Gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, and serotonin are neurotransmitters that help regulate your body's anxiety level and mood. Although no foods contain GABA or serotonin, you can stimulate your body to produce more of these vital brain chemicals through dietary means. This means eating foods rich in their chemical precursors -- glutamic acid and glutamate for GABA and tryptophan for serotonin -- and also combining them with other foods that help get these chemicals to the brain.
Signs of GABA Deficiency
GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps you deal with stressful situations, acting as a calming agent when stress levels increase. If you are deficient in GABA, you are likely to feel anxious and irritable. You may experience panic attacks or, in extreme cases, seizure, according to Frantz Delva, M.D., author of "The Art of Healthy Eating." Other manifestations of a GABA deficiency may include fatigue, stiff and tense muscles and difficulty relaxing, says Delva, who is also a biochemist and nutritionist. GABA's immediate chemical precursor is the amino acid glutamine, which is produced from glutamate and glutamic acid in the foods you eat.
Signs of Serotonin Deficiency
In "The Hormone Diet," naturopathic doctor Natasha Turner says that the incidence of serotonin deficiency has reached epidemic proportions, rivaling in magnitude the health problem of obesity. Turner cites data from the World Health Organization that show depression, one of the primary symptoms of serotonin deficiency, is the world's leading cause of disability. Other signs of low serotonin levels include low self-esteem, constant worry, difficulty making decisions and compulsive eating.
Although tryptophan is the chemical precursor of serotonin, producing more serotonin through dietary means is a bit more complicated than simply eating tryptophan-rich foods. To get the full benefit of that tryptophan, it's important to include it in a diet that is also rich in complex carbohydrates, which trigger the chemical reactions needed to get tryptophan to the brain, where it can synthesize serotonin.
Foods rich in glutamate and glutamic acid produce glutamine, which in turn provides the raw material your body needs to synthesize GABA. Eric R. Braverman, M.D., author of "The Edge Effect," says that several foods that contain high levels of complex carbohydrates are good candidates for boosting your body's supply of glutamine. Almonds, which contain 10.3 grams of glutamic acid or glutamate per 6 to 8 ounces, top the list of GABA-stimulating foods. Other foods in this category -- and their glutamate/glutamic acid content per 6 to 8 ounces -- include whole wheat, whole grain, 8.6 grams; halibut, 7.9 grams; oats, whole grain, 7.5 grams; beef liver, 6.5 grams; walnuts, 5.4 grams; rice bran, 3.4 grams; lentils, 2.8 grams; brown rice, 0.94 grams; potato, 0.83 grams; broccoli, 0.74 grams; spinach, 0.68 grams; bananas, 0.22 grams; and oranges, 0.21 grams.
You must combine your intake of tryptophan-rich foods with complex carbohydrates to effectively increase your brain's serotonin levels. In "101 Optimal Life Foods," nutritionist David Grotto identifies chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, dairy products, soy, nuts, beans, salmon and tuna as good sources of tryptophan. Foods rich in complex carbohydrates include bananas, beets, brown rice, fennel, figs, pasta, pineapple, potatoes, radishes, spinach and whole grains.