Happiness is subjective.
It has been defined as having a cognitive and affective component: Frequent positive emotions such as joy, affection, pride and tranquillity AND a sense that one’s life is good.
We know that those in a happy mood are more creative, have better relationships, stronger immune systems and perform better at their daily work tasks.
A recent news report revealed around 15,000 teenagers in New Zealand take anti-depressant medications. Fifteen thousand.
Globally, mood and mental disorders are on the rise with the World Health Organisation reporting that mental disorders are now the leading cause of disability in the United States, Canada and Australasia.
Certain biological pathways influence mood and behaviour. The end products of these are neurotransmitters – chemical messengers that communicate information throughout our brain and body. They all play different roles and are involved in different things.
As far as mood and behaviour are concerned, these are the key functions of some neurotransmitters.
Dopamine: motivation, mood, memory, movement
Adrenaline: stress response
Serotonin: mood-enhancing, pain control, appetite regulation
Melatonin: regulation of circadian rhythms, sleep promotion, GABA receptor regulation
GABA: dampens, calms, vision and motor control, sleep maintenance
Endorphins: euphoria, pain-control
Acetylcholine: memory, alertness
When treating mood disorders, the approach of pharmaceutical medication is to target neurotransmitters, increasing their uptake into the cell.
However, current research is instead investigating what is causing dysregulation in these pathways.
Taking into account factors about each individual such as immunity, sleep patterns, diet, exercise and socialisation is so important in supporting healthy neurotransmitter production.
Causes of imbalances may include inflammation, infection, oxidative stress or mitochondrial dysfunction.
Diet and lifestyle have been shown to play a major role in both disrupting these pathways as well as correcting them.
The British Journal of Psychiatry published a study that showed people who consumed diets high in processed food were more likely to develop depression.
The brain is an organ therefore each of its cells has a high demand for nutrients.
A large portion of the nervous system is located around the gut walls also therefore digestive issues can contribute to or exacerbate mood disorders and vice versa.
Gut health, with optimal balance of bacteria, is now considered to be very important to mental health. Lactobacillus helveticus is a strain of bacteria that has been linked with reducing anxiety in humans. This is available in supplement form.
Amino acids (from protein-rich foods) are the building blocks of neurotransmitters.
While some amino acids are found in plant foods, tryptophan, the main precursor to serotonin, is found mostly in animal sources such as chicken, fish and turkey.
GABA is the brain’s peacemaker, regulating stress hormones and creating a sense of calm. A deficiency sign can be anxiety and panic attacks.
Glutamine is the precursor to help to make GABA, helping improve both mental energy and relaxation, reduce alcohol cravings and addiction, stabilise blood sugar and promote memory.
Glutamine supplements are often taken by athletes as it helps to support immunity and improve muscle repair.
Cabbage-based sauerkraut raises glutamine levels and production of GABA, as well as improving healthy bacteria balance in the gut. Beef, chicken, fish and eggs are good food sources. Herbal medicines such as Kava Kava, Zizyphus, Magnolia and Passionflower have all been shown to support this pathway also.
Green tea contains the amino acid L-theanine, which antagonises the stimulating effect of caffeine, promoting a sense of calm. It also modifies brain serotonin levels.
Look for organic green teas to avoid spray exposure and add a little cold water to the cup first to avoid drawing out the bitterness. Reducing caffeine intake through coffee and the likes of Coca-Cola is beneficial for anxiety also.
Complex carbohydrates are essential to fuel the brain and provide cofactors for neurotransmitter production.
Refined carbohydrates create an imbalance in blood sugar levels, which contributes to mood disorders.
In That Sugar Film, Damon Gameau embarks on a unique experiment to document the effects of a highly processed diet and one of the very early signs he noticed was a negative change in his mood – he was noticeably irritable and easily frustrated.
Sourcing carbohydrates from wholegrains such as oats and quinoa or root vegetables is vital.
Phospholipids found mainly in egg yolks form neuronal membranes and receptor sites where neurotransmitters communicate. A vegan source is lecithin granules.
Good fats are particularly important for reducing inflammation and supporting a healthy mood. Oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, anchovies and sardines all provide omega 3 for healthy neuron communication.
B vitamins are essential and deficiencies can result in the following mood and behavioural changes:
B1 and B2: poor concentration/ attention
B3: depression, psychosis
B6: irritability, depression, poor memory
B9 (folic acid): depression, dementia
B12: depression, pain, irritability, lack of motivation
Minerals are very important in maintaining a healthy mood.
Low magnesium is associated with anxiety and depression while high calcium levels are often seen in depression.
Zinc is fundamental to neurotransmitter balance and this can easily be tested through an oral taste test.
Food sources of zinc include beef, oysters and pumpkin seeds however if deficient, a zinc powder is the best option to improve levels.
Mental health is a complex area therefore I would recommend talking to a qualified naturopath for dietary and supplement advice.
-The advice contained in this column is not intended to be a substitute for direct, personalised advice from a health professional.
–By Deanna Copland