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Mood Control - Food, Neurotransmitters And Reclaiming Your Calm

You and I know that we can't always control what happens in our lives, but we can control how we respond to them. What happens however when your having a bad week, your peri-menopausal or pre-menstrual? Well science might have an answer.

Let me introduce you to the world of brain chemistry and a powerful group of natural chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. The communication network in your brain is a multi-trillion maze of connections capable of performing 20 million-billion calculations per second. Yes, I did say 20 billion!

How does this intricate network operate? Well there are three major players:

  • Neurons, which power the message,
  • Neurotransmitters, which create the message and
  • Receptors, which receive the message.

In simple words, a neurotransmitter is a chemical messenger released from one nerve cell which finds its way to another nerve cell where it influences a particular chemical reaction to occur. Neurotransmitters control major body functions including movement, emotional response, and our physical ability to experience pleasure and pain.

Neurotransmitters also set in motion specific functions within our body and our nervous system. These transmitters can create and control a range of feelings, moods and even thoughts - everything from depression, anxiety and addiction, to feelings of self-confidence, to high or low self-esteem, the competitive spirit and can even affect our deep sleep.

A neurotransmitter imbalance can cause Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, irritable bowel, hormone dysfunction, eating disorders, Fibromyalgia, obsessions, compulsions, adrenal dysfunction, chronic pain, migraine headaches, and even early death. Scientific and medical research indicates that our brains use more than 35 different neurotransmitters, some of these we can control and some we can't.

It appears, however, that we can control five of the major neurotransmitters with exercise and nutrition, and with our thoughts and behaviours.

Most neurotransmitters are made from amino acids obtained from the protein in food you consume. Two of the most important neurotransmitters are serotonin and dopamine, sometimes called the 'happy' drugs. They seem to play a leading role in determining our moods and thoughts.

Dopamine, fuel for enthusiasm and motivation

The brain uses dopamine to stimulate arousal, alertness, awareness and our competitive spirit (a form of mild aggression). Dopamine is also essential for coordinated muscle movement.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter needed for healthy assertiveness and sexual arousal, proper immune and autonomic nervous system function. Dopamine is important for motivation and a sense of readiness to meet life's challenges.

One of the most vulnerable key neurotransmitters, dopamine levels are depleted by stress or poor sleep. Alcohol, caffeine, and sugar also seem to diminish dopamine activity in the brain. It's easily oxidized, therefore we need to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables whose antioxidants help protect dopamine-using neurons from free radical damage.

Dopamine is made from the amino acid tyrosine. Once produced, dopamine can, in turn, convert into the brain chemicals norepinephrine and epinephrine.

Low levels of dopamine can cause depression, a lack of energy, an excessive need for sleep, and can even make you withdraw from everyday events, such as going to work or wanting to be with people.

Dopamine is a building block for the production of adrenaline, which stimulates us into action if we are frightened or anxious. These natural drugs are also necessary for us to be competitive, especially in highly- competitive sports, business and corporate life.

Boost your alertness with protein. Without going into the detailed chemistry of the brain, small amounts (100-to-150 grams) of protein-rich food will elevate dopamine levels and have significant effects on your moods and brain functions. The effects can be felt within 10-to-30 minutes. Protein foods are broken down into their amino acid building blocks during digestion. One amino acid, called tyrosine, will increase the production of dopamine, nor epinephrine and epinephrine. These neurotransmitters are known for their ability to increase levels of alertness and energy. No one eats pure tyrosine, but eating foods high in protein will give you a slight mental boost. High protein foods include fish, poultry, meat, and eggs. If you can't eat those, try high protein foods that also contain significant amount of carbohydrates, such as legumes, cheese, milk, or tofu.

Many of us eat a high carbohydrate breakfast as cereals have become the common form of morning meal. One of my friends is a highly respected bio-pharmacist and it is his opinion that breakfast is the time of day for eating a high protein meal.

Serotonin, reclaiming your calm

Serotonin is the calming neurotransmitter important to the maintenance of good mood, feelings of contentment and is responsible for normal sleep. In addition to the central nervous system, serotonin is also found in the walls of the intestine (the enteric nervous system) and in platelet cells that promote blood clotting.

Serotonin plays an important role in regulating memory, learning, and blood pressure, as well as appetite and body temperature. Low serotonin levels produce insomnia and depression, aggressive behavior, increased sensitivity to pain, and is associated with obsessive-compulsive eating disorders.

This neurotransmitter also helps the brain focus, heightening your concentration levels.

