Food is fuel. The fuel we put into our body determines how efficiently it runs. It’s a pretty simple concept yet when it comes to brain function there is a disconnect for many physicians.
When people come to me for help with various conditions, dietary changes are almost always part of the program. They are especially important if someone if suffering from a mood disorder.
If a poor diet can lead to poor function of the heart, gall bladder, immune system, pancreas, intestines, etc., then why couldn’t it lead to poor brain function? It can, but it’s always overlooked by traditional medicine. Let me explain.
Remember, food is fuel. The neurons in your brain consume up to 40% of your circulating blood sugar at a resting state. That figure can jump up to 80% when your brain is working hard like studying for a test or doing your taxes. Your blood sugar is the fuel your brain needs to keep going.
Low blood sugar occurs when people do not eat frequently enough or in an amount that satisfies the demands for energy of the entire body, including the brain. Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, causes mood to change. Most notably, people experience irritability. This irritability is relieved by simply eating food and allowing your blood sugar to rise back to a normal level. Next time you’re feeling irritable and you haven’t eaten in a few hours, try eating a healthy snack. It might just be the fix you’re looking for.
If something as simple as low blood sugar can alter your mood, what else can?
Alcohol is consumed the world over mainly for one reason and one reason only – it has mind altering properties. Let’s face it; alcohol does not taste good in the way that ice cream does. People are not consuming it solely for the taste. The per capita consumption of ethanol in the United States is 2.31 gallons per year. That means, on average, every American over the age of 15 consumes 2.31 gallons of pure alcohol per year. This is equivalent to 702 beers, 410 glasses of wine or 197 shots per year, per person.
Alcohol works on the brain by affecting the neurotransmitter GABA. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. Initially, consuming alcohol elevates mood and reduces anxiety and stress. As a matter of fact, most current pharmaceuticals aimed at reducing anxiety work by acting on GABA.
However, continuing to consume alcohol has a downside. When consumed to excess, moods begin to go down and depression is often the consequence. It also causes sleepiness which illustrates alcohol’s powerful depressive effects. Always remember, alcohol is a depressant and it’s this way because it acts on the inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain called GABA.
How Foods Affect Our Neurotransmitter Levels
A few weeks ago I wrote a post about neurotransmission and how getting your neurotransmitters measured is a good way to assess your mood status and possibly change it for the better. I went into the details of some neurotransmitters and it would be good to read before continuing to read this post. Click here to view it.
The neurotransmitters in our brain allow one nerve to talk to the next. It is the level of these neurotransmitters, to a large extent, that govern how we feel. Low levels of some neurotransmitters lead to anxiety while others may lead to depression. The interplay between all of them is complex and a problem with mood is often due to more than low levels of a single neurotransmitter but there are primary players to blame in each mood disorder.
Many people have noticed that when they eat a meal that is high in refined carbohydrates they notice an elevation in mood. So much so that people can often become addicted to this type of food just to feel good. This is for one very real physiological fact – eating refined carbohydrates increases serotonin production in the brain.
Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that most of the anti-depressant drugs like Prozac and Paxil work on. They work by tricking the brain into thinking it has more serotonin than it actually does. Consuming refined carbohydrates works by actually increasing serotonin levels. Here’s how.
There is a barrier between our brain and our blood. It prevents things from getting into the brain that should not. It is very effective. However, it also prevents necessary nutrients from getting in as well. They need a special pass to get in. This includes the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is what the body uses to make serotonin. If one consumes a diet very low in tryptophan, serotonin levels are likely to be low. Tryptophan is found in foods that contain protein.
In order for tryptophan (an other amino acids) to get into the brain a transporter system exists. It is called the large neutral amino acid transporter or the LNAA. Competition for the LNAA is fierce. Tryptophan is a weak competitor. It is often left out of brain except when refined carbohydrates are consumed. When refined carbohydrates are consumed high amounts of insulin are secreted. Insulin sends free amino acids out of our blood into our muscles when it is circulating. Because tryptophan is a bound to albumin it is left unaffected by this process. It is now free to circulate up to the brain where competition for the LNAA is now low and it gets into the brain more easily. It also allows more serotonin to be produced.
Now, I hear what you’re saying. I am not suggesting you go eat tons of refined carbohydrates to feel good! As a matter of fact you should avoid them because they just lead to a blood sugar crash later in the day resulting in irritability. Now you’re irritable and depressed – not a good combination!
What you should do is make sure you eat foods that are high quality proteins. This includes mostly animal products like meat and eggs. Also, supplementing your diet with 5-HTP is helpful. This is the direct precursor of serotonin and is in fact a type of tryptophan. It passes into the brain freely and does not compete for the LNAA.
Not Enough B6
Vitamin B6 is an essential vitamin in many ways. In terms of brain health, it is essential to allow the conversion of the neurotransmitter glutamate into GABA.
Glutamate is the primary excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain. When levels are too high seizures are known to occur. At lower levels anxiety occurs.
GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter. At very low levels seizures occur and when levels are slightly decreased anxiety is the result.
Glutamate ——–> GABA – GABA is converted from glutamate and B6 is required to do this.
A diet that is low in B6 will cause glutamate to build up in the brain and GABA levels will be low. This may result in anxiety. Foods that are highest in B6 are:
- Bell peppers
- Turnip greens
Consuming these on a regular basis may help if your problem is the conversion of glutamate to GABA. You may also have to supplement with B6. This is easy to find over the counter.
No Fish? No Happy
Omega-3 fatty acids have been touted to help everything from heart disease to pain and inflammation. Research also points to another aspect. Brain health. People who have the lowest level of a particular omega-3 called DHA report depression as a problem significantly more than people with the highest levels of DHA.
DHA is important for growing babies, but research is starting to show that it is important for overall brain health for adults as well.
Just how it wards off depression is not clear. One theory suggests that because DHA is important for the insulation surrounding the nerves, low levels may prevent neurons from communicating effectively. Whatever the reason, the research is pretty clear that low levels are not good for optimal brain function.
Consuming fish regularly is a good step. However, more people will not be able to consume enough fish to get enough DHA. Consider supplementing with a fish oil that is high in DHA. Most nutrition companies now make fish oil that is high in DHA. This may help ease your depression and prevent further episodes.
This list could go on and on. The moral of the story is that what you eat can have a significant impact on how you feel. If you want to feel good, inside and out, you must eat a healthy diet. Hopefully some of these tips have helped.