Tweak Your Neurotransmitters for an Energy Boost

So many folks I talk to complain they feel tired and rundown during the day.  Before we talk about diet, I want to mention a couple of common culprits. Poor sleep quality can leave you feeling listless between 1 and 3 PM (which just happens to be the time of day the British drink tea, while other countries nap at midday).   Low thyroid function can make your day long and arduous.  If you lack energy, check with your doctor for underlying conditions.

This said there are a number of dietary don’ts we make that can leave us feeling like the last roses of summer, and a few dietary dos that can perk us up.

If you’ve been reading this blog you are probably aware that foods affect how we feel; what you may not know is that you can “tweak” your moods and energy levels with food.

Take carbohydrates, for example.  Carbohydrates, like those found in breads, sweets, cakes and cookies, promote the production of the storage hormone insulin.  Along with fats and sugars, insulin proceeds to clear out all the amino acids in the blood stream with the notable exception of tryptophan.  Your brain uses tryptophan to make the neurotransmitter serotonin.  By clearing away all the amino acids that might compete with tryptophan, insulin grants this amino acid free passage across the blood brain barrier to the brain where it is used to make serotonin.  Serotonin is relaxing, and in larger quantities can make you feel sleepy.  Think of this next time you fall asleep after a meal of turkey (a source of tryptophan) with bread stuffing (a source of insulin-promoting carbohydrates)!

So, what kind of meal can perk you up during a busy day?  Breakfasts and lunches combining non-breaded protein sources, fatty or not, with non-starchy veggies is a great way to stay alert throughout the workday. To boost your alertness, get your proteins and amino acids from fish, poultry, meat and eggs. Found in abundance in these foods, the amino acid tyrosine is the raw material your body uses to make the adrenalin-like neurotransmitters dopamine, nor-epinephrine and epinephrine.  Go easy on carbohydrate-containing foods, even fruits, beans, legumes, milk products, or eat them at your latest meal of the day to avoid the sleep-promoting combination of insulin and tryptophan-rich proteins.

Are you physically healthy but feel energetically sluggish no matter what you do?  Some suggestions for you:  1. Cut out refined carbohydrates, like un-sprouted/unfermented wheat breads, corn products and sugars.  While carbohydrates provide energy, as previously mentioned too many, particularly those from wheat and corn and refined carbohydrates in particular, can leave us feeling drained.  If you’re jonesing for toast or a sandwich, look for low carbohydrate breads such as those made from sprouted grains and genuine whole grain sourdoughs.  2.  Avoid soy.  Most American soy products, such as soy milk and tofu, play havoc with the thyroid causing it to slow down.   At least one study suggests tofu may shrink the brain and cause thinking problems.  For better energy and overall health I recommend folks avoid soy.  3.  Eliminate synthetic food colorings, sweeteners, additives, flavor enhancers and preservatives.  These chemicals can drain our energy resources; some can even damage your brain over time.  4.  Avoid trans fat.  To find this fat you must read food labels, as products boasting "zero grams of trans fat" may contain less than 1/2 gram of trans fat per serving by law.  If the label says "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil," the food inside contains trans fat.   Trans fat damages your health.  There is no safe level of dietary trans fat. 

What about coffee and tea?  Used in moderation both provide pick-me-ups and may have health benefits.  But be careful—caffeine after lunch can interfere with sleep and leave you feeling tired the next day.

Now that you know what to do, next time you feel tired take control and tweak your neurotransmitters for an energy boost!