Most people think of their metabolism as affecting their ability to gain or lose weight. But our metabolism also affects mood and the way we feel. The truth of the matter is that we feel our best when we maintain the production and function of neurotransmitters–essential elements of brain metabolism.
Neurotransmitters are naturally occurring brain chemicals that transmit messages from one nerve cell to another. Some neurotransmitters help with motor behaviour and others tell nerve cells when we are feeling awake, aroused, in pain, or emotional.
According to a 2004 report by the US National Center for Health Statistics Press, adult use of anti-depressants almost tripled between 1999 and 2000. One of the reasons for this increase is now believed to be an increasingly present disorder called Serotonin Deficiency Syndrome.
This condition is associated with an inadequate supply of the neurotransmitter serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical that is responsible for feelings of happiness, calm, relaxation, confidence, concentration, and personal well-being. A deficiency of serotonin may make us more susceptible to a host of emotional and behavioural problems, including negative self-talk, depression, anxiety, anger, aggression, sleep disturbances, cravings (especially for high-glycemic foods), and compulsive disorders.
It Starts with Tryptophan
In order for the body to manufacture a sufficient supply of serotonin, it is imperative that we supply its main precursor, tryptophan. This essential amino acid must be taken in through the diet, as the body cannot manufacture it. But getting enough tryptophan and delivering it to the brain in order to build more serotonin can be a problem. The main reasons are:
- Tryptophan is the least commonly found amino acid in protein-rich food, so many people do not get enough to begin with.
- Tryptophan is easily degraded if we are deficient in B vitamins (especially vitamins B3 and B6) or if we are under stress–common among most people today.
- Tryptophan competes with five other amino acids for entry into the brain and is often pushed out of the way.
The best way to ensure adequate serotonin production through effective tryptophan metabolism is to consume ample supplies of high-quality protein throughout the day, get sufficient sleep, supplement with extra B vitamins, reduce your stress load, and if needed, supplement with the serotonin precursor 5-HTP (take 25 to 50 mg one to three times daily).
Self-Medicating with the Wrong Foods
Do you remember the last time you felt down? I’ll bet you craved something really sweet. The reason we call sweet and starchy foods “comfort foods” is because these carbohydrates stimulate higher levels of insulin. This metabolic hormone helps stimulate higher serotonin levels by getting rid of the five amino acids that compete with tryptophan to enter the brain. The problem is that, even though you temporarily feel better, your expanding fat cells eventually make you feel worse.
To avoid future cravings and help balance moods, it is best to consume five or six small meals (always including protein and fibre) at regular intervals throughout the day. This way you ensure a healthy blood sugar response, while delivering much-needed tryptophan to your body and brain.
Nature’s Answer to Higher Tryptophan
We all know that mother knows best. Well, this maxim extends to mother’s breast milk. It turns out that mother’s breast milk contains a substantial amount of nature’s most perfect form of protein, called alpha-lactalbumin. Not only is alpha-lactalbumin one of nature’s best sources of tryptophan, but the tryptophan it contains has been documented in peer-reviewed, clinical human studies to help manufacture adequate levels of serotonin. In the process, it helps individuals deal with stress, feel better, feel more alert, burn more fat in association with exercise, and sleep more soundly. The good news is that alpha-lactalbumin is also found in whey protein isolates.