Amino acids for depression: why protein is crucial for your mood

Did you know that eating protein has a direct effect on your mood? Turns out, protein's building blocks, amino acids, are needed to make those feel-good neurotransmitters that are often low when you're feeling depressed.
amino acids for depression

Oh, mood. It’s such a complex thing, isn’t it? So hard to understand and hard to influence too when you’re suffering from depression. 

There are just so many factors that can have an impact on your mood. Food is one of them, and I’ve already written about the connection between sugar and your mood previously. If you haven’t yet read the post, click on the link below. Understanding why sugar has such a big effect on your mental wellbeing is just super important when you’re trying to beat depression naturally.


But let’s talk about another way through which mood follows food: Protein, and more specifically amino acids.

What are amino acids?

The following is a tiny bit technical, but hang in there because it’s important to know about!

So what are amino acids?

Well, think of amino acids as the building blocks of proteins. 

If you can’t quite remember what protein is, then know this: It’s one of the main nutrients along with carbs and fats. It’s also what makes up large amounts of your body. You’ll find it in high amounts in foods like fish, meat, eggs, beans, lentils, nuts and dairy.  


Proteins are made up of long chains of amino acids. 

When you’re eating a steak or an egg, your digestion breaks down the proteins from those foods into amino acids. Once the individual amino acids aren’t linked together anymore, your body can absorb them through the gut wall into your bloodstream. From there, they are then taken to cells in other parts of your body to do their magic. 

amino acids for depression

amino acids for depression

But why do we even need to talk about amino acids?

Well, as you’re probably here because you’re suffering from depression, my guess is you’ve heard about neurotransmitters. Perhaps particularly serotonin or dopamine. The things that make you feel good and that antidepressants target. They control processes such as appetite, sleep, mental performance, pain response and, yes, your mood too.

Here’s the thing: Neurotransmitters are made from amino acids that you get from the protein in your diet. 

In other words, amino acids are neurotransmitter precursors. 

increase your neurotransmitter production through foods

So the foods you eat help make the neurotransmitters you need. And as we’re talking about amino acids, it’s the protein-rich foods we’re looking at. 

Number one thing to do really is to ensure that you’re regularly eating good quality protein. Ideally, include a protein-rich food with all your meals (and consider your snacks, too). 

When you’re choosing your protein, it’s important to know as well that there are 20 different types of amino acids. Some of these the body can produce itself, but others have to come from the diet or else you’ll end up deficient. 

Those foods that contain all the amino acids that your body cannot make itself are called complete proteins. Sources of complete proteins include meat, fish, dairy, eggs but also quinoa, soy, hemp seeds, chia seeds and buckwheat. 

Interestingly, combining different protein foods can lead to a complete protein meal: Rice with lentils, beans or peas together provide all the amino acids that the body cannot make itself. The same applies to nuts (or nut butter) with whole grains, so for example nut butter on a 100% wholemeal bread is a complete protein source.

Side note: Obviously I am not suggesting to only eat protein-rich foods. Try to make it roughly a quarter of your meal, and fill your plate with veggies if you can. 

Also, your breakdown of proteins into amino acids relies on efficient digestion. So if you’re currently struggling with gut issues, this may have an effect on your absorption of amino acids from your foods. That’s why the gut always comes first!

Other ways to boost your amino acid levels

The other way to support your neurotransmitter production is by supplementing with specific amino acids. Perhaps you’ve heard of 5-HTP, phenylalanine or L-tyrosine. They are different types to choose from depending on your particular symptoms. For safety reasons I am not going to recommend you certain supplements or dosages because that’s ideally something you’d discuss with your healthcare practitioner. 

But just know that individual amino acid supplements can be really helpful as they’re much more potent than just eating foods rich in amino acids. Foods always contain not just one but a variety of different amino acids, which can end up competing for absorption. So if it’s a particular amino acid that might be helpful for your moods then supplementing with just this one could be a good idea. 

Take-away message:

Protein’s building blocks of amino acids are needed to make neurotransmitters. So go ahead and incorporate a variety of protein-rich foods into your meals. Your mood needs those foods!

Welcome to the blog

I’m Claudia Smith and I help women get to better mental health naturally. Having overcome depression once myself, I am now a qualified nutritionist and positive psychology coach.


Sign up to my fortnightly emails & receive my free resources