We all know someone that suffers from anxiety or depression and the common solution is to write a prescription. Mental health is treated the same as other chronic physical conditions, we are told to take a pill and hope things get better. Rarely is there any investigation of what could be the root cause of our mental health troubles. In part I we looked at what our body needs to build better mental health, in part II we will dive a bit deeper into each building block. 

Amino acids are the building blocks of our neurotransmitters

Whilst the body can produce some amino acids, many must be obtained from proteins in our diet. The best source of amino acids is properly raised animal products. Good digestion, particularly adequate hydrochloric acid levels in the stomach are essential for the proper breakdown of these proteins into molecules that the body can use and transport. As always it is important to remember that good digestion starts in the brain and being in a relaxed (parasympathetic state) before eating is critical. In addition to being able to release the right nutrients as building blocks for neurotransmitters, the right terrain is essential for the body to synthesise them. The body manufactures a large percentage of neurotransmitters in the gut. Leaky gut/intestinal permeability and dysbiosis (imbalance of gut flora) will both impact neurotransmitter synthesis and both these conditions stem from poor upstream digestive function.

What does nutrition have to do with mental health?

The role of nutrition in the regulation of mental health is incredibly important and many mental health conditions can be attributed to nutritional deficiencies. You need to right building blocks to regulate your moods. These nutrient deficiencies and the associated mental health issues may well be corrected with the right nutritional interventions. In this sense mental health can be viewed is as much a physical condition as it is psychological. As with all things in nutrition, without adequate digestion and assimilation of the right nutrients mental and physical issues caused by deficiencies can spiral out of control.

Neurotransmitter

Amino acid precursor

Role in the body

GABA

Glutamine

Our main inhibitory neurotransmitter and is essential for helping us to relax and focus. Insufficient GABA is common in people with anxiety and insomnia.

Serotonin

Tryptophan (or 5-HTP) & Tyrosine

Our main “happy neurotransmitter.” Up to 95% of this important chemical is produced in the gut and so the integrity of gut walls and bacterial balance (abundance of B vitamins etc) is critical.

Dopamine

Phenylalanine & Tyrosine

Dopamine is responsible for a range of brain functions including motor neuron control and sexual function. It is also the precursor to norepinephrine and endorphin.

Norepinephrine

Phenylalanine & Tyrosine

Regulates stress, mental energy and ability to stay focussed. Feeling constnatly stressed, and unable to focus might be a sign of too much adrenal activity (adrenals produce norepinepherine).

Endorphine

Tyrosine (Dopamine)

Helps us to feel a sense of pleasure and excitement and has potent analgesic (pain relieving effects). Endorphin production can be stimulated with exercise.

Amino acids are the building blocks of our neurotransmitters

To build the right neurotransmitters to support good mental health the right ingredients from a properly prepared, nutrient-dense and protein rich diet are of cours essential. But what happens when our digestive system isn’t working as it should? Are we still able to get all the amino acids we need to build neurotransmitters? Unfortunately the answer is NO. The importance of healthy digestive function in relation to any aspect of our physical and mental health cannot be overstated. I cover the importance of digestion and how to support it in my three part article starting here. For the purpose of amino acid absorption for good mental health let’s have a look at what needs to be working well from a digestive standpoint:

Important steps in the digestive cascade for mental health

Stomach: adequate HCL is necessary to release amino acids from proteins, prevent mal-digested proteins from travelling downstream and disrupting the gut

Liver/gallbladder: sufficient and healthy bile breaks down fats to release important co-factors and prevent mal-digested fats from acidifying in the gut Pancreas: balances blood sugar and releases important enzymes that break down all types of food to release important nutrients and prevent undigested food impacting the gut Small intestine: a healthy terrain ensures nutrients are assimilated through the correct pathways (through the epithelial cells, not between). The body accepts food rather than perceiving it as an “invader” and can use nutrients for their correct functions such as building hormones and neurotransmitters. Large intestine: the right balance of bacteria is critical for synthesis of neurotransmitters. Vitamins B1/B2/B12/K and butyric acid are produced in the large intestine and these are very important for regulation of mood and act as co-factors for hormones and neurotransmitters. Proper bowel function facilitates the correct release of toxins, ensuring they do not get reabsorbed by the body, which can impact overall sensation of health.

The importance of co-factors  for health neurotransmitters

In addition to their amino-acid building blocks, all neurotransmitters require a host of nutritional co-factors, which must are of course dependent on good digestion. Common co-factors include B-vitamins, especially B6 and B12; minerals such as zinc, magnesium, lithium, manganese and selenium; the right balance of fatty acids; and enzymes. Co-factors are obtained through consuming properly-prepared, nutrient-dense, whole foods and adequate digestive terrain to break down an assimilate nutrients.

Neurotransmitters and the chemistry of emotion

When we have sufficient building blocks and the right terrain for synthesis of all of our neurotransmitters then our emotions are well-regulated. However, as we know so many things can go wrong in the digestive process, which deplete our resources and damage the terrain for this synthesis to occur. Insufficient neurotransmitters can cause depression, anger management problems, fatigue, anxiety and hyperactivity. Unfortunately the accepted treatment is to put these symptoms down to a chemical imbalance that can only be corrected with medication. However, if we look to address “why” these imbalances are occurring, starting with diet and digestion, then I believe we would see a significant reduction in the number of people living on medications.

These articles are not intended to try and minimise the very real impacts that conditions like depression and anxiety have on our lives. For more support with mental health, please visit Better Help, to be put in touch with a mental health professional.

Instead I am trying to highlight the very tangible links between our diets and mental health. We do have the power to support better mental and physical experiences and ultimately this starts with what we put into our bodies. Also important is mindset and the way that we talk to ourselves. Negative thoughts also act like a toxic load on the body. If you need support with improving your mental or physical health naturally then please contact me for support. 

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