Ever notice how quickly a child bounces off the walls after eating sugar? Or how sleepy you feel after a Thanksgiving feast? Does your head pound without your morning cup o’ joe?
Though not always as memorable as the Thanksgiving slumber, the effect specific foods (or lack thereof) have on your mood is quite dramatic. In fact, your diet has a direct impact on your serotonin levels as well as other hormones and neurotransmitters that can influence how you’re feeling.
Take serotonin, which is also known as the “calming neurotransmitter.” It promotes a sense of well-being, safety, contentment, satiety and relaxation. Without enough serotonin, you can expect a host of depressing symptoms. (For more on serotonin, read last week’s post.)
Some common symptoms of having low serotonin levels include feeling down with the blues, craving sweets at night, not sleeping well, and experiencing anxiety or even panic attacks. Did you have any idea your food choices and nutritional habits could create these symptoms? Shocking for most people!
Balanced serotonin levels are of the utmost importance for healthy sleep and pleasant moods, and thus a neurotransmitter not to be messed with. The only problem is that it’s quite easy to disrupt your serotonin levels. Let’s learn how.
You know it as the chemical found in turkey that makes you sleepy. It’s actually an amino acid, the smallest unit of all proteins, and it's found in a variety of foods ranging from cheddar cheese to bacon to oat bran and pumpkin seeds. Your body converts tryptophan to serotonin. Synthesizing serotonin requires adequate B vitamins, iron, vitamin D and plenty of tryptophan. Herein lies the problem – most of us aren’t getting enough of these nutrients!
Low Vitamin D
Though there’s controversy over vitamin D levels needed for optimal health, the CDC estimates at least 30% of Americans have low or even a deficient amount in their bodies. Vitamin D is most effectively absorbed from the sun. It's important to keep this in mind when slathering on sunscreen without giving your body enough time to absorb the optimal amount of vitamin D. Are you getting the recommended 15-20 minutes of peak daily sunlight while still protecting yourself from sun damage?
The problem: Tryptophan Hydroxylase 2 (I know it’s a big word!) is one enzyme responsible for conversion of tryptophan to serotonin. This critical enzyme is activated by vitamin D, and not enough vitamin D may be causing low serotonin.
Inadequate Vitamin B Levels
While enjoying a couple of alcoholic drinks after a busy day may seem like a harmless decision, it can result in detrimental effects with respect to your mood. Moderate drinking, defined as two drinks on average per night (i.e. 30 g of alcohol), is a lifestyle choice that can directly lower your absorption rate of B vitamins. Another choice that often contributes to vitamin B deficiency is avoiding the consumption of animal products without taking adequate nutritional supplements. Animal products are the richest source of B vitamins, but if you’re avoiding them without strategically supplementing and eating enough vitamin B-rich, plant-based foods, you’re likely impacting your levels. Finally, the 1 in 200 people with digestive issues like IBD, Crohn’s or other malabsorption disorders are at high risk of inadequate vitamin B levels because these individuals have difficulty absorbing nutrients through the GI tract.
The problem: Without enough niacin, or vitamin B3, your body converts dietary tryptophan to niacin instead of serotonin. This is your body’s foolproof way to ensure it has enough niacin, a critical nutrient used in many biochemical pathways. Vitamin B6 is also required for the activity of another enzyme called decarboxylase, which is involved in the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin. Finally, folic acid and vitamin B12 are critical nutrients involved in a process called methylation that’s required in the synthesis of neurotransmitters like serotonin. If that made your head spin, just remember this: B vitamins are a must for healthy serotonin levels!
Carb or Sugar Overload
There’s no doubt about it – when we eat sugar or high amounts of carbs, we feel "good.” That’s because consuming carbs or sugar stimulates the body to produce insulin, which in turn transports glucose, fatty acids and most amino acids into the cells. Tryptophan is the only amino acid that insulin leaves behind. With tryptophan left behind and no competition for absorption remaining, it can be rapidly converted to serotonin. The result? Before you even finish a carb or sugar-rich meal, you’re probably on cloud nine, clapping to a personal rendition of “if you’re happy and you know it!”
The problem: Sugar is very addictive, with one study showing it being eight times more addictive than cocaine. Consuming refined carbs and sugar to address your body’s need for serotonin may lead to an eventual sugar addiction. With a constant supply of high serotonin, your body becomes desensitized, resulting in a need for more and more sugar to fuel the serotonin need. Mood disorders can result and pre-diabetes will soon follow because your body can’t make enough insulin to remove sugar from your blood.
Your body utilizes serotonin with the help of receptors that exist throughout your nervous system. Think of them as little regulators; these receptors take in serotonin if needed or close up shop when there’s plenty. While the way this actually happens in our bodies is still being studied, it’s clear that our serotonin receptors need magnesium to function effectively. And guess what – the latest studies estimate that 50-75% of our population is magnesium deficient! Read more here.
The problem: Without enough magnesium, you’re likely to experience depression from low serotonin.
So take action!
There are many ways to modify nutritional habits to reduce or eliminate “the blues,” anxiety and even sleep issues. Here are a few examples:
- Add more healthy tryptophan-rich foods to your diet (click here for some food sources)
- Combine protein, fiber and fat alongside carbohydrates to slow absorption of glucose and promote steady glucose levels and improve insulin sensitivity
- Add more whole grains like oats, brown rice, millet and more to your diet instead of refined grains like bread and crackers
- Add more magnesium-rich foods (click here for food sources)
- Add more vitamin B-rich foods (click here for food sources)
- Work with a qualified health coach or nutrition practitioner to heal your gut and improve the digestion and absorption of nutrients.
Now that you know the many ways you can improve your mood with food, which recommendation would be simple for you to start this week?
Remember: Simple changes add up to big impact! Feel free to reread the recommendation list again and find something very easy to adopt. Or you can join one of hubbub’s coached nutrition challenges and/or our monthly health series. We’re here to help! And definitely ask your friends and family to help you stick to your habit-changing lifestyle.
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"Vitamin D and the Omega-3 Fatty Acids Control Serotonin Synthesis and Action, Part 2: Relevance for ADHD, Bipolar, Schizophrenia, and Impulsive Behavior." Vitamin D and the Omega-3 Fatty Acids Control Serotonin Synthesis and Action, Part 2: Relevance for ADHD, Bipolar, Schizophrenia, and Impulsive Behavior. Web. 12 May 2015. http://doi.org/10.1096/fj.14-268342.
"Vitamins for Serotonin Production: B6, Niacin, Folic Acid, Cobalamin & D." Nootriment Supplement Reviews and Healthy Ideas. 26 Jan. 2015. Web. 11 May 2015.