Breakthroughs in brain-chemistry research teach us how we can use food to fine-tune feelings and enhance health.
When Susan, who is often overwhelmed with fatigue, “self-medicates” with low-fat yogurt, she feels energized not too long after consuming the dairy food. Her sister, Jayne, who tends to be edgy, irritable, and nervous, “de-stresses” by eating some wild, canned salmon. More and more, their dad, Tom, has frequent memory lapses and trouble recalling information; he snacks on peanuts to manage his memory. For as long as they can recall, their mom has grappled with cravings for carbohydrates, feeling blue and bloated, and depressed about her stubborn weight gain; munching on air-popped popcorn seems to have helped her symptoms.
The “Fab Four”
Before Susan, Jayne, and their parents became aware that natural “chemical messengers” (neurotransmitters) released from foods they choose can modify their moods, alleviate anxiety, bolster brain power—even curb the urge to splurge on that donut—they continued to consume their usual “routine cuisine.” Then they learned about four key neurotransmitters—dopamine, acetylcholine, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and serotonin—that influence everything from their energy and mood to memory and metabolism. When these “fab four” hormones are in balance, your mind-body is poised for peak performance. But when one or more dip and cause an imbalance, symptoms ranging from fatigue and anxiety to confusion and weight gain can manifest. The good news: You can choose “designer foods” to reduce unpleasant feelings and unwelcome behaviors.
- Enhance Energy
Have you ever felt fatigue or lethargy throughout the day, even after a full night’s sleep? If low energy is typical for you, the cause could be dopamine deficiency. From fabulous flavors to sensual scents, if your brain interprets a food (or activity) as pleasurable, and you tend to turn to it for a “pleasure hit,” it may be because you’re seeking the “feel-good” response of dopamine. In essence, dopamine works its wonders by stimulating the central nervous system (
Dopamine Rx. The pleasure-producing ingredients in high-protein foods are the amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine, building blocks of both protein and dopamine. To elevate mood and energy, consider consuming cheese wedges, low-fat yogurt, or lean meat.
- Alleviate Anxiety
If anxiety, nervousness, and irritability—with bouts of indigestion and trouble sleeping—are all too familiar symptoms, it may mean you have low levels of GABA. A nerve chemical and nerve modulator that stimulates the central nervous system (
GABA Rx. Take action to produce more GABA by choosing foods high in the B-vitamins, especially B6. Although the mechanism of how B6 affects the nervous system and brain isn’t completely understood, even marginal intakes influence levels of GABA (and other mood-modifying neurotransmitters). Boost dietary intake of this B vitamin with whole grains, dark leafy greens, bananas, avocados, and protein-rich chicken, fish, legumes, and nuts.
Some older people call it a “senior moment”; others who find it hard to recall information might say they’re experiencing a memory lapse. Those who study food and mood may interpret such symptoms
of “brain fog” to be a sign of acetylcholine deficiency. Produced in the brain by the fatlike substance choline, this nerve chemical is a building block of myelin, which helps
Acetylcholine Rx. To manage general mental functioning, boost brain levels of this memory manager by consuming choline-rich foods. A sampling: wheat germ, fish, eggs, blueberries and peanuts, all of which convert into acetylcholine during digestion.
- Curtail Cravings
Do you crave high-carbohydrate, high-salt foods, such as cookies, cake, and chips—especially when you’re feeling blue? Do you feel hungry even when you’re full? Is weight gain a constant? If so, your supply of serotonin may be low. Soothing serotonin is a natural antidepressant; it also contributes to stable blood sugar levels, which in turn, prevents food cravings and the urge to overeat.
Serotonin Rx. To produce more serotonin, seek out foods rich in the amino acid tryptophan, such as avocado, poultry, and wheat germ. Other options include foods high in complex carbohydrates, such as potatoes (with the skin), beans, and whole grains.
Savoring Food and Feelings
Some call it “nutritional neuroscience,” “psychoneuroimmunology,” or the study of “food and mood”; I refer to the link between nutrients in food we consume and brain chemistry as “psychological nutrition.” Whatever this fledgling science is called, it provides a peek into how food and the mind-body work together. By being aware of this connection, each food we choose to eat may be looked at as an opportunity not only to feed the body but also to “fine-tune” our moods and emotions. And as it does, food becomes a path to self-understanding, a vehicle for catching a glimpse into the mystery of transformation—ever so subtly.
Deborah Kesten, MPH, is the award-winning author of Feeding the Body, Nourishing the Soul; The Healing Secrets of Food; and most recently, The Enlightened Diet. Visit her and her pioneering Whole Person Nutrition Program at .