neurotransmitters: the secret to feeling on cloud nine.
This article was written as a collaboration between B. amsterdam and Wout van Helden; Orthomolecular & Psycho-Neuro-Immunology therapist, speaker and founder of Helden Health. Helden Health is a holistic health practice that uses the latest research into lifestyle and nutrition to help clients maximize their health and happiness. A heartfelt thank you to Wout for the conversation that acted as the foundation for this article.
Approximately 20% of the energy found on every plate of food you eat will be taken up by the brain, more than any other organ in the body. With this in mind, it’s surprising to think how rarely we eat for our brains and not just for our bodies. We’ve been taught since childhood about the link between food and physical health; we need protein to build muscle, calcium for healthy bones and teeth, carbohydrates for energy and vegetables to maintain healthy bodily functions. But in reality, what we eat has also a monumental impact on our brain, largely because of chemicals called neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that allow neurons to communicate, and that communication is responsible for everything from muscle movement and digestion to breathing and sleep. It also enables productivity, creativity, memory, openness, concentration, empathy, understanding and learning among others, processes that are fundamental to being your best at work and at home.
Serotonin, for instance, is the neurotransmitter responsible for the feeling of well-being and happiness, dopamine is responsible for feelings of pleasure, GABA is responsible for a sense of calm and focus, acetylcholine is responsible for countless muscle actions (reaction speed) as well as creativity and glutamate is responsible for many of our processes related to learning and memory. When your neurotransmitters are balanced and present, you feel great; everything seems to simply work and thinking is effortless.
If neurotransmitters are the engines behind brain function and mood, food is the fuel for those engines. In short, food provides the building blocks for neurotransmitters. Each neurotransmitter needs its own cocktail of minerals, vitamins and amino acids to be synthesized, and so consciously eating foods that contribute to specific neurotransmitters can directly improve how you feel and perform. Serotonin (95% of which is produced in the digestive tract) is made from tryptophan, an essential amino acid that is found in bananas, pineapples, nuts, kiwis, tofu, eggs and cheese to name a few. In a similar way, dopamine is made from tyrosine, found in avocados, chocolate, yogurt, spinach, almonds and a variety of seeds. Being aware of how your food is connected to these chemicals and how these chemicals are connected to your brain is fundamental to leading a healthy and happy life.
If we really think about it, we’ve always known that food affects how we feel; we’ve all had days when we can’t think straight, when we’re quick to snap at a friend, when we feel anxious after too many coffees, when we’re impatient at the smallest of delays, and so if we look carefully, we can see the pieces of the food-mood jigsaw fall into place; everything is connected. It isn’t that food is solely responsible for all of these feelings (fundamentals like sleep, stress management and movement have to be fulfilled from the start) but food does play a critical part.
Why is all of this so relevant today? Well, for a start, the demands we put on our brain have never been higher. Social media, 24/7 news and television, music streaming, email, smartphones, an ever-expanding internet and technology that is creeping further and further into our lives has created a world where we take in more information than ever before. One study concluded that in 2007, Americans were consuming an amount of information equivalent to reading 174 newspapers (based on 85 pages) every day. In 1986, that number was 40 newspapers. In 2008, it was said that Americans were taking in 34 gigabytes of information every day, and that was over ten years ago. Our brains require more healthy fuel in the form of food to process this increasing amount of information, and if you don’t supply your brain with enough good fuel to build effective communication, it will slump under the pressure.
It’s not only the information floating around modern society that is demanding more of our brains. In the world of startups, entrepreneurs, venture capital, big ideas and rollercoasters of success and failure, stress is a constant companion. In small doses, stress can be beneficial, and many people work better under some added stress. But chronic stress can drain dopamine and serotonin, suspect factors in depression. It’s not surprising that the time of the self-made millionaire is also the time of ADHD, anxiety, burnouts and antidepressants. In the UK, 70.9 million prescriptions for antidepressants were given out during 2018 in contrast to 36 million in 2008. If you want to feel your best for that next big pitch, for that all-important meeting, for that leadership course you’re running or for that weekend away with your family, food can make a difference.
Fortunately, using food to boost and balance neurotransmitters comes with some big benefits; it’s cheap, it’s easy to do, it’s safe, it’s controllable and it can yield real, tangible results. Food gives us the ability to actively alter and optimize our neurotransmitters, a process that can be constantly adapted the more we learn about ourselves. People are quick to jump to medication, unregulated supplements and far-out treatment plans when they feel out of balance, yet they continue to gorge themselves on processed food, sugar-filled snacks and don’t get enough sleep. Medicine has its place, but you are far more in control of how you feel than you think, and it can all start with food.
So, we know that certain foods contribute to the synthesis of certain neurotransmitters, and the balance of neurotransmitters contributes to how we think, feel and perform. The food-mood connection is real. But can this be put this into practice? Here are five things to think about when eating for your body and your mind.
