Food, Serotonin, and Depression: Improve Your Diet and Boost Your Mood
You’re feeling down, out-of-sorts, and unmotivated.
Before you know it, you find yourself binging on chocolates, pastries, and soft drinks.
Somehow, stuffing yourself with sweets and starchy carbohydrates chases that dark cloud that’s been hanging over your head away… at least for a time.
The Connection Between Food and Serotonin
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter—the “happy” chemical that plays an important role in your brain’s biochemistry and your overall functioning. It’s vital for good sleep, self-confidence, social interactions, learning and memory, a healthy appetite, and (yes) a balanced mood.
In fact, low serotonin levels can trigger an equally low mood. Without sufficient serotonin, you may experience poor sleep, irregular appetite, and waning energy. And you may feel irritable, anxious, pessimistic, and even depressed.
That’s when you could find yourself reaching for those foods high in simple carbohydrates. They contain refined sugars, which increase your insulin level and help tryptophan to enter your brain. In turn, tryptophan—an amino acid building block—gets converted into serotonin.
In effect, overeating refined carbohydrates is a way you self-medicate to raise your serotonin levels.
Fortunate for you, you usually can feel the calming effects of your serotonin-raising binge within 30 minutes or less. However, while you’re on your “happy high,” your blood sugar levels are just as high. And, sadly, over time, raised blood sugar causes more severe health problems than simply a low mood.
Does that mean trying to raise serotonin levels with food is not a good idea?
Not at all. You just need to know how to do it wisely.
The Sensible Way of Improving Your Diet to Boost Your Mood
First, here is a scientific fact you must be aware of: even if you eat tons of serotonin-containing foods, that serotonin will not cross into your brain. Why? Because your brain has its personal security system that stops foreign substances from entering—scientists call this the blood-brain barrier.
But if you can’t simply eat serotonin-rich foods to boost your mood, what can you do?
One key is to eat tryptophan-containing foods. As noted at the outset, tryptophan can enter the brain and will then be converted into serotonin.
There are two types of tryptophan-containing foods—carbohydrates and proteins.
Foods containing simple carbohydrates are pasta, bread, potatoes, pastries, popcorn, and sweets. But they’re also high in refined sugar and rapidly increase blood sugar and insulin levels. Foods that contain complex carbohydrates—such as certain fruits (apples, blueberries, pineapple, bananas, kiwis, etc), sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, tomatoes, rice, oatmeal, and garbanzo beans—are a much healthier choice for tryptophan.
Protein-rich foods also contain tryptophan. These include, for example, eggs, fish and seafood of all sorts, meat and poultry, cheese, nuts and nut butter, and seeds. In fact, if a food is a good source of protein, it most likely is also rich in tryptophan.
Ironically, though, even a small amount protein actually inhibits serotonin formation. Thus, simply eating tryptophan-rich foods doesn’t guarantee that the amino acid will enter your brain and be converted into serotonin either!
Exasperated yet? – No worries.
Overcoming the Protein Roadblock
As you probably know from experience, binging on those sweets and refined carbohydrates does work. While it overloads your body with sugar, no protein roadblock keeps the tryptophan from reaching your brain to help boost your mood.
Hence, the second key to how you can use food to raise your serotonin levels is to choose the healthy, complex carbohydrates.
In fact, it’s not just what you eat but also how you eat it that matters. Eating strategically to boost your serotonin and your mood, then, means to eat more meals with complex carbohydrates by themselves, without any protein.
That tactic will ensure that the tryptophan contained in these foods reaches your brain and is, in fact, converted into serotonin.
The Bottom Line
Optimizing your brain’s production of serotonin can help improve your emotional and mental health in the long-run. Thus, a brain-healthy diet*—avoiding refined carbohydrates and instead seeking to increase complex carbohydrates—plays an important role in balancing your overall mental well-being.
So, stop the erratic binging sprees to make yourself feel better!
But rather take advantage of eating regular meals that consist of healthy carbohydrates and increase your serotonin levels and your mood—each and every day!