To be happy. Coupled with health, this is the most common aspiration in life. It's a desire that we all share, regardless of class, culture or origin. The happiness effect can be measured by Serotonin – one of the main neurotransmitters responsible for happiness. Did you know that 70-90% of serotonin can be found in the gut! It's used in the brain, but must be produced in the gut first. In this article, I will be looking at happiness at a cellular level with the perspective of a Holistic Nutritionist. Investigating what nutrients are at the core of that 'happy' feeling, the neurotransmitters and hormones involved and how effective nutrition can be in contributing to happiness.
EATING THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF HAPPINESS
Unfortunately, serotonin is not found in food. But the good news is, its precursor Tryptophan is highly attainable. There are four major hormones and neurotransmitters which govern happiness: Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin and Endorphins. For the purpose of this article, we will focus on Serotonin: a neurotransmitter which balances mood and is largely responsible for the feelings of happiness and wellbeing. Those who are depressed are found to have low levels of serotonin. Western medicine deals with depression and anxiety by prescribing SSRI's (Selective Serotonin Re-Uptake Inhibitors) – which basically means they encourage the circulation of serotonin in the body.
TOP 3 NUTRIENTS
Tryptophan – main precursor to serotonin (happy neurotransmitter)
Vitamin D – think SAD (seasonal affective disorder). Without it, we're sad.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids – Provides many key nutrients
Tryptophan is an amino acid (building blocks of protein). Tryptophan is our key into eating for happiness because it is a direct precursor to make Serotonin – one of the main happiness neurotransmitters. Remember, serotonin is responsible for feelings of overall happiness and well being. Western anti-depressants (SSRI's) work by recycling serotonin in the brain. But if we eat foods high in tryptophan, we're able to encourage the production of more serotonin. If depression is linked to LOW serotonin in the body, then eating foods high in it's main building blocks can help to increase levels of serotonin. Tryptophan is also a precursor to melatonin, the hormone responsible for your body's internal clock (circadian rhythm) and controls sleep patterns. This is what is responsible for feelings of sleepiness after eating a lot of turkey on Thanksgiving because turkey is one of the highest sources of tryptophan.
OMEGA 3 FATTY ACIDS
Omega 3 fatty acids are essential fats that cannot be manufactured by the body and must be consumed in our food or through supplementation. Along with being highly anti-inflammatory, these fats are shown to be protective for the brain against free-radical damage. Many studies have been conducted on the treatment of depression with Omega-3 supplementation. Certain types of EPA and DHA – which are TYPES of Omega 3 fatty acids - have been strongly linked to mental health conditions. The only way to obtain these types of Omega 3 fatty acids is through fish and some algae. If you want to obtain the benefits of Omega 3 fatty acids in a plant-based diet, the only way to do this is through ALA Omega 3, which is a precursor to EPA and DHA (the key Omega 3's). One of the highest plant based forms of ALA is in flaxseed.
Vitamin D is a very important nutrient for health. Along with other amazing traits, it has been used as treatment in the prevention of depression. A deficiency of vitamin D has been linked to depression.
The problem is, Vitamin D is difficult to obtain in food. It is found naturally in eggs and fish, but that's about it. Some foods may be fortified with vitamin D, but it would be the same as taking a supplement. If you're going to supplement with Vitamin D, which is highly suggested if you don't live in a warm climate, make sure you buy Vitamin D-3 which is more bio-available than D2.
3 FOODS TO EAT FOR HAPPINESS
Turkey is one of the highest food sources of tryptophan. To treat depression it is recommended to take 150-300mg / day of tryptophan (5-htp). Yet 1 serving of ground turkey provides 250mg !
Omega - 3
Mackerel is a small, fatty, cold-water fish that boasts some of the highest levels of omega-3 Fatty Acids. It is also considered a sustainable fish and has relatively low toxicity due to its small size.
Salmon. 1 portion can provide up to 360 of the recommended 1000 IU of vitamin D per day. Always opt for sustainable, wild salmon.
FOODS NOT TO EAT
It's important to look at the foods that we should avoid so that the beneficial foods can do their work in increasing happiness. As a general rule, it is important to avoid artificial stimulants that have a rollercoaster effect on our mood, energy levels and blood sugar balance. Think about the highs and lows of coffee. You drink it, you feel focused and alert, then a few hours later you feel exhausted and cloudy. Then you drink another coffee and you feel alert again! This rollercoaster ride can cause an emotional dump, which is what we're trying to avoid. To maintain an even sense of calmness, overall well being and happiness, you need to aim for balance. Below are some of the top foods to be avoided for optimum happiness:
Caffeine: Coffee, green tea, black tea, energy drinks or anything with an artificial stimulant. These are some of the key perpitrators in producing highs and LOWS of depression.
Sugar and Refined Foods: foods that are high in refined sugars and flours have a way of getting into the bloodstream very quickly. They produce increased energy and then the inevitable crash. This does not just mean table sugar. Think about all the places that sugar can hide. Even 2 slices of whole wheat toast can have the same effect on your blood sugar as 6 teaspoons of sugar! The way to avoid these foods is to eat clean: whole vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, meat and fish. Real food does not have ingredients, real food IS ingredients.
Alcohol: this has the same effect on your body as caffeine. You feel good, then you feel REALLY bad. Avoid this bodily toxin if you want to work on a balanced mood and sense of well being.
Making sure you aren't deficient in the main building blocks to create happy hormones is key in leading a happy and healthy lifestyle. As the majority of serotonin is made in your gut, it's important to feed yourself all the goodness needed to be happy. Follow these tips and tricks on a consistent basis and you'll see for yourself how your mood can be lifted through food.