1. Take note. Learning how different foods affect your brain is like any other method of self-improvement. If you really want to feel the benefits, be responsible for getting there and do some (light) reading. Before, we listed some of the foods that contribute to serotonin and dopamine synthesis, but here are a few more foods that lend a hand to making neurotransmitters. Beans, peas, radishes, spinach, zucchinis, strawberries and eggs all stimulate acetylcholine, and soybeans, mushrooms, rice, potatoes, fermented foods, tomatoes, nuts and certain teas are helpful to increase levels of GABA. Easy, your light reading has started.
Also, be conscious of how you feel and adjust your diet accordingly. If you can’t focus, your libido is low and you’re feeling unmotivated, your dopamine levels may be low. Admittedly, it’s not quite as simple as that; neurotransmitters don’t work in isolation and there are many other factors in constant play. Just eating more potatoes probably won’t solve the stress you’re feeling ahead of a deadline. Food, however, does remain the fuel for your brain, and if you’ve felt stressed for a sustained amount of time, maybe it’s not just that deadline that’s making you feel that way. Maybe it’s the four hours’ sleep you have a night, the three double espressos you drink each morning, the microwave meal you have after work and the leftover takeaway you after the gym. Be conscious of how you’re feeling and what you’re eating; introduce new foods, throw away some of the old and see how you feel.
2. Diversity is gold. It’s all about a balance; if you eat more and more eggs (choline in the yolk contributes to the production of acetylcholine) you won’t keep seeing an increase in your reaction speed, it’s not that linear. And there is such a thing as too much of a neurotransmitter. Whilst low levels of dopamine are associated with Parkinson’s disease, an excess of dopamine is associated with schizophrenia.
An easier approach to maintaining a healthy balance of foods and neurotransmitters is to aim for 120 different foods per month, and you don’t even have to include celery juice. We’re often bombarded with information about good foods and bad foods, and whilst there is truth behind those categories, feeling guilty because you had a few pieces of cake doesn’t help anyone. You are allowed cake and you are allowed snacks. But by aiming for that number, moderation is built into your diet which is critical to creating the correct balance of neurotransmitters. Varying your diet isn’t, however, just to moderate the bad foods, it’s also to moderate the good. Drinking celery juice every day for breakfast for a year (ideally aim to have three breakfast options you like and cycle through them) isn’t the most nutritional choice, and eating traditionally perceived good foods is really only half the battle; your diet has to be balanced.
3. The good and the basic. Whilst the above is true and you are allowed some classic ‘bad foods’, you should be trying to fill the vast majority of those 120 foods with healthy, whole foods that provide you with beneficial nutrition. Vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates over simple carbohydrates (try brown or wild rice instead of white rice), probiotics and lots of protein. Many neurotransmitters are made up from a base of amino acids, which are the building blocks to protein, so we need a lot of it. Research has said we should be aiming for approximately 1 - 1.5 grams of protein per one kilogram of body weight and that’s not taking into account the extra protein you need if you have an active lifestyle. Think, eat and feel healthy.
4. Time-restricted eating. When we’re eating, we have control of what we put in our bodies. Fortunately, there’s also a lot to gain when we’re not eating. Time-restricted eating puts this thinking into practice, benefiting not only from what we eat, but also when we eat. A good starting point is trying to eat all of your calories within a ten-hour window. The time when you’re not eating is repair time for your body and increasing this on a daily basis has an array of potential benefits; reducing oxidative stress and inflammation in the body, helping burn body fat, inducing autophagy (the body’s regeneration process), lowering blood pressure, increasing energy and improving sleep. If eating within a ten-hour window is a struggle, try a twelve-hour window and work down from there.
5. It’s not just about eating. It was mentioned before, but it’s worth mentioning again. Addressing your diet from a neurotransmitter perspective is one step to boosting your ability to perform across all areas of your life, but it has to be combined with other fundamentals; sleep being one of the most important. Without adequate sleep, your attention is impaired, your ability to learn and remember is reduced, problem-solving becomes more difficult, it puts you at risk of a long list of chronic conditions including depression and it stimulates cravings for sugary, high fat foods. If there’s one thing to pair a more neurotransmitter sensitive diet with, it’s getting enough sleep. Outside of the dream world, exercise and meditation can benefit your neurotransmitters; meditation is known for increasing serotonin and GABA, whilst exercise release endorphins that relieve pain and stress as well as increasing dopamine and serotonin.
What should be taken away from this is that taking care of yourself and enabling your brain to thrive in this fast-paced world is both essential and completely within reach. It’s important for everyone, arguably even more so for those focused minds in the entrepreneurial world, to learn about natural, accessible ways to influence mood, thinking and performance. Food is the best way to start. Eat for your body and your mind, diversify your diet, get enough sleep, use time-restricted eating, view your health holistically and reap the rewards.
If you would like to contact Wout for further information about what you can do to influence your life, get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org