Dr. Justin Pollack, ND
“Your brain is the command and control center of your body. If you want a better body, the first place to ALWAYS start is by having a better brain.” ~Daniel Amen, MD 1
Specific nutrients have profound effects on our overall emotional well-being, including our ability to focus, motivate to do things, sleep well or wake up energized. I am fascinated by what brings health and wellness to people. In my practice, learning and teaching, I have come across an abundance of research explaining how food can become neurotransmitters that directly affect our mind. For simplicity, I'm going to focus on three helpful neurotransmitters. Naturally, a full, balanced approach to mental health is much more complex than biochemistry, and should include any number of the therapies you'll find in this magazine. A short, incomplete list of things that help the brain besides the right foods, might include:
rewarding interactions in your community,
the listening ear of your loved ones and counseling,
time spent in the natural world, doing things that you love,
activities that bring you a sense of purpose, fulfillment and meaning,
moving your body in ways that feel good to you.
Good Mood Makers
Serotonin is made in the intestines from 5-HTP, which is derived from L-Tryptophan. Serotonin is our daytime “feel-good” neurotransmitter, and people who are low in this report feeling “under a dark cloud”. It helps us feel full and content after a meal, making it useful for people who need to lose weight. SSRI and MAO-inhibiting antidepressant drugs act to keep serotonin around in the nerve synapse, and people who do well with these medications might otherwise feel negative, moody, obsessive, irritable or fearful. Serotonin is converted to melatonin by the pineal glad of the brain during dark winter months and at night, and this explains why many animals hibernate and many people experience a wintertime S.A.D. (seasonal affective disorder) or low mood through the winter season. Melatonin is our “sleep hormone” which sets our nocturnal rhythm and also acts as an antioxidant for regeneration of many tissues. Without enough melatonin, people don't fall asleep well, or are restless with light sleep.
GABA (Gamma-Amino-Butyric Acid) is made in the brain from L-Glutamine. GABA acts as the main calming neurotransmitter in the brain, which makes it important for regulating the stress response. People who are low in GABA report feeling overwhelmed, easily upset or frustrated, and shaky, especially after missed meals. L-Glutamine is a good precursor amino acid, because of its importance in gut health, brain health, and muscle recovery.
Dopamine & norepinephrine are both made from the amino acid L-Tyrosine. Dopamine is the first compound made from L-Tyrosine and is the neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure and satisfaction. It provides the feeling of “I want to do that again” derived from good food, balanced exercise or intimacy. Many addictive drugs raise dopamine levels above normal, then leave a person with a dopamine deficit afterward. Alcoholics and people addicted to other drugs are often deficient in dopamine, and susceptible to addiction from low levels of dopamine. Whan a person's brain doesn't produce enough dopamine, they may develop Parkinson's disease. We see similar tremors and shaking in people going through alcohol withdrawl due to the depletion of dopamine.
Dopamine is converted into norepinephrine, an excitatory neurotransmitter that is important in mental focus and energy. This is released when we need to be alert and can be stimulated by caffeine. Norepinephrine causes the release of epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), which carries us through stressful events with greater clarity and energy, with less pain or inflammation. L-Tyrosine is also the “T” in thyroid hormones T3 and T4, which are the major hormones involved in energy, temperature regulation and fat burning.
Note that all of the good mood neurotransmitters that are listed above come from protein. Turkey is famous for containing L-Tryptophan, but all of these (Tyrosine, Glutamine & Tryptophan) can be found in a complete protein source.
Omega-3, mono-unsaturated & saturated fats: Nerve cells have membranes that are made of a high percentage of omega-3 fats, especially DHA. The nerve cell membrane also contains abundant cholesterol and the arachidonic acid found in butter and other saturated fats. Solid research is linking deficiencies of omega-3 fatty acids with depression, anxiety and other mental health problems. All of the good mood neurotransmitters listed above are held inside bags made of fat. If the bags are flexible, they can withstand stressors and neurotransmitters inside are preserved better than if the bags are made of stiff trans-fats or saturated fat sources.
Probiotics: These are good bacteria that inhabit our digestive tracts, and are responsible for the fermentation of many traditional foods like sauerkraut, sourdough, miso and tamari. In the last decade, exciting worldwide research has revealed that these microbes outnumber the cells in our own body. The literature has shown probiotics are essential for the conversion of food into nutrients we can use, and even neurotransmitters like GABA and serotonin that have good effects on our mood and emotion.
At the Mountain-River Naturopathic Clinic, we can help you figure out dietary and targeted nutrient therapies to help conditions that range from low mood or insomnia, to anxiety or attention deficit. We work with all other health care providers to ensure there are no harmful interactions with existing therapies, and make sure you have therapeutic quality nutrients at non-toxic levels.
Mountain-River Naturopathic Clinic. www.mountainriverclinic.com (970) 668-1300. 507 Main St., Frisco, CO 80443