Low levels of serotonin can create anxiety, a feeling of insecurity, anger, fear, depression, and can even induce suicidal thoughts. Now have you ever wondered why you eat more in winter? It has a lot to do with your level of serotonin, or your lack of it and a condition called appropriately enough S.A.D. or Seasonal Affected Disorder.

With the lack of sunlight in winter, the body produces higher levels of a hormone called melatonin, which consumes your serotonin. Research has shown that when this happens, the body craves carbohydrates, which produce serotonin and makes us feel good. This is when we crave those comfort foods such as biscuits, pizza or chocolate!

Eating carbohydrates will trigger the release of insulin into the blood stream. Insulin goes about clearing all the amino acids out of the blood, with the exception of tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid that normally gets crowded out by other amino acids in its attempt to cross the blood brain barrier, but when its competitors are out of the way, it enters the brain. Once in the brain, the tryptophan is converted to serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that has the effect of reducing pain, decreasing appetite, and producing a sense of calm, and in too large a quantity, inducing sleep. Research has shown that dieters tend to become depressed about two weeks into a diet, about the time their serotonin levels have dropped due to decreased carbohydrate intake.

In summer sunlight reduces your production of melatonin, the serotonin eater and therefore it is easier to diet in summer. Summer makes us feel great and this theory could explain why people head for the sun during winter.

This gave me a clue as to why I became a carbohydrate addict - the more carbohydrates I ate the more serotonin I produced and like any drug addict I craved more and more carbs to get a higher and higher kick of the 'feel goods'. The result was that I became fat, even though I went to the gym four or five times a week! My energy levels dropped, I was constantly tired and became extremely difficult to live with. I didn't want to go to the gym. I was overdosing on carbohydrates which leads to a another hormonal disorder called insulin resistance.

Serotonin is synthesized from tryptophan in the presence of adequate vitamins B1, B3, B6, and folic acid. The best food sources of tryptophan include brown rice, cottage cheese, meat, peanuts, and sesame seeds. Choline is another B complex vitamin that that is concentrated in high cholesterol foods like eggs and liver. A lack of choline can cause impairment of memory and concentration. Choline is a precursor to the brain neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is linked to memory. People given drugs that block acetylcholine flunk memory tests. Low levels of acetylcholine have been linked to Alzheimer's disease and poor memory. What a good excuse to put eggs back on your diet plan!

How You Can Control the Natural 'happy drugs'.

Being balanced is the answer, not too much or too little of anything. Excessive protein or carbohydrates over time will eventually have side effects that will affect how you feel and behave at work and at home.

Eating certain food and exercising at the right level, at the right time for your lifestyle is a keystone to controlling your moods and generating feelings of happiness and relaxation.

If you are a professional athlete, you require a different approach to control your neurotransmitters to a teacher, a taxi driver or a CEO. Also, every person's body chemistry is different and needs to be taken into account. I recommend you consult a nutritionist who understands how food and neurotransmitters work to meet your health needs and lifestyle.

There's a lot more to brain chemistry, mood control and peak performance, but that's food for another article.


Small amounts (100-to-150g) of protein-rich food will elevate dopamine levels and have significant effects on your moods and brain functions. That's why many nutritionists recommend a little protein with your breakfast. It boosts your energy and gives you that rush to seize the day.

A List of Ways to Control Neurotransmitters

Some proteins that affect dopamine levels are:
  • Fish such as salmon, unprocessed tuna, and flounder.
  • Chicken without the skin, eggs and turkey.
  • Small amounts of red meat.
  • Beans, such chickpeas and lentils.
  • Aerobic exercise and dopamine levels

    If you need to temporarily reduce your levels of dopamine to relax, non-competitive (why non-competitive? competition raises levels of dopamine) aerobic exercise could help such as:

    • Running and walking for effective health benefits.
    • Skipping.
    • Rowing at the gym.
    • Vigorous cycling at the gym or on a home exercise bike.
    Some carbohydrates that affect serotonin levels
  • Whole grains such as brown rice, oats, and corn.
  • Good quality breads, pasta and bagels.
  • Vegetables such as potatoes and squash.
  • Simple sugar.
  • Exercise and serotonin

    To control the Serotonin you need less vigorous exercise such as:

    • Strolling in the park or along your favourite beach.
    • Gentle cycling along a river bank or flat bike paths.
    • Stretching exercises.
    • Gentle Yoga.
    • Reading.
    • Listening to music.
    • Meditation and even prayer (The best type of prayer to control serotonin levels is a prayer of gratitude).