In these current times of uncertainty, we may feel heightened levels of anxiety, stress and sleep issues. In some ways, this can be helped with the use of certain amino acids from our food and/or neurotransmitters from supplements. We can’t always help the way we feel, or the reasons for it, but we can make small tweaks to our diet and lifestyle to help ease negative emotions, or calm the mind for sleep.
Neurotransmitters are the body’s chemical messengers. They are molecules that transmit signals from neurons to muscles and can attach themselves to certain receptors in the brain that regulate our mood and sleep. As mentioned, amino acids from certain foods and supplements can help to increase beneficial neurotransmitters that may help to make us feel more calm, less anxious and better able to sleep.
For example, the amino acid L-theanine may elevate levels of the neurotransmitter GABA, as well as serotonin and dopamine. These chemicals all work within the brain to regulate emotions, mood, concentration, alertness, and sleep, as well as appetite, energy, and other cognitive skills. L-theanine also helps to establish balance in the neurotransmitter system, resulting in improvements in the mental/emotional and physical disturbances resulting from being overly stressed. L-theanine converts to serotonin, which helps to make melatonin, which helps with sleep and relaxation. Natural sources of L-theanine include black and green tea, but you can supplement this amino acid too.
The neurotransmitter GABA in combination with L-theanine may help to balance our nervous system, enabling a good night’s deep sleep, and thus supporting optimal health. Natural sources of GABA include, walnuts, spinach, broccoli, bananas, almonds, lentils, brown rice, beef livers, oranges, halibut and oats. But because this neurotransmitter is neither classed as a food or a supplement, it comes under medical grade and cannot be recommended by Nutritional Therapists.
There is also an amino acid called tryptophan that also converts to serotonin, which converts to melatonin. It has the lowest concentration in the body of any amino acid, but it’s vital for a wide variety of metabolic functions that affect our mood, cognition, and behaviour. Foods high in tryptophan include turkey, steak, tofu and salmon. Tryptophan is not generally a supplement I would recommend in my clinic as it may have some side effects.
Finally, I will cover tyrosine, which is an amino acid that converts to dopamine. Your body needs several vitamins and minerals to create dopamine, including iron, niacin, folate, and vitamin B6, so if you have a deficiency in one or more of these nutrients, you may have trouble making enough dopamine to meet your body’s needs. Foods high in tyrosine include steak, salmon, white beans, ricotta cheese, wild rice and pumpkin seeds. Tyrosine is a popular dietary supplement that may improve alertness, attention and focus, but because it may interact with some medicines it’s best to be cautious.
Most amino acids can be obtained from a well balanced diet, and so it’s important to focus your meals on well rounded variety, including high quality protein at each meal. It’s often hard to relate what we eat, to how we feel, or how we may sleep, but as you’ll see, a complex cascade of events happens at every meal time, from the amino acids we consume, to the neurotransmitters which send signals to the brain. So to feel your best, always aim for real, wholesome food.
Healthline. 2022. Tyrosine: Benefits, Side Effects and Dosage. [online] Available at: <https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/tyrosine> [Accessed 26 April 2022].