Boost Your Mood with Food

3 ways adequate & healthy protein intake can improve mental state and optimize long-term brain health

By Bianca Garilli, ND, IFMCP

Our mood and our food—these two phrases don’t just rhyme; instead they are intricately and elaborately connected at a myriad of health critical intersections. Below you’ll find three ways in which regularly eating the right amounts of healthy protein will have you feeling mentally and emotionally balanced throughout the day and across a lifetime.

Protein comes from many sources, the most abundant form coming from animal products including red meat, fowl, fish, and seafood, with smaller amounts typically sourced from plant foods including tofu, quinoa, nuts, seeds, and various combinations of grains and legumes to adequately provide a full range of amino acids. Animal products, including dairy and eggs, are also common and widely available sources of protein.

Many important brain chemicals, including serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine rely on the types and amounts of available amino acids in the body; these amino acids come from the breakdown of proteins and are influenced by an individual’s dietary habits, protein intake in particular.1

The above-mentioned brain chemicals influence a wide variety of emotional and mental health aspects such as energy levels, feelings of happiness, low stress/anxiety, a clear mind, and restful, restorative sleep. Let’s take a deeper dive to better understand the connections between our mood and our food.

1. Protein to increase energy and improve cognition

Do you ever experience an “afternoon slump,” need a “midday nap,” or crave a midafternoon caffeinated beverage that will get you through the end of a long day? Chances are this late-afternoon low energy could be coming from too little protein and from excessive refined carbohydrates earlier in the day; this is especially true if breakfast and lunch are comprised of sugary ingredients and heavy in processed grains (donuts, bagels, crackers, and bread, washed down with juice, an energy drink, soda, or a sweet coffee drink—perfect examples of energy-draining meals).

Reducing these energy-depleting foods in the morning and early afternoon and replacing them with hydrating beverages (especially water or herbal teas) and meals comprised of lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats is a sure way to boost your afternoon energy. Dietary protein is broken down by the body to produce a steady source of amino acids throughout the day, helping with increased focus, improved satiety and appetite control, and longer lasting energy.2,3

2. Protein and happiness

Did you know that healthy food choices can make you feel happy? Do you remember your mom telling you that breakfast is the most important meal of the day? Well, we have to hand it to Mom. She was right, and there’s more to the puzzle: If you have a healthy, high-protein breakfast, you’ll be even better off. Studies show that when compared to a low-protein/high-carbohydrate meal for breakfast, a high-protein/low-carbohydrate meal makes people feel fuller longer and also provides them with greater experiences of “postprandial wellness,” meaning feelings of satisfaction and pleasantness up to four hours after eating.4

Serotonin levels are dependent on the availability of tryptophan, a food-derived precursor and an essential amino acid (meaning it must be obtained through the diet).5 Tryptophan can be found in meats, dairy, fruits, and seeds.5 Adequate levels of tryptophan with subsequent downstream synthesis of serotonin boost chances of experiencing higher levels of feeling well and happy.6,7 In fact, serotonin is often referred to as the “happiness hormone.”

In a recent study, healthy women between the ages of 45-66 received either a placebo or a tryptophan-rich bioavailable dietary supplement from egg protein hydrolysate, and various levels of emotional wellness were measured and observed.8 The results showed that women who were given the egg protein supplement gave less of their attention to negative emotional stimuli and more toward stimuli associated with happiness.8 The same study showed that if the women consumed this protein supplement 60-90 minutes before bed, they reported increased feelings of happiness before bedtime.8 

3. Protein and a healthy brain

Many researchers are turning to diet for answers and finding a plethora of reasons why eating a diet with adequate intake of protein is so important. It’s hypothesized that protein can support healthy, long-term brain function.9 This may be due to an inadequate supply of neurotransmitters seen in low-protein diets and which are needed for optimal neuronal (brain) function, serotonin in particular.9  It’s also worth noting the positive benefit that certain amino acids have on the gut microbiome, which may result in positive influences on cognitive health.10, 11

It’s important to remember that there are only three macromolecule categories that we obtain from our diet: proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. A healthy balance along with healthy choices from each category are essential for long-term overall wellness—mind and body. So be sure to opt for that lean and clean protein source at your next meal…and that one after that, too.


  1. Fernstrom JD et al. J Nutr. 2007;137(6 Suppl 1):1539S-1547S.
  2. Phillips SM et al. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2016;41(5):565-72.
  3. Zhou F et al. Nutrients. 2016;8(6):352.
  4. Boelsma E et al. Appetite. 2010;54(3):456-464.
  5. Jenkins TA et al. Nutrients. 2016;8(1):56.
  6. Gibson EL et al. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2014;231(24):4595-610.
  7. Kikuchi AM et al. J Diet Suppl. 2021;18(3):316-333.
  8. Mohajeri MH et al. Br J Nutr. 2015;113(2):350-365.
  9. Roberts RO et al. J. Alzheimers Dis. 2012;32:329–339.
  10. Glenn JM et al. Nutrients. 2019;11(6):1315.
  11. Zhao J et al. Curr. Protein Pept. Sci. 2019:20:145–154.
Bianca Garilli, ND, IFMCP
Bianca Garilli, ND, IFMCP is a former US Marine turned Naturopathic Doctor (ND). Dr. Garilli works in private practice in Northern California and consults with naturopathic and Functional Medicine leaders, including the Institute for Functional Medicine and Metagenics. She is passionate about optimizing health and wellness in individuals, families, companies, and communities—one lifestyle change at a time. Dr. Garilli has been on staff at the University of California, Irvine, Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine and is faculty at Hawthorn University. She is the creator of the Military and Veteran Health Initiative and is the current Past-President of the Children’s Heart Foundation, CA Chapter.

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