by Dr. Cindy Maynard

Do you look for the nearest pillow to lay down your head after lunch? Or do you need coffee and a candy bar to power you through the afternoon? Next time you’re feeling strained or drained, work with your brain. And watch your mood and energy level change.

Know Thy Brain

This four-pound tissue regulates every process in the body, from mood to motivation, cognitive functioning, or even what your energy level is. The last few decades have seen an explosion of research on the connection between food, mood, and brainpower. 

Here’s a simplified version:

Brain cells need neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) to communicate. We have hundreds of neurotransmitters, but the four main ones are serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine. Your ability to learn new tasks or how quickly you think in a crisis depends on the level of brain neurotransmitters.

What you eat in the morning can have a powerful effect on your energy level, how well you focus or even cope with stress. The good news is you can manipulate the level of neurotransmitters just by tweaking your diet.

Try Carbohydrates to Feel Calm

Serotonin can be described as the calming chemical of the brain producing feelings of peace and well-being. Low levels have been implicated in poor performance, depression, or addictions.

Eating a meal containing a lot of carbohydrates (without protein and on an empty stomach), like whole grains, pasta, potatoes, tortillas, or even refined sugars, can make you feel relaxed or sleepy by increasing serotonin in the brain.

As you move into the evening and want to stress down, shift from protein foods to calming carbohydrates. An evening snack of crackers, popcorn, or dry cereal may help you get a better night’s sleep. Although refined sugars work, complex carbohydrates are better because they contain vitamins and fiber.

Think Protein to be Alert, Aroused

Dopamine and norepinephrine could be called the wake-up brain chemicals. As dopamine levels rise, the brain becomes more alert. Thus, dopamine aids in learning new tasks and problem-solving. Low levels of dopamine can make it difficult to experience pleasure or even care about life and have been associated with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Meals high in protein will increase mental alertness by increasing the amino acid tyrosine, which makes dopamine and norepinephrine. If you are mentally stressed or need to focus, eat some protein (such as cottage cheese, tuna, or turkey) to enhance your creative and mental ability. While these recommendations won’t finish the exam for you or cure mental disorders, protein may give the extra boost you need.

For example, if you are a morning person, you should stick to primarily carbohydrates in the morning until mid-day, then start to add proteins at lunch to keep from fading. Night owls need to get their protein-induced energy surge early on and switch to carbohydrates in the afternoon to help them wind down.

Think Choline, Essential Fats, and Folate to Improve Memory

Choline is a nutrient that serves as a precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and plays a role in memory and cognitive development. Sources of choline include eggs, sardines, and soybeans.

Essential fatty acids play a role in brain development and mental well-being. Sources of smart fats include olive oil or fish oils in salmon, cod, and mackerel and fish oil supplements

Foliate (a B-vitamin) has also been shown a key player in the role of depression and memory. Along with green leafy vegetables, folate is also found in whole grains, fruits, and legumes.

The Good Mood Diet 

To get the best mileage out of your body, feed your brain. Eat complex carbohydrates for essential nutrients and energy, protein for building blocks, and essential fats for good brain functioning. A good guide is the USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid ( If followed, the Pyramid supplies you with the major macro-and micronutrients for optimal health.

It’s all about brain chemistry, and you can change it by the foods you eat. Most importantly, don’t forget to live, love, and laugh. These emotions make good-feeling neurotransmitters better than anything else going.

Cindy Maynard, Ph.D., RD, is a health psychologist, a registered dietitian, and a nationally published health and fitness writer. She is passionate about promoting health and wellness.  You can contact her at