No downer beef, if you please. But gimme slabs of chocolate and cheese – and all of the other upper foods that help effect serotonin and dopamine, the two neurotransmitters in the old brain. Who says the Gods must be crazy? We’ve sampled the forbidden fruit and want more! Give us more!
Dopamine is related to pleasure and euphoria while serotonin has to do with mood, memory and sleep. Both of these pathways can be stimulated by food, as well as by exposure to light and exercise.
No food, of course, should replace prescribed medication for serious depression (unless your doctor and nutritionist sign off on it). But for many of us, who are only slightly depressed from the realities of life, they can provide a little boost (yippee!) as well as antioxidant properties and nutritional fiber.
To compile a list of those happy foods, I went to Mindy Dopler Nelson, a post-doctorate research fellow at Standford University specializing in nutrition biology. Before handing over her list, she told me not all foods affect people the same way.
Mindy Dopler Nelson, PhD, Stanford University
“What gives you comfort is going to vary across culture, age, gender and psychological factors as a result of your life experiences,” says Nelson. “Each hormone or neurotrasmitter in the brain has to bind to something to make it active. What it binds to are called receptors and they aren’t the same in everyone.”
Researchers have found that if you are exposed to high fat and sugar early in life, you tend to develop more of a craving for it to boost your spirits. There also is a genetic factor. Some of us (35% of the population) simply don’t have as many receptors and tend to be overweight due to a need for more happy foods to get the same effect as those with ample receptors. In other words, you might be satisfied with just one piece of California Brittle from a box of Sees Candies while gluttons like me must devour the box. I love you Mary! I love you soooo much!
“One food across the board everyone is going to agree with is chocolate,” adds Nelson. ” That’s because it contains the chemical phenylethylamine which releases dopamine.” The compound is thought to be responsible for the high you experience after eating chocolate because it releases natural feel-good chemicals called endorphins in your brain.
According to All Chocolate, PEA is released by the brain when people are falling in love, and this might explain why chocolate and Valentines Day are so closely linked.
Here is Nelson’s breakdown of what you can choose to beat the blues:
Chocolate: Chocolate is a stimulant that will release the dopamine that creates that pleasure feeling. It’s in the cocoa. There’s more of it in dark chocolate than in milk chocolate. But there’s something about the fat in the milk that also will make you feel good. Some people associate a comfort food with a high-fat food. There also are antioxidants in the dark chocolate, but watch the dosage! Excess can be harmful for your liver and pile on the pounds. Dopamine has an amphedamine effect, hence the term chocoholic. You also cannot ignore the fact it contains mucho caffeine that will keep you up at night. (And if you don’t get enough sleep it will effect your serotonin level.)
Cheese: The thing to be careful about is the fat, but if you go with the potent tasting cheeses, you can usually still get the phenyl while eating a moderate amount. You eat less because it is so strong. And remember, go organic when you can.
Image: Saquan Stimpson/Monstershaq
Almonds: As a raw snack food, they have good fats associated with reducing the risk of heart disease. But eat them in small doses because they also can promote weight gain and headaches. Many amines can cause headaches triggered by foods like almonds, so people prone to migraines are told to stay away from them.
Red Wine: Wine has the phenyl in it, as well, and you also get the benefit of the antioxidant resveratrol, which helps your heart. Many people like to pair wine with other upper foods like chocolate and cheese. Although we think more is better, when it comes to wine and beer, this is a case where you need just enough. More is not better.
Tomatoes: In addition to having phenyl, they have lycopene, an antioxidant associated with reducing the risks of some types of cancer, especially prostate cancer. Imagine a glass of wine with cheese and tomatoes, sliced apples and chocolate to top it off!
Apples: The skin, especially in red apples, has antioxidant properties, plus the benefits of fiber which is a tectin that can help lower cholesterol. It binds it. That’s why the American Cancer Society touts apples as a great snack. You can overdose on these, too, because of the natural sugars. But they are an ideal choice when you eat a reasonable portion.
Nelson adds that additional foods high in tyrosine get converted to dopamine, but there is no guarantee that just because a food is high in these compounds, the tyrosine or tryptophan will cross the brain barrier to increase dopamine or serotonin.
Among these foods are chicken (390 mcgs of tryrptophan); salmon (250 mcgs of tryptophan); tofu (280 mcgs of tryptophan); eggs (200 mcgs of tryptophan); milk (220 mcgs of tryptophan) and yogurt (140 mcgs of tryptophan).
Main image: Zara