By Liz Koch
Feeling moody, anxious or depressed are normal emotions that come and go with living life — until they become chronic. Insomnia and cravings may be signals of unmet emotional needs until they just won’t go away. Our body sends zillions of messages in an attempt to maintain balance. Given the necessary raw materials, the human brain automatically manufactures the types and quantity of chemicals needed to handle the ups and downs of life, growth, and even exceptional stress. But when symptoms become chronic, they may be a strong indicator that body chemistry needs improving. Seeing a qualified health care professional can be a vital step in finding a solution but there are also everyday steps one can take to maintain a natural balance.
Our brain uses large quantities of chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters keep us alert and action-ready. But due to modern-day stress, lifestyle and dietchoices, our brain can run out of the necessary chemicals needed to maintain healthy functioning. Stress and poor diet can be pinpointed as some of the main culprits.
Stress is a normal part of the animal world. When a rabbit runs from a fox, his body signals the threat. In an attempt to be efficient, neurotransmitters, in a blink of an eye, put life-protecting reflexes in motion. Flee, fight or freeze are essential survival responses.
But when an animal flees, it doesn’t stop to smell the lush green grass or taste the juicy berries. All of its sensory perceptions are geared up and focusing on safety. Once safe, recovery begins. Shaking, bathing and a deep state of rest are the body’s means of getting rid of excess and unnecessary chemicals. It is Mother Nature’s way of shifting from the sympathetic (survival mode) back to every day parasympathetic (relaxation mode).
Lifestyle choices and poor diet disrupt neurotransmitters functions. Where the hunter-gathers stress was primarily physical, our modern-day stress is of a different nature. Traffic, TV, video games and other forms of perceptual stimulants can bombard the body with subtle cues. Exposure to mercury, lead and other heavy metals has been found to have a profound effect on neurotransmitters.
Recently, researchers at the University Of Calgary Medical School Of Medicine demonstrated via microscopic video how growing brain neurons begin to dramatically wither within 20 minutes after exposure to even minor levels of mercury. Chemical foods such as aspartame, NutraSweet and the multitude of preservatives and additives found in soda, gums, mints and many packaged foods release chemicals that disrupt neurotransmitter functions, according to studies.
According to Dr. Russell L. Blaylock, professor of neurosurgery at the University of Mississippi’s medical center and author of “Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills,” aspartate and glutamate (found in the chemically related substance MSG) are neurotransmitters normally found in the brain and spinal cord, but when aspartate reaches certain levels it causes the death of brain neurons.
Otto Loewi, an Austrian scientist, discovered the first neurotransmitter back in 1921. Built primarily from amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, neurotransmitters are constantly being created. With a limited ability to store proteins, we need a constant source of high quality whole-food proteins to constantly rebuild, repair and function well.
Adrenaline-pumping substances such as coffee, sugar and chocolate, along with a lack of nutritionally supportive foods, can drive neurotransmitters to dysfunction. Processed fast food consumed on the run may put many people on the fast track to being overwhelmed.
Feeding our neurotransmitters includes exercising the art of relaxation. A natural soothing environment helps calm high levels of stress. Taking warm baths, an evening walk, enjoying a cup of herbal tea and making time to be with loved ones or simply by our self helps us to regain chemical perspective.
Slowing down and sitting down is another way to reap the benefits of what you eat. By feeling calm, we are better able to actually assimilate and utilize the food we eat. Most important is eating whole foods rich in protein. If a child goes off to school having consumed a quick bowl of sugar cereal with 2 percent milk, they have ingested a substance not only too high in carbohydrates but too low in proteins. The body will not receive the amino acids essential to fuel let alone rebuild neurotransmitters.
When eating a salad for lunch, including a hard-boiled egg, whey shake or adding two or three ounces of chicken, turkey, fish, cheese can mean the world of difference to our brain chemistry. For most of us, protein should show up in all three meals.
Way of Life nutritional consultant and Bauman College of Nutrition instructor Ramona Richard explains, “If we lack adequate protein, our body simply cannot build the neurotransmitters it needs. Rather than needing to rely on chemical drugs such as Prozac, we may be experiencing a deficiency of one or more neurotransmitters. Over time chronic imbalances can even contribute to more serious conditions such as panic attacks, eating disorders and attention deficits.”
Keeping neurotransmitters in good supply is required if we are to feel content, peaceful, happy and joyful — our birthright as human beings.
Liz Koch is the Way of Life health education coordinator.