Brain Facts

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So what do we include in our daily diets to calm our brains? Let’s start with polyunsaturated fatty acids first since they seemed to work well for the rodents in the described experiment. Foods high in polyunsaturated fats include vegetable oils (soy, coconut, corn, safflower, and fish oil), fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, and trout), and some nuts and seeds such as walnuts and sunflower seeds. Another bonus of foods high in PUFAs: they are great for your heart!

Now let’s move onto serotonin foods. The key fact to remember is that no food source contains serotonin directly. Serotonin is derived from the essential amino acid tryptophan (L-tryptophan). Amino acids can be thought of as the “building blocks” of proteins, and tryptophan is considered “essential” because the body cannot make this compound on its own - it has to be derived from your diet. Tryptophan is a key ingredient in several protein rich foods and is the only direct substance that can convert into serotonin. It does this through a two step process: first tryptophan is converted into a chemical called 5-HTP which then converts into serotonin. So if you want to increase your serotonin, its food high in tryptophan that you need to be on the look-out for. Some of these foods include: tofu and most soy products, black-eyed peas, walnuts, almonds, sesame seeds, roasted pumpkin seeds, complex carbohydrates (whole wheat bread, brown rice, and quinoa), poultry (chicken and turkey), seafood, and low fat dairy. Another bonus of tryptophan is that it helps produce Vitamin B3 (niacin), another vitamin (as the rodent experiment also showed) that helps create a healthy mood.

This brings us to the B vitamins, which are found in a variety of foods such as dark leafy green vegetables, fortified cereals, almonds and peanuts, asparagus, dairy products, legumes, poultry, bananas, seafood and avocados (just to name a few). Now how about GABA? Some of the foods that naturally help increase levels of GABA in the brain are shrimp, brown rice, hummus, olive oil, cherry tomatoes, and kefir. Did you know that B vitamins and magnesium are needed for GABA to be converted from its precursor? See how everything is all connected! This hopefully shows how one item out of balance can produce a domino effect on the brain. Foods high in magnesium and potassium have all been mentioned above with the additions of dried fruits and dark chocolate (for magnesium) and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and brussel sprouts, potatoes, squash, and mushrooms (for potassium). As for sugary foods and drinks, processed foods, refined carbohydrates, caffeine, and alcohol?stay away! These foods trigger anxiety (and a depressed mood). So if you want to lower your anxiety (or depression) naturally, it’s time to start eating the right foods that will give you a healthy, calm mind and spirit.

As my very own calculus professor said, "If you come to write your test and you get anxiety, you know when your palms begin to sweat and you get clammy, and now you know nothing. Well, if you do that, then you have no hope." I think what he was trying to say was that anxiety can have a widespread affect, not only interfering with our biochemistry but also with the outcomes of our situations. What is going on internally gets projected externally. Anxiety has consequences, but luckily, it can also be managed. So here is my prescription for you: sit down, have a handful of almonds, or a banana smoothie, maybe add in some spinach and an avocado, and relax. Breathe deeply. You can get through this.

Understanding the brain mechanisms associated with anxiety are challenging for researchers, never mind the non-scientist. However, some of you may be interested in going a bit deeper. Below is a more comprehensive overview of some of that ways in which neuroscience is informing us about the biology of anxiety.

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Donah Shine

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