Food and Mood: Part 2
Written by Joleen Wilson, RD/LD, CNSC, CBIS, Dietitian for Pathway to Eating Disorders Treatment at Brookhaven Hospital
During part one of this series, I discussed how carbohydrates and their varying forms affect our mental wellness. Dietary protein is also intricately related to mental health. Many neurotransmitters are composed of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. Two such amino acids I will discuss are tyrosine and tryptophan. Tyrosine is an amino acid that is used to manufacture dopamine and norepinephrine, both of which can help your drive and motivation. When levels drop, you’re more likely to feel depressed, irritable, and moody. Consuming more tyrosine boosts levels and helps keep us alert and focused. Sources are any meat or dairy product, eggs, almonds, avocados, and bananas.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is the precursor to serotonin and helps maintain normal sleep cycles. Sources are animal proteins such as poultry, red meat, shrimp, tuna, and other fatty fish, as well as milk, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Because of its ability to increase serotonin, tryptophan may be used therapeutically in conditions such as insomnia, depression, anxiety, smoking cessation, ADHD, and to help calm carbohydrate cravings.
Protein is very important in the diet of an individual recovering from a substance use disorder because, oftentimes, food intake may have been limited and serum protein levels are diminished. Many times, physicians will recommend to their patients to increase their protein intake due to “low albumin”. Albumin is a blood protein that can be measured by taking a blood test. A normal albumin level is crucial because there are many medications, including psychiatric medications, that rely on protein carriers for absorption and pharmacokinetics. In addition, patients with recurrent peripheral edema (swelling in hands and feet from water retention) or ascites from liver cirrhosis will have low blood protein due to dilution. In order to increase your protein, you must 1) eat adequate protein to help restore levels and 2) address the underlying cause of stress (e.g. drug or alcohol use, infection, etc) which is causing low albumin in the first place.
We must also remember that protein is the only macronutrient that is not stored in our bodies. Carbohydrates are stored as glucose in our muscle tissue and liver. Fats are stored in our adipose tissue. Protein is NOT stored in the muscle. Excess protein intake is excreted predominately by our kidneys. Therefore, we must eat protein throughout the day to get its full benefit! Include protein-rich foods with each meal. These protein-rich foods contain the amino acids tyrosine and tryptophan, which are then converted to serotonin in the brain.
Serotonin requires other co-factors in order for adequate concentrations of this neurotransmitter to be realized in the brain. Part 3 of this blog series will discuss the main vitamins that help with conversion to serotonin.