Many people go through periods of feeling depressed, sad and demotivated. Sometimes these feelings simply pass on their own yet often these feelings of low mood and lack of motivation are caused by an imbalance of “happy chemicals” in the brain. Serotonin, our happy chemical is made from food. Getting the correct nutrients into your body really does make you happy. Protein really is one of our best mood foods.
Doctors prescribe anti-depressants, which work to block the reabsorption of the happy brain chemicals giving the illusion to the body that there are more of them. The danger is however, that these drugs often come with a host of unpleasant side-effects and actually don’t get to the root of the problem. There is in fact a way of eating that will boost your brain’s happy neurotransmitters, as these chemicals are made from the food we eat.
Step in tryptophan
Serotonin is made from an amino acid called tryptophan. Eating foods that contain tryptophan increase your body’s serotonin levels in a safe and natural way.
Do you have enough serotonin?
The body is always communicating with us. If there is anything out of balance, signs and symptoms will occur. Women are more prone to serotonin deficiency due to its link with the female hormone oestrogen, hence the mood swings associated with the female hormonal cycle, as oestrogen levels fluctuate. Serotonin deficiency may be a contributing factor in anyone with depression or mood swings, especially if affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Signs of serotonin deficiency
- Carbohydrate or alcohol cravings
- Easy irritability
- Low sex drive
- Finding it hard to relax
Eat yourself happy with tryptophan-rich foods
- Beans, pulses & peas
- Wheat germ
- Cheese & milk
5HTP – one step closer to happiness
As serotonin is made from tryptophan, supplementing with a capsule containing a substance called 5HTP (5-hydroxy-tryptophan) effectively helps the body make more serotonin. Tryptophan is converted in the body to 5HTP, which is one step closer to our happy brain chemical. 5HTP easily crosses the blood-brain barrier and can be used as an effective alternative to anti-depressants in mild cases of depression and mood disorders. 5HTP should be taken away from protein-rich foods and with a small carbohydrate snack, such as a banana.
When carbohydrate is eaten, insulin removes glucose from the blood into the cells and also clears the blood of all circulating amino acids, except tryptophan. With a free circulation of tryptophan, the brain uses it readily. That’s why it’s best to take your tryptophan source with a carbohydrate and also the reason why carbohydrates make us feel so good, as long as we eat the right ones of course! It’s the sugary, white, refined carbs that make our moods come crashing down later due to blood sugar fluctuations. Eat vegetables, oats, beans, lentils and wholewheat. As serotonin is also needed for a good night’s sleep, 5HTP is best taken before bed.
Top 5 snacks to make you happy
- Turkey or chicken slice on wholemeal bread
- Nut butter on oat cracker
- Banana with small handful of nuts & seeds
- Avocado & hummus with crudites
- Eggs on rye toast
The biochemistry of happiness
There are other nutrients needed alongside protein that work to make our feel-good neurotransmitter, such as zinc and niacin. Consulting with a nutritionist will help you to look at any other underlying contributing factors to your low mood, such as thyroid function and blood sugar issues.
Even just looking at this one biochemical pathway in the body – serotonin production – we can easily see how it really does matter what you eat. As your body is literally made from the food you put into it, you really are what you eat.
Article by Jo Rowkins dipNT MBANT, nutritionist and founder of awakening health.
NB: If you are suffering from depression and are on antidepressant medication, please seek the advice of your doctor if you wish to reduce or stop your medication. Also seek the advise of a qualified nutritional therapist or naturopath. This article is not a substitute for medical advice.