Recently, a study was published to answer the simple question "If I eat better, will I feel better?" It was aptly called the 'Smiles' study and it turned out, that for over 30% of people who were suffering from depression who took part in the study, the answer was yes it does!
Thirty two percent of depressed people who changed their diet went into remission – that is – they no longer suffered from depression. This is an incredible result.
Diet is one aspect that gets very little attention when it comes to mental health and well being – or indeed the concept of happiness. And yet it is an incredibly important part of our happiness – as clearly demonstrated above.
How does this work?
Quite simply part of our mental well-being is based on our body’s ability to make neurotransmitters. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter and is known as the happy, feel good chemical is often thought to be deficient in those suffering from depression. (It is the primary neurotransmitter that many of the modern antidepressants - SSRI's - Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors - target).
Dopamine is less known neurotransmitter - but is known as the motivating, reward neurotransmitter - often suggested to be enhanced when people satisfy cravings or the feel good factor when you do something you enjoy. GABA - is a calming, relaxing neurotransmitter to help you feel chilled and relaxed. All of these neurotransmitters are important when it comes to feeling good about life.
How do we make neurotransmitters?
Neurotransmitters are made from amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and are consumed in the food we eat. For example to make serotonin, an amino acid called tryptophan (contained in meat, egg and dairy - but can also be found in vegetarian based protein sources such as legumes and nuts, quinoa and soy) is needed. With the help of vitamins such folate (from green leafy veges), vitamin B6 (beef, avocado, tuna) and zinc (lamb, pumpkin seeds, beef, chickpeas) it is metabolised through a series of processes to become serotonin.
For all of these processes to take place - you need the entire cascade to be working properly. Ie, you need the intake of amino acids, you need an adequate magnesium (found in spinach, yogurt, almonds) which supports the enzymes needed to transform the amino acids. And you also need folate, B6 and zinc etc
When one understands this amazing process, it is easy to see how diet can influence how you feel and indeed how ‘happy’ you might be feeling! Similarly other neurotransmitters also go through a similar process, each requiring an amino acid and it’s conversion with the help of nutrients to be converted into a neurotransmitter. Going down the cascade a little further - serotonin is converted into melatonin, which is necessary for sleep.
Getting out into sunlight first thing in the morning helps support this conversion. Dopamine (the ‘reward’ neurotransmitter) is also converted into adrenaline and noradrenaline - for the ‘get up and go’ response we all need from time to time.
Although there are other things which can get in the way of our ability to make neurotransmitters from the food we eat, such as the ability to digest and absorb these nutrients, genetics and other disease states which may interfere with our health, eating well can give us a great head start.
What can you do?
I have seen an enormous positive response in people who chose to 'nutrify' their diets (with food and/or supplement support). You can add loads of vegetables (leafy greens and brassicas) into your meals, add grass fed meat, nuts and seeds, choose whole unprocessed foods and reduce poor quality, nutrient deficient food in your daily diet. Ideally cut out alcohol or other substances which may be depleting vitamins and minerals.
Diet may only be a small part of the puzzle when it comes to creating our happiness, but if we think it can't possibly be as simple as 'eat well and feel better', the Smiles study clearly shows for 32% of depressed people, this is indeed the case. And for those 32% I am sure that meant an awful lot!
About Helen Duyvestyn
I am a Registered Nurse and Life Coach and the owner operator of 'One Life - A Life Worth Living' a business dedicated to health, life and well-being coaching. I am passionate about helping people make the very most of their precious lives and ensuring they are lives worth living.
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