Eat these foods to boost your mood

Why do we care about serotonin?

One in four Americans currently suffers from anxiety or depression, correlating directly to serotonin levels found in the body. Normal serotonin levels help with your emotional state and digestion, sleep, wound healing, sexual desire, and bone density. However, the most common issues with low serotonin levels are related to mental health.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter known as the “happy hormone.” It is vital in managing stress, supporting mental well-being, enhancing social interactions, promoting better sleep, and improving cognitive function and emotional resilience.

And its benefits don’t stop there. In bones, serotonin regulates bone density and remodeling, with high levels linked to increased bone density and a reduction in potential risk of osteoporosis, while promoting bone formation. Serotonin also plays a role in wound healing by aiding in blood clotting through platelet release and influencing immune response and tissue repair processes.

How does it actually do all of that? It plays a crucial role in the central nervous system as it acts as a neurotransmitter. It carries messages between the nerve cells in the brain and throughout the body.

Gut-brain axis support network

The gut-brain axis refers to the bidirectional communication between the gut (gastrointestinal tract) and the brain. It involves complex interactions between the central nervous system (CNS) and the enteric nervous system (ENS), which is often referred to as the “second brain” of the body due to its extensive network of neurons in the gut.

Serotonin plays a critical role in this communication system, serving as a messenger molecule that helps regulate various physiological processes and behaviors. The majority of serotonin in the body is found in the gut, serving multiple functions:

Changes in gut serotonin levels can have major impacts on many bodily functions. Having balanced serotonin levels in the gut helps normalize various gastrointestinal functions, including bowel movements and intestinal motility. Imbalances in gut serotonin levels have been linked to conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

It can also affect feelings of satiety and control eating behavior, while also playing a role in the gut’s immune response, helping regulate inflammation and immune cell activity.

The gut-brain axis is a fascinating area of research that highlights the intricate connections between various bodily systems. Serotonin’s influence on the gut and brain underscores its role as a key mediator in the body’s communication network.

Serotonin-boosting foods

Okay, so now I know it can boost not only my mood, but fortify my immune system, help me regulate my hunger, positively impact my digestion and decrease inflammation, but should I take a pill? Is there a pill?

Here at Dirt to Dinner, after much research, we have included that it is always better to seek nutrients through whole foods. Not only is the supplement industry unregulated which makes it hard to know what you are taking, but most of the time, nutrients are more bioavailable for the body to use in its whole food form.

Incorporating serotonin-boosting foods into your diet is a natural and accessible way to promote emotional and physical health and the many other benefits of serotonin.

Nutrients in foods such as complex carbohydrates, vitamin B6, omega 3s, and tryptophan all work together to do just that! For instance, a meal of salmon, quinoa, and spinach with sliced bananas for dessert will work well together to produce the serotonin you need!

Tryptophan-rich foods

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that our bodies can’t produce alone. Consuming foods high in tryptophan can increase serotonin levels in our gut and brain, as the amino acid synthesizes to become serotonin in your body.

Good news for you, most people already consume more than double the recommended amount, typically 900-1000 milligrams daily as part of their regular diets. Some tryptophan-dense foods are cod, spirulina, nuts and seeds, and legumes.

Here’s a fun fact to share…

Most people think turkey has the most tryptophan, but take a look at the chart on the left! 

Complex carbohydrates

Consuming complex carbohydrates can also boost serotonin production. These carbohydrates increase insulin levels, which aids in the absorption of amino acids, including tryptophan, into the brain. Some excellent sources of complex carbohydrates include whole grains ( like oats, quinoa, farrow, and brown rice), sweet potatoes, and legumes ( including beans, lentils, and peas).

Not sure how to tell the difference between a complex carb and a simple carb? Here’s a good trick: most whole, unprocessed foods contain complex carbs. Avoid processed foods and “white” foods, which are mostly comprised of simple carbs.

When you eat a meal rich in carbohydrates from whole grains, insulin stimulates the uptake of other amino acids into cells, leaving tryptophan with relatively fewer competitors. As a result, more tryptophan can be converted into serotonin, contributing to a more balanced and positive mood.

