Carbohydrates are the components grains, produce and dairy that break down into glucose, or sugar, in your bloodstream during digestion. Glucose, the main source of energy for your body, feeds your muscles and cells to keep you healthy and active throughout the day. Some carbohydrate foods contain the amino acids phenylalanine, tyrosine and tryptophan, which are precursors that synthesize into dopamine and serotonin, chemical transmitters in the brain.
About Serotonin and Dopamine
Brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, are chemical communicators that send or receive messages telling your body how to feel emotionally, cognitively and physically. Serotonin is the calming chemical that helps you feel relaxed or content; it plays a role in storing memories, learning new information, sleep and triggering your appetite. Dopamine induces motivation, alertness and pleasure arousal but it is also important for helping you remember information, manage anxiety-producing situations and controlling muscle coordination. Various factors, including poor nutrition habits, drug or alcohol abuse, sedentary lifestyle or medical illness can deplete you of these important chemicals.
The Role of Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates alone may not restore normal levels of dopamine or serotonin if you have a serious condition causing deficiency, but a nutritious diet that includes healthy carbohydrates may help. As you digest carbohydrate-containing foods, your pancreatic gland is triggered to release insulin into your bloodstream. The insulin removes most amino acids out of your blood but leaves tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin. This paves the way for tryptophan to enter your brain and convert to serotonin. Serotonin production is increased from consuming carbohydrates more than dopamine. However, protein-containing foods that also have carbohydrates generally contain phenylalanine, the amino acid precursor to tyrosine that converts to dopamine in your brain.
According to a 2003 study in the "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition," high carbohydrate breakfast foods like waffles and orange juice given to study participants effectively increased serotonin levels. However, these foods were also complemented with high protein foods like eggs, cheese and turkey. Increase serotonin levels while eating healthy by choosing whole grains such as brown rice or wheat bread, leafy green vegetables and colorful fresh fruits. Enhance the availability of serotonin production in your brain by combining carbohydrates with lean protein, notes Simon N. Young, editor-in-chief of the "Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience."
Since phenylalanine is the key component to raising dopamine production, choose carbohydrates rich in this amino acid. Navy, pinto, black and kidney beans as well as almonds, cashews, macadamia and pecans are good dopamine boosters that also supply you with a lean source of protein. Bran cereal, egg noodles and wild rice are also options.
Dairy contains carbohydrates although it is more commonly associated as a protein source. Milk, yogurt and cheese can raise your dopamine but to maintain a healthy diet choose low-fat versions. The Cleveland Clinic notes for best results in raising your dopamine and serotonin, choose various combinations of whole grains, beans, lean proteins and plenty of fruits and vegetables throughout the day.
- "Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience"; How to Increase Serotonin in the Human Brain Without Drugs; Simon N. Young; Nov. 2007
- "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition"; Effects of Normal Meals Rich In Carbohydrates or Proteins on Plasma Tryptophan and Tyrosine Ratios; Richard J. Wurtman et al; 2003
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Tyrosine
- Franklin Institute: The Human Brain; Nourish-Proteins; 2004