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The Science of Mood Foods

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Why is it that the majority of diets seem to go down in a hail of cookies and ice cream? The answer usually lies in our inherited biochemistry. Back in the good old days (a few thousand years ago), food was not as plentiful as it is today.

Why is it that the majority of diets seem to go down in a hail of cookies and ice cream? The answer usually lies in our inherited biochemistry.

Back in the good old days (a few thousand years ago), food was not as plentiful as it is today. Back then (and still today) we were governed by a series of biochemical reactions that sent us into action, a genetic "kick in the butt" of sorts. Neurotransmitters, protein-based chemicals that transfer messages from one nerve cell to another, are responsible for initiating these reactions.

Different neurotransmitters affect different areas of the brain. When it comes to the regulation of comprehension and memory, mood, temperature regulation, aggression, appetite, and cravings, the neurotransmitter serotonin is the one in charge.

When we have a good supply of serotonin in our system, we feel balanced, deal well with stress, don't anger easily, and don't experience excessive cravings for sweet or starchy foods. On the contrary, when our serotonin levels are low, we feel stressed, depressed, and irritable, and we experience cravings for all the foods we should be avoiding.

Our neurotransmitters work within a well-regulated feedback system. If the brain senses a reduction in a specific neurotransmitter, a message is sent out to increase it. In the case of serotonin, if it's too low, the body's feedback system springs into action to ask for more. Your body will always look for the easiest and most direct way to accomplish this.

Since neurotransmitters are comprised of the building blocks of protein, amino acids, your body needs protein-containing foods to maintain its neurotransmitter supply. In the case of serotonin, the essential amino acid tryptophan must be available in high enough quantities to ensure adequate serotonin synthesis.

In order for amino acids like tryptophan to enter the heavily guarded blood-brain barrier to manufacture neurotransmitters, they hitch a ride on special transport molecules. However, a number of amino acids compete with tryptophan for transportation, and since tryptophan is usually found in much smaller quantities than all other amino acids, it usually gets bullied out of position.

To compensate, your body has developed another method for boosting the delivery of tryptophan. By increasing your body's craving for carbohydrates, your insulin levels rise and so do your serotonin levels. Unfortunately, this feel-good sensation is fleeting; you'll soon find yourself craving the foods that make and keep you fat.

The best ways to maintain your serotonin levels naturally are:

  • Supplement with high-alpha whey isolates (they contain almost three times the tryptophan levels of other foods).
  • Try 5-HTP (the direct precursor to serotonin). You can safely take 50 mg three times per day.
  • Reduce stress, which has been shown to greatly deplete tryptophan/serotonin levels.
  • Get sufficient sleep; that's when your serotonin reserves are replenished.
  • Supplement with extra B vitamins (especially B6 and B3). These may help direct more tryptophan toward serotonin synthesis and help neurons manufacture more serotonin.
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