The Happy Healthy Brain Diet
Eating healthy can be difficult, especially when you don’t feel very happy or energetic. That is why the diet I live by, which I call the happy healthy brain diet, is based on research into what the brains need to produce happiness hormones, to keep you feeling happy. This articles mainly tells you about all the main ingredients and for inspiration, you can click here. You can find recipes like my favourite breakfast smoothie and spice chorizo pumpkin stew. Most recipes can also easily be made vegetarian or vegan if you would like.
How a healthy, happy brain is made
Let’s start by looking at how the brain makes happiness hormones. Lots of research has been done to study the effect certain diets have on the mind. Especially the neurotransmitter serotonin was studies a lot. Serotonin is also called ‘the happiness hormone’, since it makes you feel good. It is also a precursor of melatonin, which makes you fall asleep faster and better. To know why this diet has an effect on serotonin, you first have to know how serotonin is made in the body. It all starts with 5-HTP. The body makes 5-HTP out of a few substances and the most important one is tryptophan.
Carb it up!
But, to be able to go to the brain, tryptophan needs carbohydrates. That is why a diet that makes your brain happy and healthy, should always contain carbohydrates. To make the rest of your body happy, I would recommend using whole grains wherever possible. These release slower into the body and keep your insulin levels more stable. Simple carbohydrates will burn faster. This will result in more hunger and drops of energy, which obviously won’t make you happy. To make tryptophan, you will also need sufficient amounts of zinc (which you can find in leafy greens like spinach) and vitamin B6 (which you can find in bananas).
There are also lots of foods that contain tryptophan themselves. Only, it is not proven that these foods help increase the amount of tryptophan in the brain. This is because other amino acids also try to enter into the blood-brain barrier, which can crowd out the tryptophan.
That is one of the reasons why supplements can be taken that contain tryptophan, called L-Tryptophan. Because the tryptophan is isolated in these supplements, it might go through the barrier better. However, you should be mindful that a safe dosage is between 200-800 mg a day. You could however take more if you consult with your doctor first. Do not do this on your own account! It can lead to oxidative stress when you have more than 5000 mg a day. This sounds like a lot. You should however take into consideration that 100 mg of cheese contains between 300 and 450 mg of tryptophan already. Also, for a normal functioning body, you need about 5 mg per kg on the body. This means that someone who weighs about 70 kg only needs 350 mg a day. It is also wise to make sure you also get enough antioxidants with them, like vitamins C and E.
A quick solution?
If you want to skip a step of the process, there are also tablets available that already contain 5-HTP. There is however a danger in that, because it can create the ‘Serotonin Syndrome’. This is an overdose of serotonine in the body. It can cause a lot of symptoms like hypothermia, shivering, fevers and even coma. Since the average person has enough serotonin in the body, I would not recommend taking supplements. Stimulating the body to put enough tryptophan in the brain by eating enough carbohydrates or maybe taking tryptophan tablets is therefore a much safer method. If you would consider taking these supplements, please consult with your doctor before taking them!
You are losing tryptophan!
But why try so hard to have more tryptophan if it is so easy to ‘eat’? That is because tryptophan also has ‘enemies’: the enzymes TDO and IDO, which are made when the body experiences stress. These enzymes break down tryptophan and therefore the tryptophan can’t be made into serotonin. Stress is however, not completely avoidable, nor should it be. Stress can also be eustress, a positive kind of stress that drives you towards your goals. Eustress is actually vital for a healthy, happy brain. But, as with everything, you shouldn’t have too much of it, so that your body remains in balance. You can find more on stress here.
Other happy foods
An entirely different reason why you can feel down is because of a lack of magnesium. Magnesium can be found in green vegetables, beans, legumes, bananas and wholegrain products and nuts. Also tyrosine can have an effect on mood, which you can find in nuts and milk products.
Contrary to earlier research, scientists have also found that caffeine can have a positive effect on mood, due to the energy boost it provides. Research even found that people who drank 3-4 cups a day had a significant decrease in chance of being depressed! However, coffee can repress the feeling of hunger. This might make you eat less than you need to contain good levels of for instance vitamins, which eliminates the effect. You should not use coffee should as a way to avoid sleeping. Sleep also is an important factor in you (mental) health. You can read more about sleep here.
A special place is also reserved for antioxidants. Depression is linked by various research with inflammations in the body. Antioxidants fight these inflammation and can therefore boost your (mental) health. Green tea is a very good example of an antioxidant. It also contains 40 mg of caffeine a cup. This gives you the energy boost you might need in a day, without spiking your energy levels to much (like coffee can do). Since honey is also a strong antioxidant, a cup of green tea with honey is a very good drink when you’re sick or a little down.
Another good example is dark(!) chocolate. The high levels of cocoa makes the delicious snack into a strong antioxidant and it contains caffeine as well. It does spike your insulin levels. However, if taken in moderation, this can’t hurt (except for people with diabetes or an insulin deficiency of course). Chocolate also has a decent amount of tryptophan, which makes it the ultimate happiness food! Considering all of this, it is not that strange that many women crave chocolate when that time of the month has arrived.
