Brain Foods

Brain Foods

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Mood-A Serotonin Solution?

Mood-A Serotonin Solution?

Carbohydrates not only influence cognitive performance, they play a major role in your mood, contends Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She finds that a diet rich in carbohydrates can help you feel anxiety-free and relaxed, by giving the amino acid tryptophan preferential access to the brain.

When you eat a protein-rich meal. Wurtman explains, the protein is broken down into component amino acids, some of which, like tryptophan, are neurotransmitter precursors. All of them, however, must compete to get into the brain. But when you eat a meal or snack that's mainly carbohydrates--provided it supplies less than five percent of calories from protein -- insulin rushes in and, while targeted at the carbs, also sweeps up any amino acids lingering in your bloodstream from a previous protein meal. All the amino acids, that is, but tryptophan. Survivor of the insulin onslaught, tryptophan slips into the brain uncontested. Once there, it is converted to serotonin and elevates mood.

Wurtman, author of The Serotonin Solution(Ballantine, 1996), has found that women with premenstrual syndrome (PMS) dramatically increase their carbohydrate intake in the two weeks prior to menstruation, while women not subject to PMS do not. She sees this as evidence of self-medication, an attempt to increase brain levels of serotonin in order to alleviate the anxiety, depression, and concentration difficulties that characterize PMS. Ditto individuals who develop depression and fatigue in the winter months, who increase carbohydrate intake seasonally.

Carbohydrates may be calming for another reason, suggests Barbara Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Johns Hopkins University. Her studies indicate that the sweet taste of sugar stimulates the release of endorphins, the brain's natural opiates. Either or both effects may account for the results seen in a study, conducted at the University of Wisconsin, of delinquent adolescent males. When subjects were fed a breakfast of cereal high in sugar, researchers documented an improvement in depressive symptoms and fewer incidents of aggressive behavior.

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