Bad moods are considered by most of us to be just part of being human, something that we can simply ride out and wait for them to pass. Occasionally, these moods are more long-lasting and problematic. We experience feelings that we describe with words such as depression, being a little down, anxious, agitated, and other descriptive expressions. If these moods and emotions last a long time, we may consult medical help. We usually look for things in our environment that are creating these disturbances. Maybe the problem is all in our head or, more accurately, in our diet.
“You are what you eat.”-John De Cola
We are, in fact, greatly influenced by what we eat. The food-mood connection is a vastly underestimated and overlooked part of our mental health. In the last 50 years, the medical world has become more aware of the role that what we eat plays in our physical health and well-being, but we still have a way to go in using our diets to improve our mental health. When we are having a bad day or a bad period in our lives, we can often identify an outside cause. Sometimes, however, there is none that we can pinpoint. Sometimes we are simply overreacting to external events that we normally handle quite well. If we are craving specific foods at these times, most of us grab something unhealthy such as fast foods or a sugary snack. Others reach for something with alcohol in it. The problem then goes away for a while, but soon comes back with a vengeance.
When stressed and overwhelmed very few of us think about grabbing a lean steak with a side of broccoli, or a piece of grilled salmon and some kale. Maybe we should. What we eat affects our feelings and reactions because certain foods produce brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that allow parts of the brain to communicate with each other. They are the reason that we process things the way we do, have feelings and emotions that we experience, and perceive life in a unique way. The way these parts of the brain communicate creates our individual personalities. While external forces have certainly influenced our personalities, our neurotransmitters play a vital role in our day-to-day moods, motivation, and in general satisfaction with the state of our lives.
The two main neurotransmitters involved in mood regulation are serotonin and dopamine. These two hormones are largely responsible for the regulation of our levels of happiness. Let’s take a look at the role these two play:
Serotonin plays a major role in regulating mood, sleep, cognitive abilities, sexual behavior, and appetite. We are more resilient to life’s up and downs when our serotonin levels are high. We have a more positive attitude and handle stressors more easily,while low levels of serotonin can result in depression and a tendency to be more impulsive.
Dopamine plays a role in your perceptions of pleasure and pain, emotions, and controls the brain’s reward’s and pleasure centers. Whenever you see something you want, dopamine levels rise giving you the motivation to go after it. In addition, your body needs dopamine for such normal activities like walking and maintaining your physical sense of balance.
Maintaining a healthy diet allows the brain to produce adequate amounts of serotonin and dopamine by converting essential amino acids into these neurotransmitters. Don’t worry, this article is not going to turn into a science class, the solution to this is pretty simple. You not only are what you eat, but you feel as you do because of what you eat. A healthy balanced diet, while no miracle cure, will allow you to cope with life stressors much better. Certain foods contain these essential amino acids which the body converts into these neurotransmitters. Here’s a how to explanation:
Serotonin – The amino acid tryptophan is the building block of serotonin. It’s found in poultry, meat, and most types of fish-salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, and sardines. If you’re not into flesh eating then you can obtain adequate amounts through consuming nuts and seeds such as flax seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts, and in fruits like bananas, kiwi, and pineapple. Vegetables and legumes are also good sources.
Dopamine – Dopamine levels can be improved by decreasing your intake of sugar. Excess sugar intake is responsible for that feeling that we call “sugar high.” The reason we often crave sugar is to increase levels of dopamine which excessive amounts of sugar deplete. In order for your body to make dopamine, it needs appropriate levels of the amino acid tyrosine which can be found in foods like almonds, avocados, bananas, low-fat dairy, meat, poultry, lima beans, or soy products. You should also increase your intake of antioxidant producing foods such as green leafy vegetables, asparagus, broccoli, and peppers.
A regular program of exercise combined with at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night will also help optimize levels of serotonin and dopamine. Cutting back or eliminating alcohol is also important as too much alcohol can wreak havoc on these neurotransmitters, especially dopamine.
Food supplements can also enhance levels of these brain chemicals. Some physicians recommend vitamin B6 supplementation and L-Phenylalanine, two supplements that can be found in stores such as Vitamin Shoppe, GNC, Whole Foods, or your local pharmacy. Dark chocolate is known to be a good source of L-Phenylalanine, just be sure that the chocolate is at least 65% cacao. Sorry, an over-the-counter Hershey bar doesn’t cut it. Dark, cacao rich, chocolate is available in health food stores and is an acquired taste. It is, however, a natural way to boost both serotonin and dopamine.
I realize that parts of this article may be confusing for some. It does not have to be. Changing your snacking habits, making food substitutions, and adjusting a few simple aspects of your lifestyle can optimize your brain chemistry to give you a fighting chance to more successfully cope with life’s battles.
Next time someone asks you, “What’s eating you?,”ask yourself, “What have I been eating?” Remember, you are not only are what you eat, but how you fuel your brain effects how you think.
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