There are many components of happiness, but from a biochemical point of view there are some crucial building blocks that we can simply eat. One of these is Tryptophan, an “essential” amino acid, given this name because our body can’t make it from other nutrients so it it is essential that we eat it. Thankfully it is found in a wide range of foods, primarily those classed as proteins (see list below). A tryptophan depleted diet is used in research to cause depression, so to understand how a dietary intervention can have such a powerful effect let’s look at the basics of how the biochemical pathway works.
How antidepressants work
The most commonly used type of antidepressant is an SSRI – Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter known to make us feel happy, and so the more serotonin that we have available as a chemical messenger between our neurons (a type of nerve cell found in huge quantities in our brains), the happier we are likely to feel. SSRIs work by blocking (inhibiting) the ability of a neuron to absorb serotonin back into itself from the synaptic cleft (the gap between neurons), thereby raising the levels of serotonin in that gap so that the “happy” message is passed on more easily to the next neuron.
How foods support Happiness
However as you can see from this diagram below, if we want to support the production of serotonin we need to provide tryptophan as the first building block in the process: and if we exclude it from our food choices, our body simply can’t make us feel happy, however hard it tries.
How can we ensure that we provide ourselves with plenty of tryptophan? By consuming a variety of foods that are rich in this “happy” nutrient, such as:
- Pumpkin & sesame seeds
- Soybeans & Tofu
- Beans & Legumes
- Milk & all other dairy products, especially cottage cheese
- Nuts, especially raw peanuts & peanut butter (not the peanuts roasted in oil)
…and in order to convert tryptophan into 5-HTP and then into serotonin, the chemical pathway also needs Vitamin C, iron, vitamin B2 and vitamin B6. These nutrients are found in a wide range of foods including many of those above but also
- All brightly coloured fruits & vegetables
- Green leafy vegetables including broccoli & kale
- Whole grains (for example brown rice but not white rice)
- Nuts such as almonds & walnuts
- Liver & kidney
- Sunflower seeds
- Mackerel, salmon, fresh anchovies
- Currants and apricots (if eating dried apricots, avoid the bright orange non-organic ones which are preserved using sulphites)
I guess it makes sense that eating a variety of these foods throughout each week is more interesting and enjoyable than limiting ourselves or falling into the habit of eating the same things all the time, and so is more likely to make us feel happier purely from a visual and taste point of view. There may also be a clue in the title of all these unrefined, unprocessed foods: that whole foods helps us to feel whole in ourselves.
Experiment to see if Foods can make You happier
To read a previous blog entry about neurons and nerve impulses, see Acting on Impulse and to find out more about how to eat a balanced range of foods, see the post entitled Simple, Balanced Food Equation. For food, drink & snack ideas, check out the Soul Nutrition Facebook albums for FREE: even if you aren’t on Facebook you can still click on all the photos until they come up full screen, and then you can read the information that accompanies each image.
The Functional Nutrition Cookbook: Addressing Biochemical Imbalances Through Diet by Lorraine Nicolle & Christine Bailey
The Kitchen Shrink: Foods and Recipes for a Healthy Mind by Natalie Savona
Potatoes Not Prozac: How to Control Depression, Food Cravings and Weight Gain by Kathleen DesMaisons PhD
The Nutrient Bible by Henry Osiecki
Medline Plus (2012) Tryptophan Available from: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002332.htm (accessed 17.09.12)
Synapse image credit: http://neurosciencefundamentals.unsw.wikispaces.net/How+Effective+are+Antidepressants%3F