Mid-afternoon and your energy slumps. You are feeling a bit gloomy and unmotivated. You wander into the kitchen to make a cup of tea and find yourself standing at the counter finishing that bag of dark chocolate chunk cookies. If you are quarantined at home you may be feeling emotions like sadness, loneliness, grief, or anxiety. Are you noticing that some of your eating habits have changed?
We can’t control what happens in the world around us, but we can determine how we choose to manage our emotions, and what you eat is one way to do just that.
Eat foods high in tryptophan to help make more serotonin
Serotonin, the feel-good happy chemical, is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate your sleep and low levels are linked to depression and anxiety. In order to produce serotonin, the brain needs tryptophan, an essential amino acid that must come from our diet and studies show a relationship between dietary tryptophan and depression 1 Clams, oysters, squid, turkey, spinach, eggs, pineapple, plums, bananas, nuts and some dairy are all good sources of tryptophan.
Don’t eat a diet too high in protein
Tryptophan requires a transmitter to cross into the brain, but it competes with other amino acids for a seat on the bus in that transmitter! So, a diet too high in proteins will actually make less serotonin available to the brain. Seek to plan meals that balance some protein with healthy carbs.
Include healthy carbs in your diet
Including healthy carbs will help release insulin which will encourage the muscles to take in more protein while our friend tryptophan stays in the blood and is available to help synthesize serotonin. That could be one reason why we crave those chocolate chunk cookies when we have the blues. A better option may be a quinoa salad with roasted sweet potato and sliced turkey, or a bowl of oatmeal with fresh banana, apple and some yogurt.
Boost your dopamine levels
Eat foods high in tyrosine and phenylalanine which support the production of dopamine, your reward neurotransmitter, encouraging feelings of pleasure and to access more motivation. 2 Organic beef, pork, fish, chicken, and eggs, are high in these amino acids, and if you are vegan fava beans, nuts, edamame, whole grains and raw organic cocoa are all good choices.
Get your Omega-3’s
The brain is made mostly of fat. Healthy fats like DHA helps with the electrical activity needed for thoughts, emotions and the synthesis of dopamine. Foods high in omega 3’s are fatty fish like organic wild salmon, flax seeds, soybeans and walnuts. I recommend taking a supplement if you can if you think you may not be getting enough of these healthy fats. Look for a high-quality supplement that has been third part tested.
Avoid foods high in Omega 6
When Omega 6 levels are high, Omega 3 is not as efficient in the body. Our current American diet is much too high in Omega 6, causing increased inflammation. Foods high in Omega 6 include oils like canola, sunflower, soybean and corn found in most processed and fried foods.
Mama was right – eat more fruits and veggies
A randomized controlled trial in Australia showed that eating more fruits and veggies, following a Mediterranean style diet and limiting refined carbs, sugar and processed foods improved scores associated with depression and anxiety in young adults. 3 A Mediterranean diet includes lots of fresh vegetables, fish, beans, grains and extra virgin olive oil.
Get your vitamin D
Low levels of vitamin D have been associated with higher levels of depression 5 and most of us have lower than ideal levels when tested. Even if you do can outside and get some natural sunlight it is a good idea to take a Vitamin D supplement and include foods like egg yolk, fatty fish, and mushrooms. Many foods are now fortified with Vitamin D, so read labels.
Keep your gut happy
We are now learning that the bacteria and cells of your intestine produce serotonin 4 and dopamine – so keep your gut happy with lots of veggies and prebiotic foods like bananas, apples, oats, asparagus, garlic and onion. (Read more here!) These foods support the growth of probiotics, and studies are showing that beneficial bacteria in the gut influences your brains activity in a positive way.
Include a wide range of foods in your meals, and if you follow a special diet for health or lifestyle reasons, or certain foods are not available for you right now, it may be a good idea to supplement as needed. If you are unsure as to whether or not you are getting all the nutrients you need, consult with a certified nutritionist.