Written by Amanda Leach, MS, RD, LD, CLT
An orthomolecular psychiatrist, Dr. Abram Hoffer once said that “Physical and mental diseases are affected by what we put into our mouths-or fail to take in as nourishment.” Overconsumption or restriction of any food group can lead to imbalances in brain chemicals our body produce, called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and epinepherine, affect our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and support our brain health by controlling communication between nerve cells in the brain. These neurotransmitters are made from molecules called amino acids. There are 20 amino acids the body needs in order to function. Our body can make 11 of these amino acids, but 9 of them cannot be made and are essential to get from our diet. When we do not get enough or a balanced amount of these amino acids from our diet it can throw the balance of our neurotransmitters off and may make us feel depressed, irritable, anxious, or even contribute to food cravings.
Proteins are made up of amino acids linked together. When we eat protein, our stomach acid helps break these amino acids apart into their individual compounds so they can be absorbed and used by our body. One amino acid we need to get from our diet, that many people may be familiar with, is tryptophan. Tryptophan is needed for the production of serotonin. Serotonin is a calming, feel-good neurotransmitter. Having enough tryptophan (as well as enough of specific vitamins and minerals, which are also needed for this production to occur) is important to helping you feel relaxed and confident.
The best way to ensure you are getting the amino acids you need is to eat good quality protein every day, such as eggs, fish, meat, turkey, chicken, and dairy if you tolerate it. Amino acids are not stored for very long so it is important to get enough in every day. These animal based proteins contain all 9 essential amino acids. Some plant based foods such as legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains also contain amino acids, but they do not contain all 9 of them. If you are someone who avoids animal based foods then you need to be diligent about eating a variety of these plant based foods each day to make sure you are getting all the amino acids your body needs.
Most people can get enough amino acids by consuming 3-4 ounces of protein with each meal, which is about 20-30 grams of protein. The body cannot use much more than that at one sitting. Three to four ounces of meat or fish is about the size of a deck of cards or palm of your hand, or about 3 medium eggs.
Some people have increased needs for these proteins/amino acids and the above recommendations may be different for them. Such individuals include people who have low stomach acid or are taking antacids regularly because this affects their ability to break down and absorb these amino acids (and other nutrients). It also includes older individuals, because as many of us age our levels of stomach acid decrease. People with other digestive problems could have increased needs due to poor breakdown and absorption. Someone who has injuries and/or infections may also have increased needs because of a higher demand for these nutrients to support the healing process. Meeting with a registered dietitian to review your diet (and blood work, if available) can help make sure you are getting the proper amounts and variety of nutrients your brain and body needs to build these neurotransmitters and help you feel your best.