Did you realize that what you are eating may be responsible for how you feel? The amount of joy we feel in our life is mostly allotted through our consumption of protein. Why? Because our emotions are a product the varying levels of hormones and neurotransmitters, which are made up of amino acids—the building blocks of protein. That means we must consume enough of the right sources of protein for these chemical messengers to perform harmoniously. In addition, vitamins and minerals are essential to the regulation of these chemical messengers.
We believe some people are naturally positive, up-beat, or relaxed people, while we notice that others are inherently negative, irritable, anxious, stressed, or sensitive. We can categorize emotions into categories of good moods and bad moods. Certified nutritional therapist Julia Ross in, The Mood Cure, asserts that amino acids are our most effective weapons for fighting bad moods. Emotion generators in your brain are called neurotransmitters. A brain well-stocked in neurotransmitters produces “true emotions”—or good moods. Conversely, a brain deficient in certain neurotransmitters produces “false or defective moods”, and Ross suggests that “false moods” are largely a product of stress and insufficient nutrition.
Think of things that put you in a good mood. It is scientifically known that sunlight, music, romance, exercise, and nature can all raise your endorphin levels, which are neurotransmitters. Endorphins are what allow you to feel a zest and excitement for life. In a sense, they can influence your sense of joy. Massages, happy memories, chocolate, sex, deep breathing, meditation, and roller coasters also significantly raise your endorphin levels. It is important to understand that you can be deficient in endorphins or other neurotransmitters, and your levels can be influenced by genetics, stress, chronic pain, and diet.
Neurotransmitters can only be made out of amino acids, which must be consumed. Fortunately, you can get them from a high-protein diet, and additionally purchase them as supplements from a neighborhood health food store. Vitamins and minerals regulate the production of neurotransmitters, and animal fats allow you to use these naturally mood-boosting amino fuels. In addition, adequate amounts of hormones like estrogen and progesterone are vital for the proper functioning of certain neurotransmitters. Hormones have a powerful effect on moods, which make sense for a lot of women who are pregnant, postpartum, premenstrual, or menopausal. So let’s examine the different neurotransmitters’ effects on mood.
When you are high in serotonin, you are positive, flexible, and easy-going. But when you are low or deficient in serotonin, you can be negative, obsessive, worried, irritable, and or sleepless. You may be prone to tantrums, irrational anger, violent behavior, guilty feelings, low self-esteem, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. More clues to low serotonin levels include being a night owl, a sugar addiction, an exercise addiction, or a drug addiction.
Having low estrogen levels, can also lower your serotonin levels because estrogen helps to program serotonin. Females produce less serotonin than males. Consequently, women are twice as likely to suffer from premenstrual, menopausal, or postpartum mood problems when their estrogen falls too low.
Serotonin is your primary defense against depression and anxiety. Serotonin is synthesized from tryptophan and another amino acid. Tryptophan is found in beef, turkey, fish, chicken, pork, cheese, eggs, and other dairy products.
Breastmilk is higher in tryptophan than any other milk, so it makes sense why people say that breast-fed babies are so easy-going. They are constantly getting the highest source of tryptophan. Exclusively formula-fed infants can result in low serotonin babies, which can also lead to low serotonin adults. If breastfeeding is not an option, it is important to use a homemade nutrient-dense formula. The recipe can be found at thehealthyhomeeconomist.com, but it would have to be strictly followed to avoid any nutrient deficiencies. The ingredients can be costly or hard to obtain, so it requires the caregiver to be very diligent.
Sunlight and exercise are great for good moods. They both raise oxygen levels in the brain, and oxygen is critical to the formation of serotonin from amino acids. No wonder why exercising can be addictive. It makes you feel good immediately afterwards. Serotonin is also stimulated by bright light, or sunlight. Exposure to bright light during the day not only improves your emotions, it improves your sleep quality because it stimulates melatonin to raise at night. Often in the winter, people may experience a low-level depression, or what has been called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), from lack of exposure to sunlight. Not only does exposure to the sun elevate your serotonin, your mood, and improve your sleep, it increases your body’s levels of vitamin D, which allows you to be more effective at fighting off infections. In other words, lots of sun in the winter can be your replacement for the flu shot.
Sugar can very temporarily raise your serotonin levels, but it is not sustainable, and sets you up for an emotional crash later. Using sweets to feel better is a sign of a serotonin deficiency. So pay attention if you are craving sweets at night or during the winter. Craving alcohol or marijuana may also be a sign of low mood-enhancing chemicals. If you suspect you are low in serotonin, you’ll want to increase your intake of quality protein sources, decrease your sugar intake, get exercise for at least 30 minutes 2-3 times a week, and get out into the sun. You can also take supplements of tryptophan or 5-HTP, but you should consult a nutritional expert or health care provider first.
Being high in the catecholamine neurotransmitters makes you feel energized, upbeat, and alert. Being low in them can make you sink into a flat, lethargic funk or not react strongly to things. You may have trouble with focus and concentration, like having difficulty when paying attention requires you to be physically still. Or, you may have a reduced sex drive. Catecholamines call us to attention. They enthuse you in the face of positive news and alarm you in the face of threats. They prime you to take action, even program your physical movements. Any exciting prospect can elevate their levels, like anticipating a meal or going for a run.
