In our quest for excellence in our daily lives, we cannot discount the importance of how what we put into our bodies is going to affect our ability to reach our goals. But, let’s not forget that one of our ultimate goals should always be to enjoy our lives and to be happy! If you are feeling depressed, irritable, sad or just pretty much crappy, my guess is that your motivation to work towards your goals will be mightily undercut. We’re going to discuss a few reasons why what you eat, is so important to how you perform physically.
They are the brain chemicals that communicate information throughout our brain and body, so they are rather important! Just how does a food affect neurotransmitters? According to Dr. Richard Wurtman at MIT, the nutrients in foods are precursors to neurotransmitters, and depending on the amount of precursors present in the food you eat, the more or less of a certain neurotransmitter is produced. For example, the connection between carbohydrates (complex) and mood is all about tryptophan, a nonessential amino acid. As more tryptophan enters the brain, more serotonin is synthesized in the brain, and mood tends to improve. Serotonin, known as a mood regulator, is made naturally in the brain from tryptophan with some help from the B vitamins as well as Essential Fatty Acids and vitamin D. Seeing how we want to do all we can to give our body the ability to create more happy juices, aka, serotonin, let’s learn a little more about the B vitamins, Essential Fatty Acids and Vitamin D.
Vitamin B Complex
The group of B-complex vitamins includes vitamin B1, or thiamine, vitamin B2, or riboflavin, vitamin B3, or niacin, vitamin B5, or pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, or pyridoxine, vitamin B7, or biotin, vitamin B9, or folic acid and vitamin B12. B-complex vitamins help your body grow, heal and generate energy. Eating a nutritious diet filled with fruits, grains and vegetables provides most of the B-complex vitamins your body requires.
We are going to focus on two B vitamins, folate and vitamin B12, as research has shown that they seem to be important to mood. Studies have shown that low blood levels of these vitamins are sometimes related to depression. It is believed that these vitamins are used by the body to create serotonin, which we know is one of the key neurotransmitters to help normalize and improve mood. Folic acid works with vitamin B12 to produce S-adenosylmethionine, or SAM-e, an important compound that plays a role in mood. The University of Maryland Medical Center notes that SAM-e is used to produce and break down certain mood-regulating chemicals known as neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine and melatonin. A deficiency in any one of these neurotransmitters can result in feelings of depression, irritability and anxiety and can also negatively impact your quality of sleep. You can actually buy SAMe as a supplement, and it has the bonus added of assisting in joint repair and health as well.
Like all B vitamins, folic acid plays an important role in maintaining the healthy functioning of your nervous system and is also used in energy metabolism. Folic acid deficiency causes serotonin levels in the brain to decrease, which basically means that a deficiency of folic acid can lead to depression, cognitive problems and digestive complaints. Pretty impressive!
A recent Spanish study, using data from 4,211 men and 5,459 women, showed that rates of depression tended to increase in men (especially smokers) as folate intake decreased. The same occurred for women (especially among those who smoked or were physically inactive) but with another B-vitamin: B12. This isn’t the first study to discover an association between these two vitamins and mood.
In the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, August 2010 issue, a study was published in which researchers collected data from over 3,000 adults (age 65 or older). They found that those who had higher total intakes of vitamin B6 and B12 from foods and supplements were less likely to have depression.
Here is an interesting thought: Does poor nutrient intake lead to depression (or just feeling down), or does feeling crummy lead people to eat a crappy diet? Which came first? After working with people on nutrition, health, and fitness for 18 years, I can tell you that WHAT we are eating absolutely, positively, without a doubt affects HOW we feel. I’m not saying that if you struggle with depression that you are just going to overcome that by healthy eating alone but, I can say that your chances of improving your quality of life are going to drastically increase if you are feeding your body good foods that give it a fighting chance. Haven’t you ever just felt down and thought, “I don’t care what I eat today!”, and then felt even more down and crummy? I have! But, have you also done the opposite and been in a bad, or depressed mood and decided to make a healthy food choice and then felt a little better? I have experienced that as well. So, let’s take charge and choose to eat foods that are going to help us feel good.
Foods rich in these B Vitamins are: Lentils, black-eyed peas, soybeans, oatmeal, mustard greens, beets, broccoli, sunflower seeds, wheat germ and oranges as well as lean meats, fish, poultry, leafy greens, fruits and veggies (especially the dark green ones) and nuts. However, no one food has all of the B vitamins, so make sure you eat a varied diet and keep it interesting. Those Green Protein Smoothies cover just about all those bases. You get your dark leafy greens and fruits right off the bat every day and you are on track for happy, healthy living.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s)
In recent years, researchers have noted that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (EFA’s), found in fatty fish, flaxseed, and walnuts, may help protect against depression. This makes sense physiologically, since omega-3s appear to affect neurotransmitter pathways in the brain. In fact, significant work is being conducted in the area of omega-3 fatty acids on mental performance. Omega-3 fatty acids are present in the brain at higher levels than any other part of the body, and although this area has not been thoroughly researched, it has been shown by several studies that Omega 3 fats can help lift mood and alleviate depression. Bonus! We already know how important those healthy EFA’s are for joint repair and cellular regeneration and now we can get an added bonus of aiding us in maintaining mood stability and overall well being!
Here are some foods that are rich in omega-3 fats: oily fish (salmon, mackerel and sardines), ground flaxseeds, canola oil, walnuts and omega-3 fortified eggs. Once again, you blend yourself a beautiful Green Protein Smoothie every morning and add in your EFA’s in the form of Udo’s Choice oils, or flaxseed oil, etc. you are giving your body a tremendous head start on a happy, healthy day!
In the past few years, research has suggested that vitamin D might help relieve mood disorders because it seems to increase the amounts of serotonin, one of the neurotransmitters responsible for mood. In particular, vitamin D seems to help the type of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or the winter blues. Vitamin D increases levels of serotonin in the brain but researchers are unsure of the individual differences that determine how much vitamin D is ideal (based on where you live, time of year, skin type, level of sun exposure). Researchers from the University of Toronto noticed that people who were suffering from depression, particularly those with SAD, tended to improve as their vitamin D levels in the body increased over the normal course of a year. Try to get about 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D a day from food if possible.
Foods rich in vitamin D are: fish with bones, fat free and low-fat milk, fortified soy milk and egg yolks. Because vitamin D-rich foods are so limited, it’s often beneficial to take a daily multivitamin which provides 400-600 IU.
So, there you have it. A few more wonderful ways to ensure we are giving ourselves every opportunity to reach our full potential and enjoy our journey here on this earth. What we eat really does matter. Don’t lie to yourself and pretend that your breakfast of a doughnut and soda doesn’t affect how you feel and what you can accomplish. You don’t need to berate yourself for not being perfect, none of us are. It’s about just doing our best and making the best choices we can. If we mess up (we all do) just do better next time. Just choose today to make a healthy food choice and pay attention to how you feel. Then choose another healthy food choice, and pay attention again. Over time, you will find that you want to eat those healthy foods because you like how you feel, and you will like how you look! Enjoy the journey and remember, just like Michael Phelps says, “RELAX!“
Coach Keena is a regular contributor at TriEdge and has 15 years experience coaching and training hundreds of individuals. She is a USA Triathlon Certified Coach and holds additional certifications from the National association of Sports Medicine (NASM) and the American Council of Exercise (ACE) as a certified personal trainer. If you would like to contact Coach Keena go to: www.coachkeena.com