It is that time of year where there is so much cheer, but not everyone feels the joy. The holiday season often brings unwelcome guests — stress, depression and chaos. And it's no wonder. The holidays present a dizzying array of demands — parties, shopping, baking, cleaning, entertaining and financial strain to name just a few.
When your brain’s chemical transmitters (neurotransmitters) are healthy and in balance, you may think more clearly, feel less anxious and enjoy a more positive outlook and you may look upon the holiday season with joyful anticipation. When they are not working optimally, then we can find challenges in our everyday activities, but particularly during the holiday season, as it can bring up many complex issues.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that coordinate the transmission of signals from one nerve cell (neuron) to the next. Abnormalities in how the brain receives and processes these chemicals can have a big effect on your emotions and moods.
There are many major and minor signaling chemicals in the brain. The major neurotransmitters in your brain include glutamate and GABA, the main excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters respectively, as well as neuromodulators including chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and acetylcholine.
There are many nutrients essential to the synthesis and regulation of neurotransmitters, including amino acids (especially the precursors tryptophan and tyrosine), choline, vitamin C, B-vitamins (especially B6, B12, and folate), large amino acids (i.e., valine, leucine, isoleucine, phenylalanine), zinc, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin D. There are certain foods known for their overall benefits for the brain. One example is tea, most likely due in part because theanine increases serotonin, dopamine, and GABA levels in the brain.
The individual neurotransmitters have their own required substrates, including many of the nutrients listed above, which you generally need to get through your diet.
Glutamate (memory transmitter)
Glutamate acts as the major excitatory neurotransmitter. The brain produces its own glutamate from glucose. Although you can find many foods containing glutamate, it does not cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB). The body requires alpha-ketoglutarate or the glutamate amino acids, which include glutamine, arginine, histidine and proline, for the endogenous synthesis of glutamate.
What to eat: Consuming protein-rich foods, especially meat sources, will generally provide these amino acids. Foods richest in arginine include turkey breast, pumpkin seeds, soybeans, eggs, and sesame seeds. Foods containing histidine include turkey breast, soybeans, and eggs. Avoid MSG.
GABA (calming transmitter)
Glutamate is also the precursor to gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA, the main inhibitory neurotransmitter. In the brain, glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD) converts glutamate into GABA. GABA is also synthesized in the gut, generally thanks to your friendly bacteria. According to one study, 43% of human-gut derived strains of Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus were able to produce GABA. The bacteria-produced GABA in the gut most likely plays a role in the enteric nervous system (ENS) and/or stimulates the vagus nerve, providing some of its benefits. So,
What to eat: Chia seeds are rich in GABA, especially if they are germinated. Fermented foods are another source of GABA, thanks to GABA-producing microbes. Lactic acid bacteria are generally the GABA producers. There were also food-derived strains, including L. brevis and L. plantarum species. These could be found in foods like kimchi, paocai, sourdough bread, cheese, and yogurt. One study found fermented soybean to be a good source of a new glutamic acid-producing bacteria, which is used to create GABA. Check out our blog on Chia Pudding Recipes.
Serotonin (mood transmitter)
Consuming serotonin might not have a similar impact on your brain and mood because it cannot pass the blood-brain barrier (BBB). The serotonin is generally metabolized upon ingestion, which could lead to a temporary increase in plasma 5-HIAA levels, which is a metabolite of serotonin. In one study, consuming these serotonin-rich foods led to a significant elevation in 5-HIAA, peaking at about 2 hours after ingestion, but this is rapidly cleared.
What to eat for serotonin: banana, walnuts, and pineapple.
Like GABA, your gut microbiome can synthesize serotonin by metabolizing tryptophan. As stated, almost all of your serotonin is found in your gut, where it plays an important role in the ENS and acts as a paracrine hormone. More and more evidence point to serotonin’s role in gut health with low levels resulting in an imbalance of gut serotonin, which contributes to digestive problems. Although consuming serotonin might not impact your brain levels of the neurotransmitter, consuming tryptophan might. This essential amino acid is necessary for the synthesis of serotonin. The dietary tryptophan-serotonin connection is much stronger than any of the other amino acid substrates of the other neurotransmitters.
What to eat for tryptophan: eggs, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, white beans, sesame seeds, mung beans, split peas, and kidney beans, as well as some nuts and grains.
Studies have found that consuming higher levels of tryptophan can lead to a higher synthesis of serotonin. To gain the benefits of tryptophan in your diet, you must have sufficient levels of B6 as well. That is because B6 plays a role in the synthesis of tryptophan to serotonin, as well as other neurotransmitters.
Catecholamines: Dopamine, Epinephrine, and Norepinephrine (pleasure, concentration transmitter)
The catecholamines include the neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. These generally rely on the amino acid tyrosine for synthesis, but they might also use phenylalanine.
What to eat: protein-rich foods are a great place to start for tyrosine. Those richest in tyrosine include turkey, eggs, and soybeans.
However, it requires more than just ingestion of protein to get the most out of consuming the substrates for the catecholamines. Much like tryptophan and serotonin, what you eat with it might influence its ability to impact neurotransmitter synthesis. About half of synthesized dopamine is created in the gut, but then almost immediately inactivated using the sulfotransferase SULT1A3. Free dopamine can become norepinephrine and epinephrine, and these also tend to circulate in a sulfated form. Certain foods have been shown to inhibit the sulfotransferases that sulfurize the catecholamines, which could impact health as these catecholamines would be free to act as signaling molecules, either in their neurotransmitter or hormone capacity.
What to eat to inhibit SULT1A3: red wine, citrus fruits, orange juice, lingonberry juice, bananas, coffee, tea, chocolate, and vanilla.
Acetylcholine (learning transmitter)
Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that allows communication between cells in your brain. Acetylcholine is also the neurotransmitter that controls the contraction of skeletal muscle, the muscle the moves your body as opposed to the muscles of your heart and digestive system and is produced from the essential nutrient choline that you must obtain in your diet. Choline is an essential nutrient and a building block of acetylcholine.
What to eat: high-fat dairy products, fish, meat and poultry, especially egg yokes and whole eggs
While adding these nutrient rich food options to your daily food routine is a great first step to replenishing your neurotransmitters, however there is more to the story. If you recall when reading the above information, many of these neurotransmitters are synthesized in the gut. So, what does that mean? Well, simply put, gut health is a key component in your neurotransmitter levels.
Your gut and brain are connected through chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters produced in the brain control feelings and emotions. For example, the neurotransmitter serotonin contributes to feelings of happiness and also helps control your body clock. Many of the neurotransmitters we discussed are also produced by your gut cells and the trillions of microbes living there. A large proportion of serotonin is produced in the gut. Your gut microbes also produce a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which helps control feelings of fear and anxiety. As well, as the gut plays a role in dopamine synthesis.
As you can see, you need a healthy gut to help with your moods. If you wish to dive deeper into bringing balance to your neurotransmitters, reach out to us at Nourish Functional Health. We have a detailed in-take process that includes neurotransmitter questionnaires, neurotransmitter testing, targeted amino acid therapy and can begin the process of looking for root imbalances in your gut by running Functional Stool Testing to help bring homoeostasis to your gut and ultimately your moods!
Have a Nourishing Day!