The brain could be compared to a power plant that emits and receives signals throughout the day and night. The nervous system communicates with different parts of the body to maintain homeostasis as well as keep a good balance between the body and mind. These electric waves coordinate movement, breathing, pain, hunger, satiety, memory, concentration, impulsiveness, anger, joy, sadness, and so on. The circulation of this electrical flow is generated by chemical mediators, also called neurotransmitters, which play a determining role for our physical and mental well-being. These neurotransmitters, mainly produced in the brain and the digestive system, are secreted at specific times of the day. Our diet, lifestyle and environment influence the synthesis and circulation of these neurotransmitters in the body. Dopamine, acetylcholine, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and serotonin are neurotransmitters that play an important part in the balance of the body and harmony of the mind. Let’s discover more about these vital neurotransmitters.
Dopamine is synthesized by certain nerve cells from two amino acids derived from our diet: tyrosine and phenylalanine. This neurotransmitter plays a major role in controlling movement and posture, tissue growth and how the immune system works. Dopamine is also involved in the secretion of a growth hormone. It is important to note that the neurotransmitter’s role in modulating energy, mood, motivation, pleasure seeking and sexual desire. Dopamine is also associated with the state of alertness and vigilance as well as flight or fight behaviors.
An imbalance in this neurotransmitter can lead to dependency on substances, including caffeine, energy drinks, and alcohol. Dopamine deficiency seems to be observed in cases of exhaustion, depression and lack of motivation. In addition, a loss of dopamine in certain parts of the brain causes muscular rigidity typical of Parkinson’s disease.
Foods that promote the secretion of dopamine: Eggs, nuts, mung beans, chicken, turkey, duck, game, dark chocolate and raw cacao.
Acetylcholine is the only major neurotransmitter that is not synthesized from amino acids (the smallest fraction of proteins). It is made from choline and the active form of pantothenic acid (vitamin B5). Acetylcholine is mainly found in the central nervous system and in glandular and muscular synapses. This neurotransmitter is involved in muscle stimulation and movement control. Acetylcholine is also an important aspect of cognitive functions, including memory, concentration and logical reasoning. Dr. Eric Braverman, the author of the remarkable book 100% brain, associates acetylcholine with creativity. This molecule seems to be predominant among artists, visionary people, creators, inventors and the “Tintins” of this world—all of which are explorers of our universe. In contrast, a lack of acetylcholine is observed in cases of memory impairment, lack of concentration and also in cognitive pathologies, such as Alzheimer’s disease and senile disorders.
Foods that promote the secretion of acetylcholine: Greens, avocado, cucumber, zucchini, artichoke, cruciferous vegetables, almonds, pine nuts, macadamia nuts, eggs, salmon, shrimp, chicken and turkey.
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is synthesized from glutamic acid, an amino acid from our diet. It is the most common neurotransmitter in the brain. GABA plays a major role in the relaxation of the nervous and muscular system. It is the best neurotransmitter to reduce anxiety. GABA is known to reduce muscle spasms and epileptic seizures. It can also calm tremors in the presence of Huntington’s disease. GABA is also involved in the functions of memorizing and controlling the transmission of nerve signals.
Foods that promote the secretion of GABA: Almonds, banana, broccoli, spinach, lentils, sprouted rice protein and sprouted rice bran.
Serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine, 5-HT) is synthesized from tryptophan, an amino acid from our diet. This molecule is synthesized in the brain, but also in the intestine by endocrine or immune cells, and some intestinal neurons. More than a neurotransmitter, a hormonal role is also attributed to this molecule, which plays a fundamental role in regulating human’s metabolism. Indeed, serotonin is involved in various functions of the body, including regulation of temperature, mood, appetite, eating and sexual behavior, pain and sleep. It is the precursor necessary for the synthesis of melatonin. It is important to note that serotonin influences the activity of other neurons. Therefore, serotonin will not only have a direct impact on sleep but also on the regulation of, for example, dopamine (less energy, search for a stimulant), acetylcholine (less concentration and creativity) and GABA (anxiety, craving for sweets). Sleep disorders, compulsive and impulsive behaviors, aggression, depression, and suicidal tendencies appear to be associated with serotonin imbalances.
Foods that promote the secretion of serotonin: Bananas, avocado, dark chocolate, raw cacao, chicken, eggs, duck, turkey and game.
We often think of brain balance when we talk about concentration, depression, autism, behavioral disorder, Alzheimer’s disease or attention deficit disorder. In fact, it is essential for all of us to take care of the brain for optimal energy and clarity as well as to ensure fluid communication and transmission within the brain and the body. My experience and key learnings have allowed me to realize that we often forget to take care of the pillars essential to keeping the nervous system well-balanced. We also forget to offer the nutrients and micronutrients that are essential to the brain and nervous system and that influence all the metabolic reactions in our body, our health and our well-being. Brain health is crucial on our journey to health and well-being. For more information, I invite you to read my book La voie de l’équilibre, published by Éditions Le Dauphin Blanc (2011).
Doctor in Food Science and Naturopath
Author and Speaker