Catecholamines—or the cats—are what Julia Ross calls your internal cheering squad and drill sergeant. The extent to which you are introverted or extroverted is related to your cats. And remember, your brain can inherit an abundance of, or a deficiency in them. Being low in the cats may make you drawn to stimulants like coffee, chocolate, tobacco, nutra-sweet, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, or amphetamines. Ritalin also increases catecholamine production in the brain, which is why it is used on kids with ADHD. Low estrogen and testosterone can stymy the cats. High protein sources and stabilized hormonal levels are the first start to waking the sleeping cats. With professional consultation, the amino acid tyrosine can also be taken to elevate those levels. Not having enough tyrosine is also related to your thyroid health, which may be another clue to sleeping cats.
Do you feel wired, stressed, or overwhelmed? Feel like you just can’t take it anymore? You may be suffering from adrenal fatigue. It is a sign your adrenals are no longer producing enough stress-fighting hormones. The adrenal glands produce up to 60 different hormones—including your stress and sex hormones. Adrenaline and cortisol are released in stressful situations. Adrenaline alerts you to imminent danger and prepares your body for fighting or fleeing. Afterwards, the release of cortisol subdues the adrenaline rush and infuses you with strength and stamina. Cortisol is critical in allowing you to face ongoing stress. But continual release of adrenaline and cortisol leaves you feeling wired and strained. Eventually, you will experience adrenal burnout and will not be able to rise to stressful situations. You may start feeling irritable, anxious, or suffer from exhaustion. Caffeine, foods high in sugar, and chronic infections also stress the adrenals by keeping these hormone levels high. Constant high levels can lead to heart disease, lowered immune function, and Alzheimer’s disease.
A brain well-stocked in the neurotransmitter GABA allows you to be relaxed and stress-free. Progesterone controls the release of this relaxing chemical in the brain. Levels of GABA and progesterone are supposed to be at their highest the week before menstruation. In PMS and menopause, progesterone levels can be too low. Men can also suffer from low progesterone levels. A diet with lots of good cholesterol from egg yolks, saturated fats, vitamins and minerals—especially vitamin D—are all important to maintain healthy adrenal glands. GABA can be taken as a supplement and is easily acquired from health food stores. The homeopathic remedy Calmes Forte may also be helpful. As always, consult a health professional when taking supplements.
People who take great pleasure in life and who are delighted in the many things it offers are high in endorphins. Being overly sensitive to hurt, crying all the time, or covering up feelings of denial can indicate a brain low in endorphins. Confusingly, endorphins can allow you to be in a state of denial, but when the levels run low, the real painful feelings have to be covered by synthetic painkillers like sugar, alcohol, or drugs. Traumatic events can deplete our endorphins. For instance, endorphins may raise initially after the death of a loved one, and can waver back and forth for a few weeks, but eventually the levels fall for good and a new phase of grief must be faced.
Endorphin levels rise during puberty. In adulthood, men have higher levels than women, which is why women are inclined to be more sensitive than men. Low estrogen reduces endorphins, and so again, we see women being more vulnerable to over-sensitivity to pain. Endorphins are what allow us to endure physical pain. B vitamins, vitamin D, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, and omega 3 fatty acids have all been shown to help with physical and or emotional pain. Certain amino acid supplements are also an effective method for dealing with pain.
You can pass your low hormonal levels on to your children. Hence, your inability to handle stress, depression, or anxiety can be inherited. So it is vital for both men and women to be fortified with lots of protein from fish, eggs, beef, chicken, or dairy, as well as healthy animal fats, before conceiving children.
Eating protein is crucial for keeping blood sugar balanced, and a combination with a saturated fat like butter, satisfies our bodies and lets us know we can stop eating because our blood sugar won’t drop. The worst mood-promoting foods are (in order): #1, Sugar #2, White Four #3, Wheat/Gluten #4, High Omega-6 Vegetable oils (not olive oil) or trans fats, and #5, Soy. All of these foods, in addition to promoting bad moods, cause a host of other health issues in the body, like allergies and inflammation, and should be strictly limited. Our bodies and our moods thrive off of protein, animal fat, and a host of vitamins and minerals obtained from a variety of healthy plant and animal sources.
Not eating enough food can be even harder on your mood than eating foods that cause false moods. Low-calorie dieting is known to be associated with eating disorders and terrible moods. Julia Ross admonishes that dieting and fasting have indelible effects on your brain—it starves and literally shrinks it. Skipping meals as well, means nutrient losses that can add up to long-term mood deficits. Your body does not keep a reserve of mood-maintaining nutrients. As Ross says, if you don’t eat them, they won’t arrive.
You must also be careful about drinking coffee in lieu of eating breakfast. Coffee can kill your morning appetite leading you to skip breakfast, which will ultimately make you crave sugars throughout the day. Used wrong, coffee can promote high stress and low energy, as well as mood swings and hypoglycemia. Inadequate sleep is another contributor to bad moods. Adequate serotonin from amino acids (protein) is critical to the production of melatonin, which regulates your sleep cycle.
So do you like being positive, energized, upbeat, alert, easy-going, relaxed, flexible, euphoric, and stress-free? Having healthy and loving parents is a great start, but the key to happiness can be as simple as eating well, and getting enough sleep, sun, and exercise. The things we know are good for our bodies are also especially good for our minds.
by Rabiah Lewis
Ross, Julia. The Mood Cure. Penguin Books: New York. 2004.