Just about everyone knows that nutrition affects our risk of heart disease and many other health problems. But it’s easy to miss the connection between food, certain nutrients, and brain health. Quite simply, nutrients form the foundation of our brain chemistry and, specifically, the neurotransmitters and other compounds that govern our moods.
Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that keep our moods on an even keel. They also help us adapt to changing situations. For example, experiences from sex to grief affect neurotransmitter levels. However, if our neurotransmitters are out of balance, they can lead to depression, anxiety, or addictions.
Most of the major neurotransmitters—serotonin is perhaps the best known one—are built on a foundation of amino acids (protein building blocks) and vitamins and minerals. Fats also play a huge role in brain chemistry and neurotransmitters. I refer to all of these nutritional building blocks as “neuronutrients.”
Fats Are Good for Your Brain
Used as a putdown, the term “fat head” should actually be a compliment. That’s because the brain consists of 60 percent fat, including cholesterol, phospholipids, and essential fatty acids. Myelin, the protective sheath that wraps around neurons and nerves, consists of 70 percent fat. In fact, one of the myelin fats is oleic acid, which is also found in olive oil and avocados.
Cholesterol. So often maligned,cholesterol is essential for brain development and normal brain function. The blood-brain barrier prevents the transport of dietary cholesterol into the brain, so the brain must make its own. One of the key building blocks of cholesterol is coenzyme A, which itself is dependent on the presence of adequate pantothenic acid (vitamin B5).
The brain is actually the most cholesterol-rich organ and contains about 20 percent of the body’s total cholesterol. It is needed to form dendrites (the branches that extend outward from neurons) and synapses (the connections between neurons). A lack of brain cholesterol leads to the breakdown of dendrites and synapses, blocked communication between neurons, and decreased plasticity (or adaptability) of synapses.
Essential Fatty Acids. Both omega-3 and omega-6 fats play essential roles in the developing brains of infants, but the omega-3s appear to exert a more positive effect in adulthood. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are required for the normal development of the brain, eyes, and nervous system. Arachidonic acid, which can be pro-inflammatory, is also needed for normal brain development in infancy.
EPA and DHA, abundant in fish oils and some types of vegetarian omega-3 supplements, are incorporated into the membranes (walls) of brain cells, where they enhance the activity of genes involved in neurotransmitter activity and connections between brain cells.[i] Considerable research has found that EPA and DHA benefit a wide range of mood problems, including depression, bipolar disorder, poor memory, impulsiveness, hostility, and physical aggressiveness. [ii] [iii] [iv] [v] Try: 1-3 grams of omega-3s daily.
Phospholipids. The two principal dietary phospholipids are phosphatidylserine (combining a phosphorus-containing fat with the amino acid serine) and phosphatidylcholine (combining a phosphorus-containing fat with the B-vitamin choline). Both phospholipids are incorporated into the fatty membranes of brain cells, where they enhance communication between cells. They can also improve memory and mood and might slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. [vi] [vii] [viii] [ix] [x] A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that a combination of EPA, DHA, and phosphatidylserine improved attention span in hyperactive children.[xi]
Try: Lecithin granules contain large amounts of phosphatidylserine and phosphatidylcholine, although both phospholipids are available as standalone supplements.
The ideal state of mind is probably one in which we respond appropriately to different situations, without experiencing extremes or mood disorders. Supplements can serve a number of important roles. They form the chemical substrates, or foundations, for more complex brain chemicals. They can enhance weak biochemical pathways, what some nutritionally-oriented physicians have called “precursor therapy.”
Serotonin. This neurotransmitter has anti-depressive, anti-anxiety, and sleep-promoting benefits—it is one of the body’s key calming neurotransmitters. Serotonin is built on the amino acid L-tryptophan. With the help of vitamin B6, L-tryptophan gets converted to 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP). In the next step, vitamins C and B3 help complete 5-HTP’s conversion to serotonin. Try: 500 mg of L-tryptophan, or 50 mg of 5-HTP, one to three times daily.
Melatonin. Although melatonin is technically a hormone, it interacts with both hormones and neurotransmitters. The body makes it from serotonin through a series of chemical reactions, and some of these reactions depend on the presence of folate. (Methylfolate is the active form of the nutrient.) Melatonin suppresses the activity of stimulating neurotransmitters, partly by counteracting cortisol, the stress hormone made by the adrenal glands. Try:250 mcg to 5 mg about an hour before bed. Start at a low dose and slowly increase to find the right dosage for you; you’ve taken too much if you’re groggy the next morning.
GABA. Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) is both an amino acid and a calming neurotransmitter. The brain can make it from either glutamate or L-glutamine, and GABA production depends on vitamins B3, B6, and B12. GABA helps the brain filter out nonessential sensory information, sort of like blocking out background noise. [xii] By doing this, it allows the brain to deal with the most important sensory information, leading to improved mental focus and reduced anxiety. People with anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, epilepsy, and schizophrenia often have low levels of GABA. Try: 500 mg one to three times daily.