The fat truth
Knowing the consistency of the brain a little, you know that the brain is about 60% made of fat. That is why it isn’t that strange to find out that a happy brain also needs fat. Not that long ago, it was believed that fat was bad for you: it causes heart disease and cluttered veins. That is true for some part, but that is not true for every kind of fat!
There are different kinds of fats. The saturated fats that you can find in cookies milkshakes are the kinds that you don’t want too much of. They are the cause of a high level of cholesterol in your blood, which causes the nasty diseases. Then, you have the unsaturated fats. These are the fats that lower cholesterol levels and are used by the body to give you energy.
They are divided by three kinds of fats: omega 3, 6 and 9 and are called essential fatty acids. Your body cannot produce them on its own and that is why it needs you to eat enough of them. However, in the western lifestyle a lot of people eat too much omega 6 fatty acids and too little omega 3 fatty acids. The perfect balance would be around 4:1, while we eat around 10-20:1.
Omega 3 fatty acids have proven to have a positive effect on the mental stability of people. This is why you should up your omega 3 game, for example by eating lots of fatty fish. Omega 9 fatty acids, which acts independently from the other two fatty acids, can be found in olive oil. It should be possible to get the right amounts of fatty acids from a well-balanced diet. This has however proven to be difficult in society. That is why it could be recommended to take supplements, like fish-oil tablets.
And now what?
Everything taken into consideration, there are a lot of factors that can influence your mood. A well-balanced diet should provide most of the needed substances for the brain to work optimally. Nowadays, a lot can also be helped with supplements like fish-oil tablets and multivitamins. However, I think it should be possible to live without those supplements.
The Mediterranean diet and the Japanese diet have come out as the best diets for a healthy, happy brain worldwide. You could thus very well use recipes from those kitchens as a guideline. With that having said: please keep in mind that this is not a harsh diet and balance is key. Surely, eating something from the French or Mexican kitchen is no problem. You also don’t have to stick to fish every day.
Proteins, for instance, were not mentioned in this article. However, they are very important for a healthy lifestyle and you should try to eat those enough as well. It was not possible to mention everything that is important in a healthy lifestyle. Mentioning all the ingredients containing the substances would have been nearly impossible. This is just a small selection that I try to keep in mind while making a meal plan. Want to have an overview of which foods contain which substances? Please look below the article for the overview!
My implementation of the happy healthy brain diet
Personally, I noticed the effects on my skin, mood and overall health. This is due to the high amounts of antioxidants and I’ve also noticed the increase of speed of my metabolism. The only downside I found was that I have a naturally low blood pressure and the diet decreased it even more. That is why I do have to watch that I eat regularly. My food also needs to contain enough salt and drink enough water, otherwise I’ll faint. For people with a normal to high blood pressure, this is actually a positive side effect of the diet, just not for me.
The recipes that I use do not have to contain salt. They’re therefore very useful is a low salt diet, since a lot of herbs are a lot healthier ways to bring flavour into your dish. An example of an herb that I love is basil. Combined with garlic, black pepper and onion, there is no need for extra flavour! Other very useful seasonings are turmeric, ginger, oregano, thyme or rosemary. Turmeric is better absorbed when it is combined with black pepper and serves an excellent antioxidant. The combination works very well in a (fish) curry.
Luckily, this diet is very easy to stick with for me. Since I started, I noticed the effect on my mood almost immediately. That is why for me, the motivation is easy to keep up, since it makes me feel happier in the long run. If my brain is healthy and happy, so am I apparently. That is why I can motivate myself to cook, even after a long day of work.
What also works is that the foods in the overview below are foods that I really love to eat. I wouldn’t allow myself to buy them during normal diets, because of the calories in a lot of the products and the costs of some. This diet focusses however on what you should eat. It looks at things that help you to gain happiness, instead of focussing on what you can’t eat. Since the wholegrain foods and fatty acids make me fuller for longer, the avoidance of unhealthy snacks came naturally, since I just wasn’t hungry anymore.
The only thing I do try to avoid (but not expel) is alcohol, since that has a bad effect on your serotonin levels and overall health, but I do believe it is okay to sometimes let your hair down. Your body will balance it out after a few days. If you need some inspiration for recipes, take a look here.
Losing weight should however not be the initial goal of this diet, since being healthy should be more important (although both goals can very well coexist in a lot of cases). Just make sure that when you are trying to lose weight, you don’t skip on the substances your body needs to function.
I hope this information was useful for you and I hope we can all help each other to be healthier and happier!
Lots of love,
*Note: Please keep in mind that I am not a doctor! This article was written on the basis of research on the internet and scientific articles, but I did not go to Medical School! For a better advise, please visit a doctor or dietician. This diet also does not cure depression or anxiety (I wish it was that easy), but it can give you a little boost on your general mood if you are mindful of the substances your body needs to work properly.Home » Body » Recipes »