Food-derived Serotonergic Modulators: Effects on Mood and Cognition

Nutr Res Rev. 2013 Dec;26(2):223-34. doi: 10.1017/S0954422413000164. Epub 2013 Oct 18.


The most frequently described drugs in the treatment of mood disorders are selective serotonin reuptake and monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors, enhancing serotonin levels in the brain. However, side-effects have been reported for these drugs. Because serotonin levels in the brain are dependent on the availability of the food-derived precursor tryptophan, foods such as chicken, soyabeans, cereals, tuna, nuts and bananas may serve as an alternative to improve mood and cognition. Here we discuss the effects of high- or low-tryptophan-containing food, as well as plant extracts with a modest monoamine reuptake and MAO-A inhibition functional profile, on mood and cognition in healthy and vulnerable human subjects and rodents. Together the studies suggest that there is an inverted U-shaped curve for plasma tryptophan levels, with low and too high tryptophan levels impairing cognition, and moderate to high tryptophan levels improving cognition. This relationship is found for both healthy and vulnerable subjects. Whereas this relationship may also exist for mood, the inverted U-shaped curve for plasma tryptophan levels and mood may be based on different tryptophan concentrations in healthy v. vulnerable individuals. Animal studies are emerging and allow further understanding of effects and the mode of action of food-derived serotonergic components on mood, cognition and mechanisms. Ultimately, insight into the concentrations of tryptophan and other serotonergic components in food having beneficial effects on mood and cognition in healthy, but particularly vulnerable, subjects may support well-being in our highly demanding society.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Affect / drug effects*
  • Animals
  • Antidepressive Agents, Second-Generation / blood
  • Antidepressive Agents, Second-Generation / pharmacology
  • Brain / drug effects*
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Cognition / drug effects*
  • Diet*
  • Humans
  • Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors / blood
  • Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Plant Extracts / blood
  • Plant Extracts / pharmacology
  • Serotonin / metabolism*
  • Serotonin Agents / blood
  • Serotonin Agents / pharmacology*
  • Tryptophan / blood
  • Tryptophan / pharmacology*


  • Antidepressive Agents, Second-Generation
  • Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors
  • Plant Extracts
  • Serotonin Agents
  • Serotonin
  • Tryptophan