Depression, anxiety, panic, obsessions, addictions and memory loss and even, fatigue are too often considered issues of “mind over matter,” best treated with psychotherapy or medication. The truth is that rather than being psychologically impaired, you may simply be deficient in specific brain nutrients! The keys to your mood, behavior, and mental performance are the brain’s chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, made from the nutrients that you ingest. As these messengers travel around your brain and nervous system, they help determine how well you think and feel. To understand how restoring your brain chemistry can impact overall health, let’s look at how the key components.
Know Your Neurotransmitters
Here are the main players in brain chemistry and their actions:
- GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is the “cool,” calming, and relaxing neurotransmitter
- Dopamine and noradrenaline (or norepinephrine) are the “feel-good” neurotransmitters that energize, focus and motivate you
- Acetylcholine helps with thinking, memory, and concentration
- Serotonin is the “happy,” calming neurotransmitter that also enhances sleep.
When these neurotransmitters are out of balance, you may feel depressed, anxious, stressed and unmotivated, with impaired memory and sleep. Balanced neurotransmitters, on the other hand, will help you feel calm and happy, able to think and remember clearly, and sleep soundly.
Food as Medicine
Ever hear the phrase, “You are what you eat?” Well, it definitely applies to the brain. Proteins, fats and carbohydrates as well as a myriad of micronutrients are needed for optimal brain function.
Our ingested protein is broken down by digestive processes into its component amino acids. The important amino acids for optimal brain function are tryptophan, tyrosine, GABA, glutamine and glycine. They are converted into neurotransmitters with the help of cofactors, or chemical helpers including vitamins B3, B6, B12, C, and folic acid (folate), and the minerals zinc, copper, and magnesium.
Magnesium is a calming mineral and its deficiency can lead to anxiety. You also need fish-oil based omega -3 fatty acids. Fats comprise about 60 percent of each brain cell, providing the complex, pliable cell wall in which neurotransmitter activity takes place.
Then there’s glucose (blood sugar) required for fuel. Amazingly, that little three-pound organ, your brain, uses 20 percent of the body’s glucose. That’s why we feel so good when we have a sugar high— it goes right to our brain and burned for fuel. The same is true of processed foods, alcohol, and caffeine. You’ll get a quick high, but in a short time they are metabolized and your body wants more. Stay on that sugar roller coaster and eventually you’ll start suffering from blood sugar dips and increasing mood swings.
In addition to foods, certain medications including antihistamines, tranquilizers, sleeping pills, narcotics and recreational drugs can affect your brain chemistry, as discussed in my book, Supplement Your Prescription.
Depression, Anxiety and Amino Acids
In my own practice, I evaluate patients for specific deficiencies, then supply the missing nutrients. In depression, there is often a lack of mood-stabilizing serotonin, made from the essential amino acid tryptophan. This is found in protein-containing foods such as turkey, chicken, cottage cheese, avocados, bananas, and wheat germ.
Supplementation with the amino acid 5-hydroxytryptophan (5 HTP), a downstream metabolite of tryptophan, can help your brain manufacture more serotonin. Individuals suffering from fibromyalgia, with fatigue and painful areas all over their body, often have low levels of serotonin. 5 -HTP has been helpful in relieving their symptoms by promoting deep sleep.
The “catecholamine” or stimulating neurotransmitters, adrenaline, norepinephrine, and dopamine, also found in protein-rich foods, are the brain chemicals associated with motivation, focus, and energy. Deficiencies can result in cravings for a sugar, coffee, stress, or alcohol “high.” The good news is that supplementation with the amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine can help your brain manufacture more of the energizing catecholamines.
Add in the amino acid glutamine, which goes right to the brain, and those cravings become history. In cases of anxiety, there is a deficiency in the neurotransmitter GABA, the brain’s “chill-factor.”
Complex Carbs and Glucose
Balanced blood sugar levels, essential for sustained mood and energy, require a diet that contains complex carbs as opposed to simple sugars, as well as the micronutrients chromium, vanadium, glutamine, and alpha lipoic acid (ALA). ALA does double or even triple duty: It helps the liver with its job of detoxification, and acts along with N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) as a high-powered antioxidant, protecting against free radicals. It also helps balance glucose and insulin in those with blood sugar imbalances.
Restoring Your Brain Chemistry from Addiction
The incidence of addiction is ever- increasing, and very few treatment centers are addressing the biochemical aspect. Alternative to Meds Center is unique in this way and has a comprehensive, integrative program for addiction, mental health, and natural medication tapering.
It’s clear that if the brain is given the nutrition it needs in the form of food and specific targeted nutrients, the drug and alcohol cravings can be greatly reduced, if not eliminated. This is done along with a well-planned substance or medication withdrawal program. With this, we include social and emotional support — which has a far better chance of success when the individual is supported nutritionally. For more information, see The Addicted Brain and How to Break Free.
One-Stop Solution for Whole Health
Over my many years of practice, I have found that patients did better when I simplified their program. I do this by formulating a supplement containing all the brain essentials mentioned in this article. It also has blood-sugar balancers, antioxidants, and liver support nutrients. This program assures that they take their supplements, at the right times, in the right proportions, with no need to deal with various bottles and doses. The results have been gratifying, with increased compliance and greater overall success.
For more information on this and other natural ways to balance mind and mood, please visit my website, http://www.cassmd.com. You can enter your name and email there and receive my free e-book, ‘Reclaim Your Brain.’