I’m sure you’ve heard people say “it’s all in the mind”. Well, yes, it’s true, it is all in the mind. However, the mind is a product of the brain, which is a physical organ, and being a physical organ, it requires certain natural chemicals in order to function properly. 

I found the following info-graphic which gives a good overview of some of the important chemicals in the brain, and highlights their importance in mood and mental health. 

First, take a look at it to get a good overview of these brain chemicals  Then I will use it as a jumping-off point to take a more detailed look into the subject.

Okay, so to summarize the information:

  • Serotonin is needed to keep you feeling happy and calm, and prescription antidepressants work by boosting levels of serotonin in the brain.
  • Glutamate is needed for memory and learning, but if you get too much you could become angry, impulsive or agitated. GABA (gamma-amino-butyric acid) gives you feelings of tranquility. Anxiety medications boost GABA levels. So do alcohol and cannabis. GABA and Glutamata balance each other.
  • Dopamine is associated with arousal, motivation and the reward feeling we get when something good happens or we do something enjoyable. Low levels of dopamine are associated with substance abuse.
  • Endorphins are the body’s own natural painkillers which are released when we are stressed or in pain. They can give feelings of relaxation and euphoria.
  • Noradrenaline is involved in the body’s “fight or flight” response to threatening stimili, and moderates our heart rate and blood pressure. Too much noradrenaline can lead to nervousness or high blood pressure, but too little can leave you feeling tired and lethargic.

Now I want to take a more detailed look at each of these chemicals.

Serotonin 

So, serotonin is the “happy chemical”, and without enough of it in your brain, your moods will suffer. In order to make serotonin, the following nutrients are needed:

  • Tryptophan – this amino acid gets converted into 5HTP and then subsequently into serotonin. Foods high in Tryptophan include bananas, beans, cheese, eggs, fish, hazelnuts, milk, hummus, lentils, kelp, milk, nuts, rice, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, shellfish, soya products, sunflower seeds, tuna, turkey and yogurt. You can also take 5HTP as a supplement, available in many health food shops.
  • B Vitamins – although B6 is the most important for serotonin, the B vitamins work together so much, you really need to make sure you have good levels of all of them. Eat plenty of wholegrains, vegetables, green leafy vegetables, oily fish, chicken, turkey, lentils, beans, seeds and nuts. It’s also well worth taking them as a supplement, either as a B-complex supplement or part of a high strength multi-vitamin supplement.
  • Vitamin C – this is one of the least toxic substances that you can put into the body, but it has so many important functions, including helping make serotonin, that I’m tempted to say that you’re foolish if you don’t supplement at least 1,000mg of it per day. Alternatively, you could eat LOADS of fruit, for example about 20 oranges will give you that amount. My advice? Supplement 2,000mg AND eat loads of fruit.
  • Zinc – by far the richest source of zinc are oysters, but failing that, other good sources are: ginger, pecan nuts, haddock, green peas, shrimps, Brazil nuts, eggs, wholewheat, rye, oats, peanus, and almonds. You may struggle to eat quite enough through diet alone, so I suggest also taking good multi-mineral supplement.
  • TMG & SAMe – your body actually makes these from the mineral Choline. Good food sources of choline are lecithin, eggs, fish, liver, soya beans, peanuts, wholegrains, nuts, pulses, citrus fruits, wheat germ and brewer’s yeast.
  • Omega 3 Fatty Acids – these are not used to make serotonin itself, but are essential for healthy serotonin receptor sites in the brain. The best food sources of omega 3 are: mackerel, swordfish, marlin, tuna, salmon, sardines, flax seeds and sunflower seeds.  It’s worth also supplementing an omega 3 supplement made from either fish oil or flax seed oil.
  • Meditation also increases Serotonin levels.

Dopamine & Noradrenaline

Just to recap, dopamine is involved in helping you enjoy the fun things in life, and low levels can therefore lead to a lack of enjoyment from life. Dopamine is also thought to play a part in Parkinsons Disease, Schizophrenia and Restless Leg Syndrome, but these conditions are beyond the scope of this article.

