Depression is nasty. Today I set out to explore why we sometimes get down and feel like there’s no hope. Is there an alternative to anti-depressants?
How can we possibly cure a psychological disorder with food?
Well, actually, we can!
Depression is associated with abnormally low levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter; a chemical substance that transmits nerve impulses across the spaces in between nerve cells. It is involved in appetite, sleep, memory and mood (among a plethora of other things). In regards to depression, serotonin is of particular interest because it is known to be the ‘happy hormone’ as it increases feelings of well-being.
Some antidepressants target serotonin activity in the brain and block reuptake of serotonin into brain cells. This increases the amount of serotonin available in the brain for transmitting signals. These anti-depressants are classed as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRI’s, like citalopram, fluoxetine (prozac) & fluvoxamine. Great for improving depression, but the side effects are not so appealing and they don’t actually treat the root of the problem. Withdrawal symptoms can also leave you feeling worse than before you began treatment!
Here’s some food for thought. Literally. Some plants naturally contain high levels of serotonin (and tryptophan, which I’ll get to later) – particularly pineapples, bananas, tomatoes, kiwis and plums. Yes, plants contain human neurotransmitters! We use serotonin as a neurotransmitter, but plants use it in a protective role, to adapt to environmental changes, flowering and in establishing shape.
Studies have shown that people who have a higher intake of fresh fruits and vegetables are less likely to suffer from depression and mood disorders. Interesting. But, serotonin can’t cross the blood-brain barrier?! No matter how much we eat, it can’t improve mood if it can’t get into the brain. However,our body makes serotonin out of an amino acid called tryptophan. The brain contains special transporter proteins which are able to pluck tryptophan from the blood.
This is where it can get a bit complicated – so, stay with me. Most people associate tryptophan with turkey and warm milk with most animal products only containing small amounts. All the other amino acids have to compete with it for transport to get across the blood brain barrier and into the brain. Poor tryptophan usually gets knocked out of the way.
If you eat plant sources of tryptophan however, the carbohydrates in the plants causes the hormone insulin to be released into the blood stream. This forces your muscles to take up the other amino acids to use as fuel and tryptophan gets priority into the brain.
Interestingly, animal sources of tryptophan can make things worse! Researchers have found that when tryptophan is consumed in a protein based meal (eggs, cheese & turkey) for breakfast, tryptophan levels in the blood increase but brain levels decrease. In another group, it was found that those who ate waffles and orange juice for breakfast, tryptophan levels increased in the brain. This can explain why women crave carbohydrates during menstruation to improve mood.
Now while it may seem like a great idea to eat a ridiculous amount of carbs to make you feel better, afterwards it can leave you feeling heavy and tired. We all know it’s not great to eat your feelings either.
As I mentioned before, tryptophan competes with other amino acids for uptake into the brain. The higher the ratio of tryptophan to other proteins in foods make it more likely for tryptophan to be absorbed, so ideally you want to be eating tryptophan rich, high carb, low animal protein sources. Confused yet?
Sesame, chia, sunflower and pumpkin seeds are all amazing sources of this amino acid and pumpkin seeds in particular have been researched to improve symptoms of social anxiety disorder which is another psychological disorder associated with low serotonin levels.
In fact, researchers have found that vegetarians have better moods than people eating mixed diets which included meat, eggs, fish and dairy. A diet high in plant foods, complex carbohydrates and plant foods with a high tryptophan to protein ratio has had drastic results in improving mood globally.
So, if it’s that time of the month and you’re craving carbs – you now know why! Our bodies use carbs as a type of stress relief by increasing serotonin levels to make you feel happy. So next time those carb cravings begin, start with a handful of pumpkin seeds (25gm) and pair it with a piece of fruit, like a banana. The fruit will give you the carb hit and will allow the tryptophan in the seeds to be better absorbed. Plus, you get all the other bonus vitamins and minerals from eating fruit and seeds!
I hope you enjoyed this post. Any feedback and questions are more than welcome.
Enjoy your week!
Love Stace x