The Theory: Just how does a food affect neurotransmitters? According to Dr. Richard Wurtman at MIT, who is involved in numerous studies on nutrition and the brain, the nutrients in foods are precursors to neurotransmitters, and depending on the amount of precursors present in the food you eat, the more or less of a certain neurotransmitter is produced. Although this process may seem fairly straightforward, it is complicated by the fact that foods most often are made up of more than one nutrient, and how those different nutrients interact will also impact the production and release of neurotransmitters.
Despite the complexity, there are certain established bits of knowledge of how food affects your mood that you can put into practice. Boost your alertness with protein. 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.
For relaxation and anti-stress, eat carbohydrates. 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.
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