the connection between food & your mental health

There are increasing developments in the field of Nutritional Psychology. Scientists are discovering the distinctive connection between what we eat and the quality of our mental health.  I mean, it makes complete sense. We all know that our diet can affect our heart health, our muscle composition, and digestion. So, it only seems to reason that food will affect our brain health as well. 


The neurons in your brain are constantly speaking to each other with their own kind of language. The words they’re speaking are called neurotransmitters. There are over 100 known neurotransmitters in our bodies and they all perform many vital functions. One neurotransmitter that you’re probably familiar with is Serotonin. It’s the neurotransmitter that makes you go “Ahhhhh.” It brings feelings of emotional stability and positivity. With such an important role in making us feel happy and calm, how can we get MORE of it?  Serotonin can only be manufactured in 3 ways: 


  1. Sunlight entering the eye

  2. Exercise

  3. Protein we eat


When we consume protein, our bodies break it into amino acids. There are 22 amino acids, 9 of which are essential. That means the body is not capable of making 9 of the 22 amino acids; they MUST be consumed through our diets. One of the 9 essential amino acids is called Tryptophan. You may recognize the name from your Thanksgiving discussions. Turkey contains Tryptophan and many claim that’s what makes you sleepy after your Thanksgiving meal. That part is debatable and a topic for another day. However, what ISN’T debatable is that your brain uses Tryptophan to manufacture Serotonin. Yes, that feel-good neurotransmitter, Serotonin. 


CONSUMED PROTEIN ---> AMINO ACIDS ---> TRYPTOPHAN --->
5-HTP ---> SEROTONIN

If that’s the case, why wouldn’t we just eat LARGE amounts of protein to get all the Tryptophan possible? Unfortunately, that wouldn’t work. Proteins contain many other amino acids, besides just Tryptophan. All of them compete for access to the brain, many of which are more successful at crossing the blood brain barrier than our ever-important Tryptophan. However, this is where exercise enters the equation. When we exercise our hungry muscles are craving amino acids—all of them, BESIDES tryptophan. So, as you’re getting your sweat on, all the other amino acids are busy with muscle building, and tryptophan has a direct path to the brain without any competition. SCORE! Have you ever noticed an improved mood during or after a good workout? Thank you, Tryptophan!

 

And if you’re ready for a good night’s sleep after that hard workout, it may be due to that precious process of increasing Serotonin in your brain. Serotonin is converted into Melatonin later in the day. Melatonin is the hormone that controls your sleep-wake cycles. If you’re low on Serotonin, you’re likely deficient in Melatonin as well. It’s an awful cycle. Low Serotonin and mood = lack of Melatonin and quality sleep. 

 

Foods that contain quality levels of Tryptophan include, chicken, eggs, cheese, fish, peanuts, pumpkin and sesame seeds, milk, turkey, tofu, soy, and my favorite chocolate. However, in order to convert tryptophan into a usable form, your body needs adequate amounts of iron, vitamin B-6 and vitamin B-2. Have I made your head spin yet? Let me break it down into baby steps, be sure to eat good protein sources and lots of fruits and vegetables to give your body the best chance at utilizing Tryptophan.


Hopefully, I’ve given you an idea of how to get more Serotonin. But let’s talk for a minute about how we unnecessarily use up our Serotonin. Common ways we use up our precious Serotonin are through:


  1. Lack of sunlight 

  2. Chronic Stress

  3. Genetics

  4. Dieting (which is a form of stress on the body)

  5. Low intake of unprocessed whole foods

  6. Artificial sweeteners


Looking over that list, we have control over 5 out of the 6. We can’t change our genetics, but we can change our lifestyle. Get outside every day, even for 15 minutes. If you’re not able to do so, consider investing in a light therapy lamp. Try to reduce stress by simplifying your schedule, meditating, and moving your body more. Increase your consumption of healthy whole foods and limit your intake of artificial sweeteners and caffeine. 


There are an increasing number of practitioners who are treating depression and anxiety with supplements like Tryptophan and 5-HTP. If you’re struggling with poor mental health, consider talking to a qualified health care professional about the possibility of adding these supplements to your diet. For more detailed information about this topic, I recommend reading Julia Ross’s book “The Mood Cure.” And above all else, I wish you healthy eating and happy brains. 





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