What to eat instead of sugar and flour when you're really stressed – dopamine and serotonin producing foods

Sugar, serotonin and dopamine

What sugar cravings can mean

I had some major dental work done the other day for a tooth that had been fractured for years. It turned out to be a difficult, long and stressful process. Later that day, I craved sugar, and I mean really craved it as in it hijacked my thoughts. I too heed, recognising that my body needed some help. But I didn’t want to eat sugar, which ultimately makes me feel awful and crave more of the stuff.

What does sugar provide, I asked myself?

The answer was serotonin and dopamine. My cravings were indicators that my serotonin and/or dopamine levels were low. Why I craved sugar was because it stimulates the release serotonin (although in the long term it robs our body of it), our feel-good brain chemical; and also dopamine (which can lead to sugar addiction), our reward brain chemical.

I realised I needed to listen to my body’s signal that my brain and nervous system required some specific support, so I did some research and came up with some healthy food alternatives.

Serotonin promoting foods

Serotonin is synthesised from tryptophan, so foods high in this substance will support serotonin production and uptake.

Some good foods include

  • Eggs - pastured and organic

  • Cheese - grass fed and raw is optimal

  • Pineapple

  • Bananas

  • Nuts/seeds - preferably soaked and dried

  • Turkey and poultry - pastured and organic

  • Seafood - wild caught

  • Beets

  • Oats

Other factors

For good tryptophan production, B Vitamins, Essential Fatty Acids (Omega 3 and 6 containing foods), L-Theanine (an amino acid or protein component) and Magnesium (the mineral) are all key. A balanced, real food diet, possibly with supplements for any shortages, should include all of these elements.

Of note, research shows that high protein meals inhibit serotonin uptake because the brain prioritises amino acid uptake. Eating carbohydrates by themselves can circumvent this as tryptophan can use insulin to enter the brain. That said, I don’t encourage eating a lot of the non-vegetables carbs as this inevitably leads to blood sugar problems, which ultimately lowers serotonin levels.

Dopamine promoting foods

Dopamine is made from the amino acid l-tyrosine, often found in protein-rich foods. Eating L-tyrosine can provide the basic building blocks needed for dopamine synthesis.

Some good foods include

  • Very dark chocolate - organic and low sugar (I eat 95%)

  • Blueberries

  • Nuts and seeds - including Brazil, almonds, walnuts, pumpkin and chia, best soaked and dried

  • Dairy, grass fed, raw  and fermented if possible

  • Animal protein like meat, poultry fish and eggs - grass fed, pastured or wild caught

  • Vegetables - specifically cruciferous (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, brussels sprouts) and alliums (onions, garlic, chives, leeks, shallots)

  • Oats

Other factors

Factors required for good dopamine production include adequate Vitamins B6, B3,  D and C; sufficient zinc, magnesium and iron; healthy blood sugar and adrenals; adequate L-tyrosine and/or L-phenylalanine (gut barrier health; sufficient stomach).

Critically, like serotonin, dopamine is synthesised by gut bacteria. Sufficient healthy bacteria is needed for adequate production, while an overabundance of bad bacteria creates bi-products that destroy dopamine-making cells.

All potentially addictive substances and behaviours like caffeine, sugar, recreational drugs, shopping, video games, cell phone use, online porn, gambling and thrill-seeking flood the brain with unnaturally high levels of dopamine. Dopamine receptors are relatively fragile and this bombardment can damage them or even stimulate them to death, down regulating them, possibly even shutting down.

Apart from food

Exercise, sunshine, positivity (gratitude) and good gut bacteria function also support optimal serotonin and dopamine production.

Mobile phones

Importantly, there is evidence that the electromagnetic radiation emitted from cell phones can disrupt dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine levels.

My solution

Looking down the list of foods, Parmesan cheese and butter resonated with me so I put some on half a dozen veggie crackers.

I don’t normally eat much cheese as it doesn’t agree with me, but it did the trick. (and was a lot better than stuffing myself with sugar). Soon after eating, I felt much calmer and completely satiated, with all thoughts of sugar and food quickly vanishing from my thoughts.


With a bit of education and care, we can make healthy food choices that support our body, rather than rob it of the things it most needs. As ever, gut health is a foundation for optimal health.