If you’re down in the dumps, you may be tempted to eat a pint of ice cream. But that buzz and rush of dopamine that activates your brain’s reward center is short-lived. After your blood sugar levels fall to below where it was before you had ice cream, you’ll be tempted to have another sugary or salty snack. And then, you’ll need to score another hit of dopamine to feel better. Dopamine is one of your body’s seven neurotransmitters, chemical messengers that act like switchboards for your brain’s cells. (Actually, there are more than 100 neurotransmitters, but only seven of them do most of the work.)
If ice cream isn’t the best food for uplifting your mood, then what is? And what are some other foods that can boost brain power?
Read on to find out….
Perhaps there’s a good reason why drugs like marijuana are called dope. Now that you know what dopamine is, isn’t dope appropriate slang for illicit drugs from which addicts derive pleasure, even though they can potentially be harmful? Instead of activating dopamine with drugs, you can increase levels of the neurotransmitter in a much more healthy way.
The best foods for increasing dopamine levels are spinach, avocados, salmon, eggs, apples, and nuts. Now, is eating a handful of almonds going to light up your brain’s reward center in the same way as ice cream? Perhaps if you’re nuts for nuts, but for most people, probably not. But there is one more food on the dopamine-friendly list that you might be happy to indulge in: chocolate.
Now, before you go splurging on the Hershey’s there is a catch. It can’t be just any kind of chocolate to be healthy. It has to be dark chocolate, with at least 70% cacao. The more sugar, a chocolate bar has, the less cacao it has. (Cacao comes from the raw pod from which chocolate is derived.)
There’s another neurotransmitter that’s similar to dopamine that you may have heard of: serotonin. And there’s one particular food that’s popular on the busiest travel holiday of the year that’s best known for activating serotonin. Can you guess what it is? That’s right, it’s turkey. Turkey doesn’t actually contain serotonin. In fact, no food contains serotonin. Rather, certain foods like turkey contain the amino acid, tryptophan, which converts into serotonin. Is serotonin the reason you blissfully pass out on the couch after Thanksgiving dinner? Probably not. The main culprit is eating too much. However, turkey definitely plays a big part in making you feel more relaxed on Thanksgiving. Other serotonin-boosting foods include seeds, especially pumpkin and sunflower, as well as peas, mushrooms and soy.
There’s another important transmitter that you should know about. This one helps you feel calm and relaxed. It’s called GABA. People who have depression and anxiety have low levels of this chemical messenger. Whole grains, legumes (lentils, beans), berries, citrus fruits and fish are some of the best GABA-boosting foods.
As you can see, there’s no junk food on this list. The best foods for your neurotransmitters are the same ones that contribute to health in many other ways. If you feel happy after eating a Happy Meal, realize that the good feeling is a false friend. Eventually, the health consequences of eating fast food and highly-processed packaged junk will rob you of real vitality and joy. Eat real, whole foods 85-90 percent of the time, and you’ll enjoy longer-lasting, happier and more stable moods.