What you eat can have a profound effect on your brain chemistry, which not only improves your mood, but can also give you the energy and motivation to make positive changes in your life.
Foods to Make You Happy!
Glucose is the main fuel for the brain and a steady supply is vital for mood and mental performance. Balancing blood sugar helps provide this steady supply. Aim to eat and snack regularly (three main meals, two snacks). Choose whole foods – whole grains, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, fresh fruits and vegetables. Avoid processed foods, high-sugar foods, refined flour, white rice, and stimulants such as coffee, tea and colas. Combine protein with complex carbohydrates to slow the release of glucose into the blood.
Foods rich in complex carbohydrates, like whole grains, oats and lentils, also increase GABA, the brain’s natural anti-anxiety chemical. GABA induces relaxation, reduces stress and anxiety, and increases focus.
A common cause of feeling the blues is having an imbalance in key neurotransmitters – chemical messengers like GABA, serotonin and adrenalin, that are needed to motivate and make you feel happy and well. All the major anti-depressant drugs are designed to influence the balance of these neurotransmitters, however they are also directly influenced by nutrition.
Essential fats regulate the release and performance of serotonin, our ‘happy hormone’, and low levels are linked to depression. Omega 3 and 6 fats should account for one third of our total fat intake, and should be in a 1:1 ratio with each other. Essential fats are found in abundance in nuts and seeds (flax, hemp, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, brazil nuts, walnuts, sunflower and sesame seeds) and oily fish (wild salmon, mackerel, fresh tuna, anchovies and sardines). Minimise your intake of fried food, saturated fat from meat and dairy, and alcohol, all of which disrupt the brain’s ability to utilize essential fats.
High stress, blood sugar imbalances, not enough light and lack of building-block vitamins can all lead to low serotonin. The body uses the amino acid tryptophan to make serotonin. Tryptophan is found in many high protein foods, including chicken, turkey, fish, cheese, beans, tofu, oats and eggs. Have a baked potato with cottage cheese or tuna, oat-based porridge or a salmon fillet with quinoa and lentil pilaf, to increase your intake and boost your mood.
The amino acid tyrosine is essential for making dopamine and noradrenalin, chemicals which influence your motivation. Tyrosine is found in many high protein foods, including chicken, turkey, fish, milk, cheese, cottage cheese, yoghurt, lima beans, almonds, sesame and pumpkin seeds.
The B vitamins, especially B6, B12 and folic acid, help produce and balance the brain’s neurotransmitters. Increase your intake of B vitamins by eating more whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa and couscous, dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale, and lentils. B12 is found is meat, fish, dairy products and eggs.
Try to get daily exercise to relieve stress. Exercises like running cause endorphins to be produced in the brain, which create a sense of mental wellbeing and calm. Researchers have also found that doing yoga increases levels of the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain, so this may be particularly useful if anxiety is a problem.
Gomez-Pinilla F (2008) Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function, Nature, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9: 568-578
Streeter CC et al (2007) Yoga Asana sessions increase brain GABA levels: a pilot study, Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 13(4): 419-26