Wintertime can be a tough time of year to keep your moods balanced. You may feel a little down, unmotivated, sluggish and a little depressed. That’s because the sun isn’t around as much helping us to build serotonin and vitamin D. Here are some tips to stay happy and optimistic no matter what the weather!
By Tom Malterre
Anxiety and depression are often treated with medication that alters the effect of a mood hormone called serotonin. When serotonin levels in the brain are high, people are calm, patient, and optimistic. When levels are low, people can suffer from anxiety, depression, or become irritable. Is it possible to alter this hormone with diet? Absolutely! Serotonin is made in the body from an essential amino acid called tryptophan with the help of nutrients such as folic acid (think beans and greens as good sources), vitamin B6 (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, collards, garlic), and vitamin C (papaya, bell peppers, broccoli, papaya, strawberries). Unfortunately, tryptophan happens to be the least plentiful of 22 common amino acids in our typical diets with a meager average intake of 1 to 1.5 g per day.
Tryptophan also has a few more hurdles before it can get to the brain and make serotonin. If a person is deficient in vitamin B3 (niacin), 60mg of that person’s tryptophan may be used up in order to make 1mg of niacin. If what little tryptophan that is around makes it to the blood brain barrier, it has to compete with 5 other amino acids (phenylalanine, tyrosine, isoleucine, leucine, and valine) in order to actually get passage into the brain. The sorry truth is that approximately 1% of ingested tryptophan ends up in the brain, and unless people are eating lots of fruits and vegetables rich in folic acid, vitamin C, and B6, the conversion to serotonin might not be too good.
What can you do with your diet to increase the odds of getting more serotonin?
1. Eat complex carbohydrates with every protein rich meal, and eat less meat as a protein source. Complex carbohydrates stimulate the secretion of insulin at a steady rate from the pancreas. Insulin acts like a key to allow muscles to suck up the amino acids that compete with tryptophan for passage into the brain. With less competition at the blood brain barrier, then significantly more tryptophan passes easily where it is needed most. This may be why depressed people naturally crave carbohydrates: to stimulate the production of more of the anti-depressant neurotransmitter serotonin. The key to this process is making sure these are unrefined, low glycemic load (raise blood sugar slowly) carbohydrates like beans, legumes, and whole grains. Refined carbohydrates and sugar-laden foods like pastries, sweetened cereals, beverages, or candy can cause a quick spike in insulin. This may cause an opposite effect of having tryptophan being converted to things other than serotonin. Meat contains higher amounts of the amino acids that compete with tryptophan to become serotonin. Vegetarian meals allow for higher serotonin levels in the brain.
2. Eat plenty of the fruits and vegetables that contain the needed nutrients to help in the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin. For example, broccoli is a good source for folic acid, vitamin C, and vitamin B6. All dark green leafy vegetables are very beneficial as well.
3. Stay away from foods that irritate your upper intestinal tract. People that have reactions to either dairy (casein, whey, and/or lactose), or gluten (wheat, barley, rye) often have compromised digestion (breaking food particles from large to small), and absorption in the upper intestinal tract. Unfortunately, this may leave them with lower amounts of important mood nutrients such as tryptophan and folic acid in their bodies. Studies show that even celiac patients who have been on a gluten-free diet for 10 years may need additional folic acid supplementation to bring levels back to normal.
4. Realize that the consumption of gluten may alter mood all by itself if a person is immunologically reactive to it. Even the National Institute for Health recognizes that one of the most common symptoms in children with gluten sensitivities is behavior change including ADD/ADHD like behavior. International gluten expert Dr. Peter Green stated his New England Journal of Medicine review article that around 50% of all gluten reactions take place outside of the intestinal tract in places like the central nervous system.
5. If depression, anxiety, or insomnia is persistent it is often advised that you consult your health care practitioner about nutritional supplementation or further testing to evaluate the disorder. Many alternative practitioners consider recommending supplemental tryptophan, 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), 5-MTHF (5-methyltetrahydrofolate), vitamin B6, and other nutrients as well as dietary change. We recommend you consult your health care practitioner as mood disorders may be quite serious.
***This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended for diagnoses or treatment of any disorder.