Regulating Brain Chemicals with Food or Psychiatric Medication. What’s Best for You?
A chemical imbalance in the brain occurs when a person has either too little or too much of certain neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that pass information between nerve cells. Examples of neurotransmitters include serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. People sometimes call serotonin and dopamine the “happy hormones” because of the roles that they play in regulating mood and emotions.
A popular hypothesis is that mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, develop as a result of chemical imbalances in the brain. While this theory may hold some truth, it runs the risk of oversimplifying mental illnesses. In reality, mood disorders and mental health illnesses are highly complex conditions that affect 51.5 million adults living in the United States alone (and this number has increased significantly since the Covid-19 pandemic).
Some individuals may aim to seek a more holistic approach to treating their depression. Nutritional Psychiatry is showing great results in current research. Check out this information from Harvard University. Research has shown the foods we eat can produce the same chemicals in the brain that psych meds. claim to do; but using a more healthy and organic form of treatment that can be used for long-term use without harmful side effects.
With depression being the most common prescribed condition today – I thought it would be good to discuss the brain chemical serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical found in the brain, blood, intestines, and connective tissues of the human body. It causes blood vessels to contract, helps transmit information across the nervous system, and has a role in brain function.
Serotonin is essential for overall health and wellbeing, and people often associate it with positive mood. SSRI drugs treat depression by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is one of the chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) that carry signals between brain nerve cells (neurons). SSRIs block the reabsorption (reuptake) of serotonin into neurons. This makes more serotonin available to improve transmission of messages between neurons. SSRIs are called selective because they mainly affect serotonin, not other neurotransmitters. SSRIs may also be used to treat conditions other than depression, such as anxiety disorders.
Everyday foods contain serotonin boosting properties so if you are looking for an alternative approach to treating your depression – consider adding the following foods into your life:
Tryptophan is an amino acid that is important for the production of serotonin in the body. It is also key to brain function and has a role in healthy sleep. People cannot make tryptophan in their bodies, so must obtain it from their diet. Fortunately, tryptophan can be found in food whereas serotonin cannot. Eating a healthful, balanced diet is an essential way to support mental as well as physical health. Including sources of tryptophan in the diet can have positive benefits on energy levels, mood, and sleep.
The following foods that boost the production of serotonin:
- Chia seeds
- Pumpkin and squash seeds 1 ounce provides 58% recommended intake of tryptophan
- Raw honey (not heated)
- Long black pepper (piperine)
- Turmeric (curcumin)
- Herbal remedy – The Mimosa Tree
Enjoy the many different ways to incorporate these foods into your life. Try a food journal and keeping track of how your mood is affected after you eat. Practice accountability and your willingness to commit to a more balanced mood, brain function, and lifestyle. Other options such as nature hikes, yoga and meditation, running, and sun exposure (don’t forget sunscreen) can help with the production of serotonin. Always talk with your doctor before starting any new diet or mental health treatment.
Be well, Kristen.
WALNUT TACO MEAT RECIPE
1 ½ cups walnuts
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon cumin
½ teaspoon chili powder
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
For serving: soft tacos Mexican slaw, salsa, guacamole
Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease a baking sheet.
Add walnuts to a food processor and process until mixture is roughly chopped. Pulse the remaining ingredients in the food processor until the mixture is evenly ground.
Transfer to the greased baking sheet. Bake for 15-20 minutes, stirring halfway through to prevent over-browning.
Serve in tacos, burritos, quesadillas, bowls and anywhere you would use regular taco meat