The key to understanding the connection between the food we eat and our mood and level of alertness, lies in knowing a little about how the brain functions. The brain communicates by chemical substances passed from one nerve cell to the next. These chemicals, called neurotransmitters, are made in the brain from the food we eat. The neurotransmitters, that are most sensitive to diet and influencing the mood are serotonin, not epinephrine and dopamine.
Dopamine and nor epinephrine are alertness chemicals. When they are produced we think and react more quickly, we feel more motivated, we are more attentive and overall, we are more mentally energetic. Serotonin is a calming and relaxing chemical. When produced, feelings of stress and tension decrease.
Now that you have a better understanding of the role neurotransmitters play in brain function, let’s look at the relationship between these neurotransmitters and the foods we eat.
Foods that make you feel alert: The best way to eat for alertness is to have meals that contain protein, are low in fat, and have carbohydrates that won’t drag you down. In the afternoon your brain’s supply of dopamine and nor epinephrine begins to wane.
When you supply the tyrosine (from eating protein), your brain will be ready to make it into more of the two alertness neurotransmitters (dopamine and nor epinephrine). Please do not avoid carbohydrates, as it is your main source of energy, especially the B group which is the energy-giving vitamin. Therefore, have a combination of complex carbohydrates, fibre (vegetables and salads) and a bit of protein. Some healthy protein-packed foods are: fish, sprouts, nuts, pulses, low fat paneer, skim or low-fat milk, low-fat yoghurt.
Lemons: The smell of lemons can induce the feeling of alertness. So, add lemon to all your food.
Apples, nachni, rajma, and broccoli: These foods contain boron, which is responsible for hand-eye co-ordination, attention and short-term memory. Boron-rich foods also maintain healthy bone and blood-sugar levels.
Foods that make you feel energetic for a longer time as they are low in glycemic index:
Low-glycemic carbohydrates: Brown rice, sweet potato, nachni, bajra, oats.
High-glycemic carbohydrates should be avoided: Sugar, white bread, rice cakes, wheat crackers, bagel, instant rice, rice, pasta.
Foods that make you smart: Prunes — they contain twice the antioxidants of most other fruits. Antioxidant-rich diets disable reactive oxygen molecules linked to memory loss and mental deterioration. They prevent mood swings. As they are low in glycematic index, they supply energy for a longer time. They are also high in fibre, prevent constipation, maintain blood pressure levels being high in potassium and an excellent source of iron. Low iron causes fatigue. Look for California prunes as they have no sugar added.
Foods that make you feel energised: Oranges, apples, and yoghurt — these foods are slow digesting carbohydrates and can supply a steady source of fuel for your body. Sunflower seeds contain magnesium which helps maintain normal muscle and nerve function, and keeps heart rhythm steady and bones strong. It is also involved in energy metabolism and protein synthesis. Just a handful of sunflower seeds will give you half of your daily magnesium needs.
Foods that make you happy:
Bananas: Bananas contain vitamin B6, which is known to build serotonin levels. They contain no fat, and are available everywhere.
Nuts:Walnuts (Kashmiri) are high in antioxidants, omega 3 fatty acids, prevent ageing, and are excellent sources of vitamin E.
Pistachios (Californian) are low in glycemic index, high in vitamin B and fibre, low in fat and maintain blood sugar levels. Almonds are high in antioxidants and vitamin E.
Dark chocolate: This treat releases pleasure-enhancing endorphins into the brain and also contains phenyl ethylamine, a stimulant associated with love. Hence, it makes you feel good. The higher the content of cocoa, the better you feel. It’s cocoa which contains the chemicals and so head for the darkest chocolate.
While all of the above will help you feel better throughout the day, there are also foods you should avoid if you find that you’re feeling sluggish more often than you’d like.
Water: At least eight glasses a day is the highest pick-me-up. Many times fatigue is related to thirst and not hunger. So, reach out for water. Avoid large, high-fat meals. Fats stay in the stomach longer, diverting blood away from your brain, muscles, and other tissues, which in turn can make you feel sluggish for up to six hours.
Have at least one iron-rich food per day. Iron helps transport oxygen to your tissues. Good sources of iron include prunes Don’t eat too little. A low caloric intake leads to fatigue and irritation.
Watch your intake of alcohol and coffee. Alcohol is a sedative that can also cause dehydration. Coffee can pep you up in the short term, but can cause you to drop like a ton of bricks later on.
Avoid white sugar and white flour. It leeches the body of Vitamin B and calcium, causes constipation, and white sugar causes restlessness, lack of concentration and a quick feeling of fatigue.