The Truth About Neurotransmitters: How Amino Acids Are Key to Peak Mental Performance

by Dr. David Minkoff April 10, 2019 6 min read

Athletic female runner resting after running in the desert.

All of your thoughts, your memory, the coordination of your muscles, your focus, even the very essence of your personality and what make you YOU depend on a single class of molecules:


And like any other critical biological compound in your body, they don’t just come from “nowhere.” You can’t endlessly recycle them. It’s essential that you keep making them and making them and making them.

Your body makes them… the same way you make muscle, collagen, or glutathione.

And for the most part, they are all made from the same basic building blocks:

Amino Acids.


Empowerment Through Dietary Neuroscience

If you give your body enough of the right building blocks, you will have everything it needs to provide you with all the neurotransmitters you need to make a happy, healthy life.

You’ll have enough serotonin to keep learning and enjoy your life. You’ll have enough dopamine to experience pleasure (hopefully without blowing it all on a facebook addiction). You’ll have the norepinephrine to stay alert and focused, even through stressful situations.

This fundamental understanding of the dietary source of your brain chemistry takes the complicated, confusing world of neuroscience and makes it accessible to everyone.


You can support and influence your brain chemistry through diet!

Of course, there are medical conditions and genetic predispositions out there that may require medical attention.

This article is NOT medical advice.

However, for the average person seeking to optimize their health, happiness, and performance in the real world, your brain chemistry is within your own control.


Amino Acids are the Basis of Almost ALL Neurotransmitters

Most people know amino acids as the fundamental units of protein.

But they are also the basis for 7 of the 8 primary neurotransmitters, including: dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, serotonin, histamine, GABAand glutamate.

Each of these is derived from a single amino acid with simple modifications with enzymes. This is usually done by adding a hydroxyl group (OH) or taking off a carboxyl group (COOH).

Amino Acid/NT

Add OH

Remove COOH












+ methyl group









- amino group






Reality Check: Altered States and Neurotransmitter “Stockpiling”

Neurotransmitters are a highly regulated part of biology.

Their production, absorption, and breakdown have many checks and balances in the body. This means just taking an amino acid won’t immediately boost your intelligence or mood or “reward”.

This is why you can’t “get high” from an amino acid. They are more fundamental than some pharmaceutical that overdrives your brain into an altered state.

They can, however, protect you in the long term from the effects of depletion. And one study even suggests the “overproduction” of neurotransmitters is likely when you have an abundance of the amino acid precursors [1].

This means you may, in fact, be able to “stockpile” neurotransmitters.

Having enough of the right amino acids ready to go for the right moment can:

  • Help you push through “brain fatigue”.
  • Help you keep your focus sharp.
  • Make you more resilient
  • Improve your mental and emotional balance during stress.
  • Keep your mood elevated and your mind clear.

To put it simply, the right amino acids give you the biological foundation to be at your best, every moment of your day, regardless of what happens.

So let’s get granular and see how amino acids can affect our brains by looking at one class of neurotransmitters called the “monoamines” –– including dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.


Effect of Tyrosine on Performance, Memory, and Attention

Dopamine and norepinephrine are associated with motivation, arousal, and enhanced performance. As shown in the chart above, these are both derived from tyrosine, which in turn is derived from phenylalanine.

In science, one of the best ways to see what a compound does is to see what happens when it’s gone. So researchers investigated the effect of tyrosine and phenylalanine depletion.

They deprived test subjects of these two critical amino acids in their diet for several days and then gave them different kinds of tests.

In their studies, they found two fascinating, significant effects relevant to every modern human:

Effect #1: Spatial memory impairment.

If you’ve ever lost your keys or “misplaced” your wallet you know what this feels like. Now imagine it happening right when you need it most.

This may be the source of making mistakes at clutch moments.

What’s interesting is that once participants were given a formula of tyrosine and phenylalanine, their performance returned to normal [2]. The presence or absence of just these two amino acids had a profound effect on their cognitive capacities.

While amino acids won’t give you superpowers, they can very quickly fix depletion and impairments.

Effect #2: Impaired mental performance under stressful conditions.

Participants ability to perform under stressful conditions suffered considerably.

Interestingly, in another study, people given tyrosine before stressful situations showed less effects of stress –– both biologically (fewer stress markers), mentally (better test results), and emotionally (fewer reported negative emotions) [3].

As society continues to speed up and daily life becomes more and more stressful, your ability to navigate this stress and continue to perform under pressure will only become more important.

Bonus 3rd Effect for Athletes: Increased endurance in warm weather conditions.

Another study investigated the effect of dopamine on endurance, but blocking the reuptake of these neurotransmitters [4]. This increases these neurotransmitter’s signals in the nervous system.

While there was no effect on regular endurance, during warm weather the time it took an athlete to fatigue increased significantly. This indicates heat exhaustion may actually be a mental phenomenon –– and something any athletes in warm climates can fight using amino acids.


Effect of Tryptophan on Memory and Learning

Serotonin is another important monoamine neurotransmitter. It is critical to memory, learning, mood, the sleep-wake cycle, sensory processing, and dozens of other functions.

It is also the primary target for virtually all antidepressants.

Because it is derived from tryptophan, it makes sense that not having enough tryptophan would imbalance the brain and cause problems, like depressed mood, sleep issues, and learning problems.

So researchers investigated the effects of tryptophan depletion on mental performance. They found that both their attention and their ability to learn were impaired [2].

Have you ever spaced out in the middle of a conversation? Forgotten what you just learned?

Serotonin depletion may lie at the heart of your problem. And all you need is to resupply your “stockpile” to get back to your full capacities.


Where to Get Neurotransmitter-Boosting Amino Acids

So where do we get all these amino acids to supercharge our brain function?

The short answer is from our diet.

Phenylalanine is abundant in beef, chicken, liver, eggs, dairy products, soy, and especially pumpkin seeds.

For tyrosine, dairy, meat, nuts, and eggs are all excellent sources as well.

And here’s good news when it comes to tryptophan, your source of serotonin.

Some of the most delicious foods in the world are chock full of this essential amino acid, including chocolate, salmon, and dates. Other sources are poultry, turkey, almonds, spirulina, and chickpeas.

Glutamine,the precursor to both glutamate and GABA is found in beef, chicken cabbage, broccoli, and asparagus.

Glycine, an amino acid that doubles as a neurotransmitter, is especially abundant in collagen, and can also be found obtained from meat.


Problems With Dietary Sources of Amino Acids

One of the biggest problems with dietary sources of amino acids has to do with their amino acid utilization. Most animal sources only use roughly 35% of their total amino acid content to actually build useful biological compounds.

The rest goes to making energy and waste.

So even if you eat a healthy diet, you can end up deficient in some of the amino aids you need to cover all your neurotransmitter needs while building up a healthy “stockpile”.


Essential Amino Acids Make Healthy Brains and Strong Bodies

Earlier we looked at a chart of how your body makes neurotransmitters. You can see how the body can create almost all of the most important neurotransmitters from just a few amino acids: Phenylalanine, Tryptophan, Histidine, and Glutamine.

And what’s even more compelling is that histidine and glutamine can actually be made from other essential amino acids.

This means that only using essential amino acids, your body can produce all of the neurotransmitters it needs.

Plus, when you get essential amino acids all delivered in the right ratio, you can get 99% utilization. This means virtually zero waste while you cover all of your body’s amino acid needs. Not just for neurotransmitters, but also for muscle building, detoxification, gut lining, and even joint tissue.


  • *These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.