There are 22 amino acids that work together to build our neurotransmitters. Some of these are created by our bodies and others are consumed in the foods we eat. Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that help communicate information from the brain to the body and if specific neurotransmitters are low they can affect our moods and emotions.
For instance, serotonin is a neurotransmitter whose primary function is maintaining mood balance, specifically a positive outlook and emotional flexibility. A lack of serotonin may possibly result in the following: anger and irritability; anxiety, panic or phobias; guilt; a pessimistic outlook; insomnia and low self-worth.
Another example is GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a chemical messenger in the brain that provides a sense of calm by controlling the fear or anxiety experienced when neurons are overexcited. A GABA deficiency may result from prolonged stress or a nutrient-depleted diet. Endorphins work to protect us from emotional and physical pain; meaning that if this neurotransmitter is low we may struggle with overcoming life’s stressors and may be overly sensitive.
The family of neurotransmitters called the catecholamines, is made up of dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine and their primary purpose is to support alertness, concentration, energy and initiative. A deficiency in this area will typically result in a lack of motivation and difficulty concentrating.
Since these neurotransmitters clearly affect emotions, it makes sense that this may be the primary cause of a connection between diet and mood. While amino acid content is definitely affected by a diet high in refined foods and caffeine, certain lifestyle issues can also have an affect including excessive stress and a sedentary lifestyle.
Improving the quality of your diet as well as increasing exercise can have a positive effect on the amino acid levels in your body, but you may still want to consider amino acid therapy. However, it is very important to be careful when taking amino acid supplements. Adverse effects are possible when taking too many or the wrong types of amino acids. Please consult a healthcare professional before choosing to begin an amino acid regimen.
Just as amino acids are the building blocks of neurotransmitters, there are other fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that help to build healthy brain cells.
For example, omega-3s are fatty acids are key yet often lacking in the typical diet. Since fatty fish, pastured meat, high-quality dairy products, walnuts and flax seeds aren’t routine in the average diet, there is a shortage of omega-3s. Add to this the overabundance of vegetable oils and fried foods- which tend to be high in omega-6s, cause inflammation, and deplete omega-3s- the typical diet clearly is not good for healthy omega-3 levels.
Zinc and Vitamin B6 are two of the most important nutrients for brain function. Christina Veselak, a mental health nutritionist in Denver, says, “The brain requires vitamin and mineral ‘co-factors’ in order to turn amino acids into their neurotransmitters, without these, brain processes diminish.” A deficiency in these important vitamins and minerals can result in the following emotional signs: depression, irritability, anxiety and learning issues.
Certain foods provide nutrients that work for the body, other foods certainly work against. A recent study published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, found a correlation between an inflammatory diet and a 41% increased risk of depression. Recent research has also linked chronic, low-level inflammation to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and more. This type of inflammation is caused by our immune system reacting to stressors and a poor diet contributes to this problem.
Foods that are likely to trigger inflammation include margarine, refined grains, red meat and soft drinks (both regular and diet). Anti-inflammatory foods include olive oil, wine, leafy greens, yellow vegetables (winter squash, carrots and yams) as well as caffeinated coffee.
Understanding which foods to eat is just the first step. If our bodies are not properly digesting these foods nor absorbing the necessary nutrients (amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, etc.), then diet changes are not going to be effective.
The proteins we consume can only be properly converted to amino acids and subsequently converted to neurotransmitters if our digestion system is working properly. Natasha Campbell-McBride, a doctor with postgraduate degrees in neurology and human nutrition, explains in her book, Gut and Psychology Syndrome, that good gut flora is as important as diet. If there is an imbalance in this area then that will have a negative effect on our body’s ability to digest and absorb valuable nutrients.