L-Theanine. Although L-theanine is not technically a neurotransmitter, it has neurotransmitter-like effects. It is an amino acid found almost exclusively in the leaves of Camellia sinensis, the source of green, black, and oolong teas. L-theanine boosts the brain’s levels of alpha waves, which promote a combination of relaxation and mental sharpness, similar to the effects of meditation. [xiii] [xiv] increase brain levels of GABA. Theanine remains intact through digestion, and its effect on brain waves generally occurs within 30 to 40 minutes of consumption. Its benefits may last as long as 12 hours. Try: 50-100 mg one to three times daily.
N-acetylcysteine (NAC). This antioxidant influences several neurotransmitter pathways, including glutamate (and therefore GABA) and dopamine. Based on a growing body of research, NAC may be the most important single nutrient for controlling addictive behaviors. NAC supplements can greatly reduce cravings for cocaine, interest in gambling, and might even lessen the desire for alcohol. Other studies have found that it is especially helpful in resolving obsessive-compulsive behaviors, including nail biting, hair pulling, skin picking, and self-mutilation. [xv] [xvi] [xvii] [xviii] [xix] [xx] [xxi] [xii] Try: 500-600 mg, two to four times daily, with or without food.
Most of the body’s natural “uppers” share the same nutritional foundation—specifically, the amino acid L-tyrosine. L-tyrosine plays roles in several major biochemical pathways that affect mood. Because of this common foundation, I’ll offer dosage recommendations at the end of this section.
L-Dopa. The pharmaceutical version of L-dopa is often used to treat symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. However, the body can make its own L-dopa if it has adequate amounts of the correct building blocks. L-tyrosine needs folic acid, vitamin B6, magnesium, zinc, and S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe) to make L-dopa.
Dopamine. With the help of vitamin B6, L-dopa gets converted to dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is our pleasure and “natural high” neurotransmitter. On the positive side, it helps people focus their attention and enjoy pleasurable experiences. Enjoying sex and experiencing a “shopper’s high” are both related to elevated dopamine levels. Low dopamine levels are often found in people with sleep disorders, apathy, depression, and heightened sensitivity to pain.
But excessive dopamine can play a role in drug addiction and risk taking. Cocaine blocks the normal breakdown of dopamine, leading to high levels of this stimulating neurotransmitter. Similarly, methamphetamine acts like a super-dopamine and also reduces serotonin transport in the brain by at least half. With high dopamine and low serotonin activity, it’s impossible to feel calm.
Norepinephrine. The brain converts dopamine to norepinephrine, also known as noradrenaline. Vitamins C and B6, along with copper, are needed for this conversion. Norepinephrine plays key roles in upbeat moods, wakefulness, motivation, sexual arousal, learning, and memory. Low norepinephine levels can be a factor in mood disorders, fatigue, lack of ambition, excessive sleep, depression, and anorexia. Meanwhile, high levels can contribute to anxiety, insulin resistance (prediabetes), obesity, feelings of stress, and high blood pressure.
Epinephrine. Also known as adrenaline, epinephrine serves as a stress hormone and neurotransmitter. Faced with danger or stress, epinephrine almost instantly sharpens the mind, boosts blood sugar, and primes muscles for a “fight-or-flight” response. Excess adrenaline can be a factor in anxiety, hyperactivity, and feelings of stress. Meanwhile, low levels may result in fatigue, weight gain, poor concentration, and adrenal insufficiency (i.e., weak adrenal glands and a poor response to stress).
Try: Depression and other problems discussed in this section may respond to L-tyrosine and supportive nutrients. One approach would be to take 500 mg of L-tyrosine 15 minutes before consuming anything except water in the morning and, later, a high-potency multivitamin. For the occasional “blue” day, take 500 mg of L-tyrosine in the morning along with a vitamin B12 tablet dissolved under the tongue. Large amounts of L-tyrosine may raise blood pressure.
Finally, there’s intriguing research showing that gut health—and probiotics—can influence moods. Kirsten Tillisch, MD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, recently found that women consuming “live bacteria” probiotics did a far better job of coping with stress and anxiety when compared with women who ate yogurt without live bacterial cultures.[xxiii] When shopping, look for products with a diversity of bacterial species.
It’s important to remember that the same blood that flows through your heart and lungs also flows through your brain. If it’s rich in nutrients, it helps feed the normal activities of your brain—supporting good moods and cognition. However, if you lack good nutrition, your brain cannot function at optimal levels.
None of this means that everyday events don’t affect our moods—stress at home, work, traffic, the death of loved ones, and various frustrations can and do influence our moods. The bigger problems, however, are chronic mood disorders, such as depression or anxiety. Events can trigger changes in brain chemistry, which may then be sustained through poor eating habits. In addition to a diet rich in quality protein and vegetables and low in carbs, neuronutrients can help us achieve a healthy balance of neurotransmitters, ensuring a happy and well-functioning brain. “
Article source: http://www.naturalgrocers.com/nutrition/well-nourished-brain-happy-brain
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