The nutrients needed for Dopamine are:

  • B Vitamins, Vitamin C, Zinc, TMG, SAMe, Omega 3 – see descriptions under Serotonin (above)
  • Phenylalanine – an amino acid which the body converts into Tyrosine, then into L-Dopa, and then into Dopamine, Noradrenaline and Adrenaline. Good food sources of phenylalanine are: eggs, nuts, seeds, turkey, chicken, cod, milk and cheese.
  • Magnesium – good food sources of this mineral are: wheat germ, almonds, cashew nuts, brewer’s yeast, buckwheat flour, Brazil nuts, peanuts, pecan nuts, cooked beans, garlic, raisins, green peas, potato skin and crab.  However, if you take a good multi-mineral for the zinc, you will get the magnesium too.
  • Manganese – good food sources are: watercress, pineapples, okra, endive, blackberries, raspberries, lettuce, grapes, lima beans, strawberries, oats, beetroot and celery. Again, for supplementing, this will be part of a good multi-mineral supplement.
  • Iron – good food sources are: pumpkin seeds, parsley, almonds, prunes, cashew nuts, raisins, Brazil nuts, walnuts, dates, pork, cooked dried beans, sesame seeds and pecan nuts.
  • Copper – most people shouldn’t need to worry about consuming enough copper because excess is more of a common problem than deficiency. If you eat a good varied wholefood diet you should be fine.

Glutamate & GABA

As we saw earlier, Glutamate is responsible for learning and memory, GABA has a tranquilising effect, and both balance each other out. This is because they are chemically similar, and both come from the amino acid Glutamine. Good food sources of glutamine include many high protein foods such as milk, yogurt, ricotta cheese, cottage cheese, beef, chicken, pork,  fish and beans, as well as vegetables such as cabbage, spinach and parsley.

The relaxing feeling of wellbeing you get from drinking alcohol is due to it raising GABA in the brain. The problem is, it only does so temporarily. About an hour later, GABA will fall, and the feeling of wellbeing will have disappeared, so you have another drink. After multiple alcoholic drinks your GABA levels will end up very suppressed.

However, there are other, healthier ways to raise your GABA level, for example by consuming:

  • Taurine – another amino acid which, like glutamine, converts into GABA. Your body makes taurine from two other amino acids: cystine and methionine. Foods rich in these amino acids are: chicken, duck and turkey, pork, lunch meats, dairy foods, granola, oat flakes, eggs, Atlantic cod, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, Brazil nuts and soy protein isolate.
  • Valerian, Hops & Passion Flower – these herbs are available over the counter as a supplement, and are also in some herbal teas.
  • Magnesium – good food sources of this mineral are: wheat germ, almonds, cashew nuts, brewer’s yeast, buckwheat flour, Brazil nuts, peanuts, pecan nuts, cooked beans, garlic, raisins, green peas, potato skin and crab.  However, if you take a good multi-mineral for the zinc, you get magnesium too.
  • Yoga and Meditation also raise GABA.

Endorphins

Endorphins are your body’s natural painkillers, and can make you feel euphoric and wonderful.

If you want to trigger your body to release endorphins without smashing yourself on the hand with a big hammer, you can do any of the following:

  • Strenuous Exercise – the key word here is strenuous, which means pushing yourself to the point where you collapse from exhaustion. Try forcing yourself to cycle up  a very long steep hill, or doing press-ups until your arms stop working.
  • Flotation Tank – research done in 2003 showed that the profound relaxation achieved in a flotation tank triggers the body to release endorphins.
  • Acupuncture – having needles stuck into various parts of your body causes it to release endorphins.
  • Sexual Intercourse – most of us feel better after a session of horizontal jogging, don’t we?
  • Laughter – sometimes, laughter really is the best medicine.
  • Meditation also raises endorphin levels.

References:

  • Patrick Holford: Optimum Nutrition for the Mind
  • Patrick Holford: the Optimum Nutrition Bible

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