In the 10 days since I last wrote a post, I took my Anatomy & Physiology midterm, completed the third unit of the course (more on the brain/spinal cord/nervous system), and then took a lab exam that involved identifying nerves and components of the brain/spinal cord on pictures of actual people’s organs.
While the sections of brain were pretty damn disgusting, the ones I actually found the most disturbing were of the thigh (aka femoral region) and butt (aka gluteal region). For some reason, all those tendons, muscles, and nerves, looking all cordy and mushy and beige-y, kind of like a chicken leg when you peel the skin off, really turned my stomach in a way I was not expecting.
In fact, it’s kind of turning my stomach right now. I was going to share a picture with you, but I just can’t do that to you. I hope you appreciate that. I mean, if you really want to Google it, feel free, but go into it with your eyes wide open. Figuratively speaking, that is.
Anyway, all that learning, studying, and test taking has kept me pretty busy*. I still have a lecture exam to take for that unit, and then one more unit to complete in the next two weeks (more on the never-ending nervous system – good thing it’s interesting – and then the endocrine system, which I couldn’t be more excited to begin). But right now I have a brief moment of calm in the eye of the storm, so I’m back to talk about something else I love: integrative nutrition!
Integrative nutrition and functional nutrition are all about using food to help heal your body and to help your body function at its best. I’m assuming that you read my last post about neurotransmitters and how they work. Basically, it’s brain chemistery; neurons (nervous system cells) use chemicals called neurotransmitters to communicate with each other and manipulate the entire body. Today, I want to talk a little more about some specific neurotransmitters, how they specifically function, and how there is some evidence that certain foods can aid those functions.
The big neurotransmitters that I want to talk about (because they’re the ones that interest me the most right now, seeing as how psychology is my third love – again, see my last post) are dopamine, norepinepherine, and serotonin. If you’ve ever seen a commercial for Zoloft, odds are, you’ve heard of at least one of these before.
These three types of neurotransmitters are called biogenic amines, and they function to affect mood and energy levels (which is why they’re pretty much always referenced in commercials for depression treatment or anxiety treatment). Serotonin evens our moods out and lowers energy levels; dopamine and norepinepherine spike our moods up and also spike our energy levels. Ideally, all three should work together to create a happy, healthy person who is well-balanced and able to handle daily stress without becoming overly depressed or anxious.
Sadly, this is not the case for many of us, especially those of us who already have chronic diseases. Our systems are already on the fritz. Maybe that’s why our neurons are misfiring – we’re predisposed to chemical imbalances because we already have other things going wrong. I know that I also get really depressed when I can’t muster the energy/spoons to do things that everyone else seems to be able to do so easily – I get frustrated with my body and with my life and with everyone else for having it so easy (or for seeming to have it so easy), and I don’t know if that’s really a chemical imbalance that causes depression, or if it’s a more complicated mind/body connection, but either way, it’s very real.
Understanding depression caused by chronic illness is important, and if it’s something you’re struggling with, I highly recommend talking to a therapist, as it’s something that’s done me worlds of good. However, dealing with depression and the symptoms of depression, since they are not just emotional but also physical, is something that can be done partially through dietetics. I’ve been going through a bit of a flare up in the last year with my two autoimmune diseases, which means I’ve been feeling crappy all the time and also have been more susceptible to every cold, flu, and virus that goes around the block. So I’m sick all the time. Living in the middle of a flare-up is a miserable experience. One of the reasons I’ve been so interested in this neurotransmitter stuff is that hopefully eating the right foods can make me not only feel better physically, but also get me to balance out my moods a little by helping my brain make more of the right chemicals.
So just how can serotonin, dopamine, and norepinepherine do that? The key lies in how our bodies produce these neurotransmitters in the first place.
Our bodies break down all foods into a few basic substances: sugars, amino acids (the building blocks of protein), and fats. Most carbs break down into sugars. The reason the whole complex-carb thing is so hyped up by dieticians is because they contain different types of sugars and proteins as well, so they’re more complicated for your body to break down (which is always a good thing), and obviously contain more nutrients than simple carbs, which break down very easily into one or two types of sugar.
So anyway, your body uses these few substances to do all of the magical, wonderful things it does, including make neurotransmitters. Serotonin is mostly manufactured from substances derived from carbs. It goes like this: you feel upset. You crave some comfort food, some cookies or a slice of cake or a brownie or some chocolate – something made of sugar and carbohydrates. You eat these things to comfort yourself, and your body takes that food, breaks it down into its most basic building blocks, and then uses those building blocks to make a nice little chemical called serotonin, which will make you feel calm and relaxed by flooding your brain with that chemical, literally comforting you.
Nice, right? So that’s why we crave that stuff when we’re feeling depressed! There’s an actual, biological basis for it. Your body is just trying to help you out. These are things I sort of knew, but understanding the physical process kind of blows my mind.
Interestingly, chocolate not only produces serotonin, but also triggers the release of endorphins into our blood streams, which makes us feel euphoric. Just saying.
Serotonin is also made from tryptophan, the chemical in turkey – which explains pretty handily why eating turkey on Thanksgiving makes us tired.
Dopamine and norepinepherine, though, are a little different. They help us to focus, feel alert, and react quickly. Our bodies get the materials they need to make these two neurotransmitters from protein – pretty much any kind. Peanut butter, cheese, turkey, chicken, steak, whatever.
Now, like I said before, the ideal state is to have a strong balance among these three neurotransmitters. Too much dopamine/norepinepherine makes us anxious, and too much serotonin makes us sleepy and too mellow. We need, as with all things, to be in balance. And, of course, the results you get from nutrition will only last as long as the food is in your system. Once it’s been digested and…processed…out of your body, you’ll no longer reap the benefits.
So the key to keeping a solid mind-body balance and neurotransmitter balance is to eat a solid, balanced diet. Complex carbs (aka whole grains) and fruits will take care of serotonin, because they will both break down to the kinds of sugars that help produce it, and making sure you eat enough protein will give take care of dopamine and norepinepherine. Every meal and snack should include both. So if you just eat cereal for breakfast, that’s great. Then just eat a spoonful of peanut butter or a piece of string cheese or some microwavable bacon too. It isn’t hard to add protein to any meal.
Now, if you do have a chemical imbalance, medication that restores balance to your neurons is probably the right way to go, which is another reason to see a doctor and a therapist. Natural remedies like the ones I’m talking about for anxiety, depression, and stress aren’t going to help with anything severe. But they can help us get on the right track.
Lucky for me, my all-time favorite comfort food is microwave popcorn, and a long time ago I tricked myself into liking the 99% fat free kind. This is lucky because popcorn is a whole grain, so it’s got tons of fiber, is the good kind of carb, and also has a decent amount of protein, so it’s basically the perfect biogenic amine enhancing snack for when I’m feeling stressed. And really, what’s a better cure for the flare-up, finals-are-coming blues than curling up in my armchair with a warm bowl of popcorn and my Netflix cue?
*Sidebar: Do you know what the Oxford comma is? (I ask because I just used one in the above sentence, which started me thinking about them. I am an English teacher right now, so these are the kinds of things about which I care. If you don’t feel the same way, feel free to stop reading now. Catch you next time!) When I was in school, we learned that you used the Oxford comma. Because otherwise, you might cause stupid misunderstandings. Now, my students tell me that they were taught not to use it. I don’t take points off since it seems like the new trend is to leave the poor Oxford behind in the 90s, but it drives me absolutely batty when I see a list without one. I want to bust out my red pen and start marking the shit out of everything. Thankfully, I’m not completely alone on this.
**Please see my general disclaimer.