Have you ever found yourself rummaging in the kitchen for a baked potato, leftover pasta, or a slice of bread to munch on? If so, your body may have been seeking foods that have the capacity to bring your neurotransmitters into balance, keeping your brain functions sharp. Neurotransmitters are chemical substances that help transmit messages from one area of the brain to another.
When you consume a carbohydrate, your body breaks it down into sugar, or glucose. Insulin is then released into your bloodstream to help your body absorb the glucose, which in turn helps your cells absorb the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan then travels to the brain, where it builds serotonin.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter. There are foods that encourage regular serotonin production. When your body has enough serotonin, it doesn't have relentless cravings. A number of foods encourage serotonin balance. Some contain the building blocks for serotonin; others support general brain health so your body can regulate serotonin properly. Still others help keep insulin levels balanced so that your system isn't overwhelmed or underwhelmed.
The serotonin-boosting foods below provide alpha linolenic acid (LNA) and DHA, which have a vital impact on brain health. Perhaps the most important is DHA, which is found in fish, DHA-fortified eggs, nuts, seeds, soy, and avocado.
Rich, Tasty Foods That Fuel Brain Cells
- Ocean-going fish supply two readily available forms of omega-3 essential fatty acids: EPA and DHA. But it's important to choose your fish wisely. Young, small fish, such as Alaskan salmon from cold water seas, are safest because they have the lowest levels of mercury toxicity and other pollutants. Be sure not to purchase farm-raised fish, which have some of the highest levels of disease and pollutants found anywhere.
- Organic DHA-fortified eggs supply DHA and phosphatidylcholine, which stabilize membranes. Eggs are the only food that supply all the amino acids.
- Nuts and seeds are a good source of LNA, an omega-3 building block.
- Flaxseed, particularly ground flaxseed, is a good source of LNA.
- Soybeans and tofu are two more options for increasing your intake of LNA.
- Complex carbohydrates found in organic fruits and vegetables and legumes, help absorb tryptophan.
- Organic turkey and dairy products such as cheese and warmed milk are good sources of tryptophan.
- Avocados provide LNA and some DHA.
- Honey, in small amounts, is far better for you than sugar, because honey contains vitamins, minerals, and small amounts of protein—all brain foods. But don't overdo it. Honey in large quantities will raise insulin levels.
My colleague Dr. David Perlmutter has also written an outstanding book called Grain Brain which says, and I concur, that fat is as good for the brain as it is for the heart. Fats like coconut, avocado, and olive oil support healthy brain function.
But Foods Can't Do It All
There are other key nutrients that provide excellent nutritional support for your brain. For example, your body needs an abundant supply of antioxidants to fight off oxidative free radicals. Our bodies naturally produce some antioxidants, but it's very important that we nourish ourselves with a complete range of antioxidants for protection against free-radical damage, especially as we get older.
Acetyl L-carnitine works directly on the nerve cells in your brain, helping to increase energy production. Alpha lipoic acid and N-acetylcysteine help protect against free radicals before they reach your brain. And phosphatidylserine helps keep your cell membranes fluid and flexible, and also helps to maintain healthy memory-related pathways.
Feed Your Brain
Most of us are living longer, and we want our brains operating at peak efficiency our entire lives. But between the stresses of modern living and the depleted diet of many Americans, it's a wonder we have any brain cells left at all. Add to that a serious lack of exercise and the use of serotonin-depleting substances such as caffeine, aspartame, and alcohol, and our brains are starving for nutrients. But by simply paying attention to your diet and nutrition, you can help maintain the health and vitality of your brain and memory.