acetyl l-carnitine (a form of the amino acid carnitine), l-glutamine (a form of the amino acid glutamine), and the branched-chain amino acids.

Tryptophan is the rarest of the essential amino acids found in food and is the precursor of serotonin, one of the body’s natural antidepressants. Tryptophan can enhance positive mood and lower obsessive thinking, which is often related to eating disorders, anxiety, and depression.

However, a careful balance is needed, because serotonin is an inhibitory neurotransmitter and an increase can induce a sensation of fatigue and ultimately hasten sleep. The long-standing tradition of dozing off after a big turkey dinner can be attributed (at least in part!) to the relatively high abundance of tryptophan in turkey.

Tyrosine is the precursor of three neurotransmitters: norepinephrine, dopamine, and epinephrine. Tyrosine is not typically considered an essential amino acid because it can be synthesized by humans from phenylalanine; however, studies have shown that in certain instances the brain may not be able to synthesize sufficient tyrosine from phenylalanine to meet its needs. For example, delirium is associated with a low conversion rate of phenylalanine to tyrosine.

As touched on above, while tryptophan and tyrosine are the two primary amino acids connected to brain health, they’re not the only amino acids that play a role in brain function.

Carnitine converts fats in the body into fuel that can be used by the brain. This amino acid also removes toxins that interfere with brain activities.

Glutamine improves the uptake of serotonin and dopamine, and stimulates the production of neurotransmitters that assist with brain function and focus. Glutamine can also be converted to the amino acid glutamate, another neurotransmitter.

The branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)—leucine, valine and isoleucine—make indirect contributions to the production of natural neurotransmitters. The BCAAs, along with phenylalanine, tyrosine, and serotonin, are all transported into the brain by the same transport system. An increase in BCAAs can inhibit the uptake of tryptophan, phenylalanine, and tyrosine by occupying the transporters.

4 Amino Acids Essential to a Well-Fed Brain

Key Sources of Tryptophan, Tyrosine, and Other Amino Acids

As we’ve seen, amino acids can be found in protein-dense foods. Some foods contain more of specific amino acids than others, however. Animal protein is the most efficient means of meeting your body’s amino acid needs. It is possible to get all the essential amino acids exclusively from plants, but it will require more intentionality. We’ve included options for vegans and vegetarians on each of the lists below.

6 of the Best Sources of Tryptophan

While poultry and fish provide the most tryptophan per ounce, there are good options for vegetarians and vegans too. Red meats also contain this amino acid, but they should be eaten in moderation because they have more saturated fat.

1. Turkey and Chicken

The best dietary sources of tryptophan are turkey and chicken. A 4-ounce portion of turkey or chicken breast provides 350 to 390 milligrams of tryptophan.

2. Shrimp

Shrimp is also a good source of tryptophan. A 4-ounce serving contains 330 milligrams.

3. Other Types of Seafood

Fish, such as tuna, halibut, salmon, sardines, cod, and scallops, contains between 250 and 400 milligrams of tryptophan per serving.

4. Pumpkin Seeds

Among nuts, pumpkin seeds are the best sources because they provide 110 milligrams of tryptophan per one-fourth cup.

5. Beans

Legumes, such as kidney beans and black beans, contain 180 milligrams of tryptophan per cup.

6. Milk

Dairy contains less tryptophan per serving compared to meat and fish. A 1-cup serving of milk provides 100 milligrams of this amino acid.

5 of the Best Sources of Tyrosine

Low tyrosine levels are rare, but you may need a higher dose during stressful times. Tyrosine is found in a variety of foods, such as meats and cheese. Legumes are the best option for vegans.

The amount of tyrosine you need each day is linked to the essential amino acid precursor phenylalanine—for adults, that is 14 milligrams per kilogram per day.

1. Red Meat

Roast beef, a decadent meal, is undoubtedly one of the best sources of tyrosine. It provides 1,178 milligrams per 3-ounce serving. Pork contains slightly less, typically, around 1044 milligrams in a 3-ounce serving of lean pork chops.

2. Poultry and Fish

Protein options such as salmon, turkey, and chicken contain between 900 to 1,000 milligrams per 3-ounce cooked portion.

3. Cheese

Parmesan cheese contains 559 milligrams per ounce.

4. Eggs

One egg has 250 milligrams.

5. Beans

A cup of cooked white beans has 450 milligrams of tyrosine.

Bonus: Top Sources of Carnitine and Glutamine

Most animal-based foods contain carnitine. Beef is one of the richest natural sources of carnitine. Lean cuts have 95 milligrams or less of cholesterol and fewer than 10 grams of total fat in every 3-ounce serving. Chicken breast is high in protein, low in fat and cholesterol, and a good source of vitamins and minerals. It also contains 3 to 5 milligrams of carnitine in every 4-ounce serving. All fish and shellfish have some carnitine (cod has the highest concentration of any seafood).

It can be challenging to obtain meaningful levels of supplemental carnitine from a plant-based diet, but it is possible. Dairy is a valuable resource, and some grains and vegetables, like asparagus, also provide carnitine.

While your body normally makes all the glutamine it needs, a severe injury or illness may require you to increase your dietary intake. Meat and seafood top the list when it comes to best sources of glutamine.

Eggs are also rich in glutamine, as are many dairy products. Whey protein, a byproduct of cheese production, is a top source of glutamine. Dried lentils, peas, beans, and cabbage are excellent options for vegetarians and vegans. Many whole grains, including oats and products made from whole wheat, quinoa, millet, and brown rice, are also abundant in glutamine.