Ever wonder why certain foods can make you feel either energized or exhausted? According to Dr. Richard Wurtman, a neuroscience professor at MIT, certain foods can alter one’s mood by influencing neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers which allow for the transmission of signals from one neuron to the next across synapses. Neurotransmitters control major body functions including movement, emotional response, and our physical ability to experience pleasure and pain. While other factors influence the level of these chemicals, such as hormones, heredity, drugs and alcohol, the three most food sensitive neurotransmitters – serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine – have been studied in relation to mood.
For Relaxation: Eat Carbohydrates. Serotonin is responsible for feelings of calm, relaxation and a general sense of well-being. Healthy amounts of serotonin are released in the brain as a result of eating carbohydrates such as fruits, brown rice, beans, lentils, wholegrain cereals and breads. Eating large quantities of overly processed carbs, like white bread, white pasta, chips and cookies increase levels of serotonin which cause you to feel sluggish and drowsy. Eating too few carbs lowers levels of serotonin causing intense food cravings, insomnia and depression. Folic acid deficiency causes serotonin levels in the brain to decrease as well so eat your spinach and drink your OJ.
To Boost Alertness: Eat Protein. Dopamine and norepinephrine are responsible for alertness, concentration and increased energy with quicker, more accurate reaction times. Protein consumption causes these two neurotransmitters to be released in the brain. Good protein sources include meat, chicken, fish, nuts, legumes, soy products, eggs and dairy products. Beware of overeating protein (typically in conjunction with decreased amounts of exercise and carbohydrates) as it can lead to tension, dehydration, loss of concentration and irritability.