By Lisa Turner, Natural Solutions
Ever wonder why you can’t resist the urge to overdo it on unhealthy foods when you’re feeling down? Turns out there’s a physiological reason we eat too much bread, ice cream, and other “comfort” foods when we’re depressed: The sugar and carbs they typically contain give us a mental and physical lift. But that sense of contentment often fades in an emotional and nutritional crash that can deepen your blues. Healthier foods, on the other hand, can actually boost your mood–and you ought to find comfort in them instead.
“B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and other nutrients have powerful effects on brain chemistry, and can often right imbalances that cause mood disorders such as depression,” says William Walsh, PhD, founder and president of the Walsh Research Institute, an organization that studies brain biochemistry. “In fact, ‘nutrient therapy’ may well be the best treatment for depression.”
Nutrients, like antidepressant medications, work by affecting neurotransmitters in the brain–chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinepherine, and endorphins that send messages between nerve cells, called neurons. In order for neurotransmitters to form, the brain needs nutrients, such as amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. If the brain has a shortage of these nutrients, an abnormal number of neurotransmitters can result. For example, vitamin B6 plays a major role in the production of serotonin, which regulates anger, aggression, mood, and metabolism. If vitamin B6 is lacking in your diet, odds are you’ll also be deficient in serotonin.
But before you think a good multivitamin is all you need, Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a UCLA professor of neurosurgery and physiological science, says food is often more effective than supplements when it comes to brain health. “In most cases, a balanced and varied diet is the best way to influence brain chemistry,” says Gomez-Pinilla. When good-for-the-brain nutrients are consumed in whole-food form, they work optimally because they’re accompanied by other nutrients and compounds that help the body absorb them better, enhancing their effects. Even better? If you get these brain-healthy nutrients from food, you’re less likely to exceed safe limits, which is not always the case when taking supplements. For example, overly high doses of folate in supplement form may have secondary effects like causing cardiovascular problems and increasing the risk of colon and breast cancer, says Gomez-Pinilla.
If you suffer from depression, make sure you’re getting enough sleep and regular exercise, which further stimulate the brain to produce mood-enhancing neurotransmitters. It’s also important to eat a balanced and varied diet that includes foods packed with these mood-boosting nutrients:
Amino acids help the body produce neurotransmitters that affect your mood. “For example, the body uses the amino acid L-tryptophan to make serotonin, and the amino acid L-tyrosine to make norepinephrine,” says Joel C. Robertson, author of Natural Prozac (HarperOne, 1998). “Both are neurotransmitters that positively affect your mood.”
Find amino acids in: Turkey, cheese, chicken, fish, beans, almonds, avocados, bananas, and pumpkinseeds.
The body needs B6 to convert the amino acids mentioned above into neurotransmitters, says Robertson. If it lacks this vitamin, this conversion process will falter, and mood-elevating serotonin levels are likely to drop.
Find vitamin B6 in: Beef, tuna, chickpeas, bananas, turkey, and prunes.
Another essential vitamin, B12 also plays a role in converting amino acids to those all-important brain neurotransmitters, serotonin and norepinephrine. Vitamin B12 helps the body make SAM-e as well, a compound that’s involved in optimal neurotransmitter production and function. Some studies suggest that low levels of SAM-e can lead to symptoms of depression.
Find vitamin B12 in: Clams, oysters, chicken, crab, salmon, turkey, tuna, milk, and eggs.
An important nutrient, especially for women of childbearing age because of its role in neural tube development in the fetus, folate may be a major factor in forming SAM-e and the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine as well. Research shows that people who suffer from depression almost always have low levels of folate, which causes symptoms of anxiety and in severe cases, schizophrenic behavior.
Find folate in: Turkey, lentils, pinto beans, chickpeas, spinach, black beans, asparagus, collards, and turnip greens.
Crucial for the synthesis of serotonin and other neurotransmitters, magnesium is usually lacking in those with depression. In fact, one study reported “rapid recovery from major depression” after treatment with magnesium, and found that magnesium helped relieve the anxiety and insomnia often associated with depression.
Find magnesium in: oat bran, halibut, spinach, barley, pumpkinseeds, beans, and artichokes. (Or increase magnesium levels by soaking in an Epsom salt bath.)
The brain requires zinc to produce GABA, a compound that eases anxiety and irritability–which often increase in conjunction with depression, says Walsh. A high level of anxiety can exacerbate depression, manifesting in a condition known as “anxious depression,” says Robertson.
Find zinc in: oysters, crab, turkey, lentils, barley, yogurt, and pumpkinseeds.
This powerful antioxidant keeps nerve cell membranes flexible, says Gomez-Pinella, which allows neurotransmitters to travel between cells seamlessly. If the membrane becomes rigid, signals “bounce off” the exterior of the cell, disrupting the transfer of information.
Find vitamin E in: sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, tomato sauce, turnip greens, hazelnuts, and sweet potatoes.
Like vitamin E, these heart-healthy fats keep nerve cell membranes flexible, says Gomez-Pinilla. Omega-3s also boost oxygen levels in the blood, says Robertson. The extra oxygen increases the body’s ability to convert amino acids into neurotransmitters. Studies show that a deficiency in DHA, a form of omega-3 fat, impedes the transmission of the feel-good brain chemicals serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.
Find omega-3 fats in: salmon, sardines, tuna, walnuts, and flaxseeds.
Lisa Turner is a freelance writer in Boulder, Colorado.
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