We eat to nourish and fuel the body, but how often do you think about feeding your mind? More and more studies are demonstrating the importance of certain nutrients for brain health. Food influences energy levels, mood, memory, and more. In this first article of two on brain health, we'll cover sleep and mood. Next time we'll look at memory and cognitive disorders.
On the most basic level, you have to know that the nervous system uses glucose – sugar – as its primary source of energy. When you go for more than a few hours without eating, it's common to get irritable and fatigued, and be less able to think clearly. Eating on a regular schedule can stop the embarrassing stomach rumbling while boosting your brain power and energy levels.
Once you've woken your brain up, focusing on certain foods can help change your brain chemistry and boost your mood. One brain chemical, serotonin, is largely responsible for regulating mood, hunger, and sleep. So how do we leverage our food choices to enhance serotonin production?
To make serotonin, your body needs an amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan is found most abundantly in protein-rich foods: meat and poultry, seafood, nuts, seeds, dairy, and soy to name a few.
But beyond getting enough protein, glucose can actually help the brain make the most of tryptophan. Instead of drinking a glass of warm milk before bed, try eating a small snack of easy-to-digest carbohydrates.
Besides helping cells use glucose, insulin also tells muscles to take in certain amino acids from the blood. These amino acids normally compete with tryptophan for absorption into the brain. This makes it easier for tryptophan to cross the "gate" and get turned into serotonin.
It may seem counterintuitive when you think about healthy choices, but foods that are basically straight sugar cause insulin levels to spike. Examples of sleep-inducing snacks include fruit, 100% juice, honey (enjoy with chamomile tea if you like), hard candy or jelly beans, toast with jam, vanilla wafers, graham crackers, rice cakes, pretzels, or saltine crackers.
For packaged foods, use the nutrition facts label to find the serving size that will give you about 15 grams of carbohydrate. Generally, 1 cup of fruit will have close to this amount. This is the amount that will give you enough sugar to stimulate insulin release, but not so much that you'd experience a blood sugar crash.
(Note that if you have diabetes, this may not be a good idea. Check with your health care team to find a strategy tailored to your needs.)
Vitamin B6 is another nutrient needed to make serotonin, and it's often found in many of the same foods that supply tryptophan. Sunflower seeds, poultry, fish, pistachios and bananas are just a few examples. Poultry, fish, pistachios, and sunflower seeds are great sources of protein that are also lower in saturated fat.
Of course, sleep itself significantly affects your overall health. Adequate rest allows your body to repair and replace tissues and store memories. Sleep is critical for regulating hormones that play a role in maintaining a healthy weight. Getting enough shut-eye can help manage appetite levels and body fat, keep your thyroid healthy, and even improve diabetes by affecting how insulin works.
Don't get me wrong – I'm not saying that eating specific foods alone and overdosing on sleep will magically cure insomnia, depression, and obesity. The issues are quite complex and may never be completed cured. But a healthy diet and good sleep hygiene certainly won't hurt – and may even help.
Today's post was written by Leia Kedem. Leia Kedem, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and Nutrition & Wellness Educator covering Champaign, Ford, Iroquois, and Vermilion Counties. She appears weekly on WCIA-3/WCIX-49 and is a biweekly contributor to the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. She also maintains Facebook and Twitter accounts where she regularly posts health tips and answers nutrition questions for free.