If you wake up most mornings feeling anxious, depressed or stressed, you are not alone. On average, 1 in 6 adults (16%) have been diagnosed with a common mental disorder at some time in their lives including anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. In France, 1 in 3 people are prescribed psychotropic drugs. We are in the midst of an epidemic of people feeling like crap: anxious, stressed, depressed, no motivation, tired, wired and unable to sleep.
Most of my work is based on helping people feel better, be it changing your lifestyle, emotions, thoughts and/or behavior. It’s something that has fascinated me for as long as I can remember and also something I still struggle with to get 100% right. I personally come from a family where pretty much everyone has struggled with a mental health issue or addiction. While I do believe some of our issues are inherited, I also believe our tendency to struggle stems from our chemical balances or imbalances, as the case may be.
One of the first steps in changing how you feel is to realize why you feel that way in the first place. A lot of the time, we are self-medicating due to imbalances in the body or imbalances that have been caused by the substances we are consuming.
We produce certain chemicals called neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers of mood, motivation and feelings that make us feel good. When our neurotransmitters are produced in optimal amounts, we feel happy and satisfied. When they are deficient, we feel out-of-sorts and are looking for ways to boost them.
In this post, I’m going to talk about ways to boost the neurotransmitters you may be lacking or deficient in, to help you feel better and stop the cycle of self-medicating and feeling like crap.
So, checking these neurotransmitters is the first place I start with my clients when addressing any issue.
1) Dopamine – The motivating neurotransmitter that makes you feel focused, energized and excited. When you are low in dopamine, you tend to feel distracted, sluggish, prone to procrastination and find it hard to take pleasure in life.
What you crave when you are low – Sugar, caffeine, cigarettes, energy drinks, diet drinks, porn, sex, amphetamines and cocaine.
How to boost dopamine –
A) Diet – Almonds, avocados, bananas, dairy, eggs, fish, meat and poultry, oats, sesame and pumpkin seeds may all help your body to produce more dopamine.
B) Exercise – Exercise stimulates dopamine release and uptake in your brain. Try 30 to 60 minutes of walking, swimming, jogging or lifting weights 3 to 5 times a week to increase your dopamine levels.
C) Supplements – L-Tyrosine is an amino acid that is the building block for dopamine. It‘s also a precursor to thyroid hormones, so therefore useful to increase low energy levels, boost alertness, as an appetite suppressant, thyroid function and to increase sexual desire.
L-Phenylalanine is also a precursor to dopamine as well as many other important neurotransmitters. It’s a natural mood booster and antidepressant, curbs sugar and stimulant cravings, helps in controlling pain, particularly arthritis and is used to help treat Parkinson’s disease. L-Phenylalaninealso helps forms another energizing brain chemical called PEA (phenylethylamine), (also found in chocolate) which is believed to be the chemical most responsible for feelings of euphoria. Yeah baby!
(Do not take L-Tyrosine or L-Phenylalanine if you are suffering from high blood pressure, PKU or melanoma.)
2) Serotonin – Serotonin is the neurotransmitter largely responsible for regulating moods and emotions. When your serotonin levels are good, you tend to feel confident, positive, and easygoing.
If you’re low in serotonin—you’ll tend to become negative, obsessive compulsive worried, irritable and have trouble sleeping. Most antidepressants primarily boost serotonin. Over 90% of your serotonin is made in your gut, so a lot of the time lack of serotonin is a gut health issue.
For people with low serotonin levels, they are most likely to crave alcohol, carbs, white flour, sugar and opiates (heroin, painkillers). These substances can mimic serotonin and lead to a brief increase in serotonin levels, making the person feel temporarily better but having nasty crashes when the levels drop again.
How to boost serotonin –
A) Diet – Serotonin is created from tryptophan in our diet and tryptophan is found in foods like beef, chicken, dairy products, eggs, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, pork, turkey and whey protein.
B) Sunlight – The deficiency of Vitamin D has substantial medical and psychological consequences. Every tissue in the body has vitamin D receptors, including the brain, heart, immune system and muscles, which means vitamin D, is needed at every level for the body to function. Vitamin D activates the genes that release dopamine and serotonin. So make sure you get at least 15 minutes of sun a day or take a vitamin D-3 supplement(1,000 IU daily for every 11 kilos or 25 pounds of total body weight).
C) Exercise – Exercise increases both serotonin production and release. In particular, aerobic exercises, like running and biking, are the most likely to boost serotonin. Numerous studies have shown exercise to be more effective at treating depression than antidepressants.
D) Supplements –5-HTP5-HTP (5-hydroxy L-tryptophan) is a naturally occurring metabolite of the amino acid tryptophan. 5-HTP is converted in the brain to serotonin(Caution: Not to be used when taking MAO inhibitors, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or other anti-depressant medications.)
B-Complex– All of the B vitamins are vital for energy and the production of serotonin and are used up rapidly in times of stress.
Calcium/Magnesium – Both calcium and magnesium are precursors to serotonin production, so it’s important to be getting plenty in your diet. I always take calcium and magnesium at night with dinner and notice a huge difference with my stress levels and sleep.
3) GABA – GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is your brain’s natural valium. If you’re high in GABA—you feel relaxed and stress-free. If you are low in GABA—you feel anxious, irritable, overwhelmed, stressed and wired.
When you are low in GABA, you tend to have anxiety attacks, carbohydrate and alcohol cravings, ringing in the ears, muscle tension (especially in neck and back), trembling/twitching muscles, numbness or tingling in fingers, your breathing may be too fast and too shallow, excessive sweating, heart palpitations and insomnia.
Alcohol, marijuana, valium and heroin all boost GABA in the brain and body. This is why a person severely deficient in GABA, which may be genetic or acquired from stress and trauma, will turn to alcohol and drugs and are much more likely to become addicted.
This is part of the reason why people find it so hard to stop using substances that they know are not good for them. Once they stop, their GABA goes down and they feel anxious, overwhelmed and unable to sleep.
How to boost GABA –
A) Yoga – A recent study followed two groups of healthy individuals over a 12-week period. One group practiced yoga three times a week for one hour, while the remaining subjects walked for the same period of time. Those who practiced yoga reported a greater decrease in anxiety and higher levels of GABA than those who walked.
B) Supplements –L-Theanine an amino acid found in green tea increases levels of GABA within the brain, increases the production of alpha brainwaves, as well as boosting focus and mental clarity. Study show that l-theanine is useful in the treatment of anxiety due to its ability to calm the nervous system, counteracting the toxic effects of stress as well as improving sleep.
Passion Flower extract has been shown boost GABA to aid in relaxation, and reduce tenseness and restlessness without creating dependency.
L-Glutamine – Glutamine is amazing for alcohol, sugar and carb cravings. It also repairs the lining of the gut and is an all-around wonder amino acid.
(Caution: Do not take GABA support if taking anti-epileptics or Benzodiazepines or other sleep meds. Or if you have been drinking heavily)
Please check with your doctor before taking any supplements
If you would like to know more, my two favorite books on the topic are: