If you start feeling down or overwhelmed by the winter blues, a great first step is making sure it’s not actually your diet causing your low mood. Certain nutrients are really important for the effective production and signaling of neurotransmitters that, at least in part, dictate our moods. Serotonin, in particular, is one of the most critical neurotransmitters to maintaining a balanced mood and sense of well-being. This “Pumpkin Seed Crusted Chicken” recipe is designed to nurture your brain and body with some necessary and often insufficient nutrients that play important roles in the serotonergic (serotonin producing) pathway and healthy serotonin signaling.

Chicken and Pumpkin Seeds

High protein foods like chicken and pumpkin seeds are great sources of tryptophan, the essential amino acid needed by the body as the precursor to serotonin. One, six-ounce chicken breast contains 687 mg of tryptophan, which is 245% of the minimum daily recommended intake (RDI) [1]. If that number looks alarming, tryptophan is not a nutrient you should worry about having “too much” of, especially from food sources. Many people take tryptophan supplements at a rate of 4000-5000 mg per day for mood or sleep without consequence [2].

A single ounce of pumpkin seeds contains another 164 mg of tryptophan (58% RDI) and 156 mg of magnesium (Mg), which is nearly 40% of the daily Mg RDI [3]. Magnesium plays a role in many of the pathways involved in the pathophysiology of mental health and is found in several enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters [4]. Magnesium modulates serotonin production as a cofactor for tryptophan hydroxylase, the enzyme that converts tryptophan to serotonin [5]. It also plays a role in serotonin receptor binding and signaling [5]. Due to these facts, giving chicken a pumpkin seed crust delivers your body and brain some awesome precursors for happy neurotransmitter production.

Veggies and Barley

Why serve with roast veggies and barley? Prebiotics! While the more famous probiotics are certain bacterial and yeast species that live in your gut and provide benefits to your body, prebiotics are specific types of dietary fiber that feed probiotics and encourage the beneficial species to thrive. Probiotics can be found in some fermented foods, but are best taken as a supplement to ensure you are getting the strains you want in doses large enough to affect population dynamics once they reach the gut. Prebiotics can be taken as a supplement also, but hearty portions of certain high-fiber foods are a reasonable alternative.

Barley is a prebiotic-rich food. It is possibly the best food source of β-glucans, which are water-soluble, indigestible fibers that selectively benefit probiotic strains such as Lactobacillus plantarum [6,7]. L. plantarum happens to be one probiotic strain known to produce serotonin and GABA which is released into the host [8]. What’s more, the FDA states that β-glucans can lower your blood cholesterol [6]. They may also reduce your risk of developing glucose intolerance by slowing the absorption of glucose after a meal [6].

Garlic, onions, and asparagus are also rich in prebiotics. They are three of the top providing sources of a fructan fiber called inulin. Inulin has been demonstrated to favorably alter microbiotic populations, specifically by increasing the abundance of Anaerostipes and Bifidobacterium and reducing Bilophila [9]. Bifidobacteria infantis may upregulate the levels of circulating tryptophan available for serotonin production [10]. Bifidobacterium longum may support stress reduction (as measured by both urinary cortisol and self-reported feelings of reduced stress and more positive mood) [10].

Another reason prebiotics are great is that they nourish the beneficial microorganisms that cannot be supplemented. Indigenous spore-forming bacteria have also been found to promote endogenous serotonin production in their host’s gut cells [11]. These “indigenous” strains may not be probiotic species that can be supplemented, but they can be nurtured and cultivated through diet and prebiotic supplementation.

Recipe (serves 2, but can easily be multiplied for more)

Ingredients

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2 chicken breast halves

For the crust

½ cup raw pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

2 tablespoons parmesan cheese

½ tsp black pepper

½ tsp dried oregano

½ tsp thyme

½ tsp paprika

A generous pinch of salt

1 small/medium sweet onion, roughly chopped

1 small head of garlic peeled (8-10 cloves)

1 small bunch of asparagus (use best judgment)

1 sweet potato, unpeeled and cubed

Salt and pepper to taste

½ cup dry barley

1 cup chicken stock

Chevre (soft goat cheese) to serve

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 400F. While preheating, you can chop vegetables, and prepare your chicken crust and breast halves.

In a food processor, combine pepitas, parmesan, and spices. Turn on the processor and chop until seeds are reduced to a sandy texture. Pour crust mixture onto a large plate.

Lay chicken breast halves between two sheets of plastic wrap and use a mallet, rolling pin, or a bottle of wine to pound the breasts flat (aim for an even ½-¾ inch thickness). Remove from plastic, pat dry, and lightly coat chicken in olive oil. Then lay the oiled chicken on the crust plate and press crumbs all over both sides, filling in gaps, so no raw chicken is exposed.

When the oven is hot, sweet potatoes, onions, and garlic are the first to go in. Toss to coat in olive oil, salt, and pepper, and make sure they are evenly spread on a baking tray before putting the tray in the oven. Set a timer for 15 minutes.

During that first 15 bake, prepare your barley. Rinse barley in a mesh strainer and pour it into a small saucepan. Pour chicken stock in to cover and heat on the stove, on medium/high until boiling. Turn down to a simmer and leave simmering until the chicken stock has been absorbed, and barley is chewy but still firm (you can add more liquid if it dries out before cooked and if you have any excess liquid at the end, it can always be poured off). This should take about 25-30 minutes.

When the oven timer goes off, it’s time to add chicken and asparagus to the hot sheet pan. Pull the pan with your roasting veggies out of the oven and use a spatula to move cooked veggies closer to the edges of the pan, turning them if you can in the process. Oil the cleared center of the pan and lay the crust-coated chicken flat. Sprinkle oiled and seasoned asparagus around the pan too before putting the now-heavy tray back in the oven. After 8 minutes flip the chicken breasts. After 8 more minutes, check the chicken for doneness. There should be no pink left inside the chicken and the veggies should be soft with brown edges when you remove the pan. Let the chicken cool for 5 minutes once removed, before serving.

This dish looks and tastes great plated with a spoonful of fresh chevre to finish.