Complex carbohydrates provide a slow and steady release of energy compared to simple carbohydrates. This sustained energy release helps stabilize blood sugar levels, preventing rapid spikes and crashes. Fluctuations in blood sugar levels can affect mood and energy levels, and stable blood sugar can reduce emotional ups and downs.

Vitamin B6 & serotonin conversion

Vitamin B6 helps the body convert tryptophan into serotonin. Including foods high in vitamin B6 can enhance this serotonin synthesis.

Some notable sources of vitamin B6 are fish (like tuna, salmon, and trout), poultry, and bananas. B6 is critical in allowing the body to utilize serotonin to assist with our cognitive and emotional functioning.

Curious about other B6-rich foods? Print out this handy chart and stick it on your fridge!

Omega-3 fatty acids

The relationship between omega-3 fatty acids and serotonin involves multiple interconnected mechanisms that can impact mood and emotional well-being. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain health and function, particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

These fatty acids are incorporated into cell membranes, influencing membrane fluidity and receptor activity. By regulating the cell membrane, omega 3s can enhance the function of serotonin receptors, making them more responsive to serotonin.

Studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids, when consumed in sufficient amounts (at least 200mg a day), may contribute to maintaining healthy serotonin levels.

Which foods are excellent sources of omega 3s? At the top of the list are fatty fish (tuna, salmon, trout, herring, anchovies), chia seeds, and flaxseeds.

What else can we do?

Want to boost the effects of these foods? Get good sleep. Serotonin is the first step in melatonin production, a hormone we produce that regulates sleep-wake cycles. Ensuring you are making enough serotonin can support healthy sleep patterns and improve sleep quality, leading to better overall health and productivity.

Expert Take on Defining ‘Sustainability’

Christine Daugherty has both a PhD in plant physiology and a law degree. She is widely recognized as both a deep thinker and active agent of sustainability, working with a wide number of companies and other organizations deeply committed to the idea of sustainability.

Christine will talk to us about the business community’s commitment to sustainability. She will weigh in on the continuing debate on carbon sequestration. And she will help us understand the parallels between sustainability and regenerative agriculture, including soil management practices.

If you believe sustainability is one of the most important topics in today’s world of food and agriculture, you definitely want to hear what Christine has to say.

Are You Deficient in Key Nutrients?

We have all heard the term ‘eat a balanced diet’. But what does that mean? And, honestly, why should we do it? Finding the ‘right’ foods can be complicated and time-consuming. Is it really worth it?

The answer is ‘Yes!’. Otherwise, your body can be subject to all kinds of complications and diseases. Particular attention should be paid to fruits and vegetables.

Epidemiological and clinical studies have consistently demonstrated the numerous health benefits associated with eating fruits and vegetables, each day. And be sure to get your daily recommended fiber.

Calcium Deficiency

Calcium is essential for maintaining strong bones and teeth, regulating muscle function, and supporting nerve transmission. Unfortunately, 70% of Americans fail to meet their recommended daily intake of calcium, which can lead to increased risk of osteoporosis and fractures. Symptoms of calcium deficiency include muscle cramps, weakened bones, and dental problems.

To combat calcium deficiency, include calcium-rich foods in your diet. Dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt are excellent sources. For individuals who are lactose intolerant or follow a vegan diet, calcium-fortified plant-based milk, tofu, leafy greens (like kale and collard greens), and almonds can provide adequate calcium intake. Aim for 1,000-1,200 mg of calcium per day, depending on your age and gender.

Vitamin D Deficiency

Even after all the conversations about the importance of vitamin D to fight Covid, half of the U.S. population has a deficiency, especially among those who live in locations with limited sun exposure and northern latitudes.. Vitamin D is essential for maintaining healthy bones, regulating the immune system, and supporting overall well-being.

Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency include fatigue, muscle weakness, bone pain, cancer, bone fractures, and a weakened immune system.

To combat a vitamin D deficiency, the best thing to do is to get out in the sun without sunscreen for about 10-15 minutes a day. For best sunlight, make sure your shadow is shorter than your body. If sun is not available, then incorporate vitamin D-rich foods into your diet.

Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines are excellent sources. Additionally, fortified dairy products, egg yolks, and mushrooms exposed to sunlight are also good dietary sources. Aim for 600-800 IU of vitamin D per day to meet your body’s needs.

Vitamin C Deficiency

Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that supports immune function, collagen synthesis, and iron absorption. Although severe vitamin C deficiency (also known as scurvy) is rare in America, mild deficiencies are still prevalent, with 43% of U.S. adults and 19% of children deficient.

Symptoms of vitamin C deficiency include fatigue, poor wound healing, and susceptibility to infections.

To combat vitamin C deficiency, incorporate vitamin C-rich foods into your diet. Citrus fruits (such as oranges and grapefruits), strawberries, kiwi, bell peppers, and broccoli are excellent sources of vitamin C. Aim for 75 and 90 mg of vitamin C per day for women and men, respectively.

Iron Deficiency

Iron is vital for the production of red blood cells and the transportation of oxygen throughout the body. Iron deficiency, also known as anemia, is a common nutrient deficiency, with 17% of premenopausal women and 10% of children in the U.S. . Symptoms of iron deficiency include fatigue, weakness, pale skin, and difficulty concentrating.

To combat iron deficiency, include iron-rich foods in your diet. Animal sources such as red meat, poultry, and seafood are excellent sources of heme iron, which is the most absorbable type of iron. Plant-based sources of iron include legumes, tofu, spinach, and fortified cereals.

Pairing iron-rich foods with foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits or bell peppers, can enhance iron absorption. Aim for 18 mg of iron per day for women and 8 mg per day for men.

Creating a Balanced Diet to Combat Nutrient Deficiencies

Now that we have discussed the top five nutrient deficiencies in America, let’s explore how to create a balanced diet that can help combat these deficiencies. The table below provides a breakdown of the recommended daily intake of each nutrient and the corresponding foods to include in your diet.

We went straight to Dr. Michael Greger’s book, How Not to Die. He has a ‘daily dozen’ list of foods to put on your meal plan every day. He even has an app so you can check them off.

See his list below for more ways to get all those nutrients into your diet:

Small changes make a big impact

By incorporating these practical tips, you’ll find it easier and more enjoyable to meet your daily recommended intake of fruits and vegetables while ensuring you’re getting adequate fiber and protein as well. Remember to consult with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian for personalized guidance based on your specific nutritional needs.

Consider these Meal Plans!

Scroll down for some examples of meal plans that include each of your recommended daily intake of vitamin D, iron, vitamin B12, calcium and vitamin C. This also includes your daily value of fiber, fat and protein while taking into consideration your recommended caloric intake, based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet (unless otherwise noted).


What is Synthetic Biology?

Welcome back to Dirt to Dinner: Digging In, where we dig into what’s going on in the food and ag world. In this episode, we spoke with Ahmed ‘Eddie’ Qureshi about synthetic biology.

Ahmed is currently a founder of Valorant Health, which provides virtual care resources to over 67 million Americans living in rural and underserved areas. Ahmed started in Synthetic Biology wanting to apply its promise of scaling and iterating for maximum impact in healthcare. He was also a co-founder at DNAWorks, a spinout of the University of Washington’s Molecular Engineering and Sciences department. You can read more about Ahmed here.

Synthetic biology could be the future not only of healthcare, but of our food. This fascinating topic, which is a combination of genetic engineering and computer science, is changing the way we think about food and agriculture.  Simply put, synthetic biology is taking what we know in nature and making it better.

Scientists utilizing synthetic biology can change the DNA in viruses, bacteria, yeasts, plants, or even animals to improve human health, the environment, agriculture, and industrial processes. For instance, it is being used to reduce fertilizer usage on crops, enhance milk protein fermentation for use in non-dairy products, to create a plant-based coating to extend the shelf life of produce, and even to turn mushrooms into leather.

In our conversation with Ahmed, we talk about the definition of synthetic biology, as well as the impact artificial intelligence will have on re-designing living organisms into new products. We hope you enjoy this podcast and learn a few new things along the way.