Why Certain Nutrients Keep You Going!
Nutrition and the way you feel
In the past several columns, we have explored how parents can lift the mood of themselves and their children. The various physical and psychological methods we've presented have been shown to be effective, but of course, this column is no substitute for professional advice.
If your mood is highly depressed or unstable, and you should immediately consult with a licensed health professional. Last week, we discussed how gastrointestinal disturbance can lower mood, and what can be done about that, and here we discuss the nutritional foundation for the biochemistry of a good mood.
Widespread nutrient deficiencies
Nutrients -- such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and essential fatty acids -- are the fundamental building blocks of the body, and they power the biochemical reactions that do the body's work. They are used to make everything from hard bones to slippery saliva, including the neurotransmitters and hormones intimately involved with our day to day mood.
Most people can eat poorly for a month or even a year and still be relatively healthy, but good nutrition makes a huge difference over the long haul of the lifespan, lowering the risk of the diseases of wear and tear that are increasingly common in the industrial nations and increasing longevity.
Unfortunately, a surprisingly high percentage of parents, especially mothers, are at risk for nutritional deficiency. US Department of Agriculture research has shown that little more than 10 percent of women of childbearing age consume the complete, recommended daily allowance (RDA) of the nutrients they need.
Then pregnancy, and breast feeding put an additional demand on resources that are already insufficient in nine of 10 cases. If a nutrient is in short supply, it will be taken from the mothers body and given to the baby. Most parents put their own nutrition toward the end of long list of things to do each day, and satisfy themselves with a hasty breakfast, a lunch that may be little more than a child's leftovers and a dinner whose convenience matters more that its sustenance.
Some signs may suggest nutritional deficiencies -- such as dry skin, poor memory or depression -- but there can be other causes of these besides shortages of nutrients. If you wonder if your internal larder is well-stocked, you should consult with a licensed health practitioner such as a dietitian or other professional experienced in nutrition.
In many cases, a person will have significant shortages without overt signs -- yet. Good tests are available that can tell you fairly precisely what your levels of vitamins, minerals or other nutrients might be. Now let's look closely at how you can replenish some specific nutrients that can affect the way you feel about yourself and your relationships.
While all vitamins are important for well-being, research studies have spotlighted deficiencies of certain B-vitamins in depression, especially B-6, folic acid and B-12.
Vitamin B-6 is particularly relevant to mood. It is involved in the body's formation of neurotransmitters, red blood cells, and hormone-like compounds called prostaglandins. Additionally, B-6 is critical to maintaining hormonal balance. US and Canadian government surveys estimate that 80 percent of us get less that the RDA of vitamin B-6.
Within a woman's body, there is great demand for B-6 during pregnancy -- which may be part of the reason why B-6 is the number one nutrition treatment for morning sickness. Supplementing B-6 has also been shown to be sometimes useful for reducing the symptoms of PMS. Because it is involved in both hormonal balance and neurotransmitter production, it is no surprise that studies have shown that taking B-6 can improve the mood of some people.
B-6 is concentrated in foods such as meats (especially organ meats such as liver) and whole grains. Nonetheless, most of us do not get sufficient B-6 in our diet. Additionally, women who have taken birth control pills may be p articularly low in B-6 since estrogen (in "the pill") depletes B-6 in the body.
Vitamin B-6 in food (or in many supplements at the health food store) is in the form of a chemical called pyradoxine, which our body must convert to another chemical, pyridoxal-5-phosphate (P-5-P), in order to use. Some people do not have all the enzymes necessary for this conversion, and are therefore functionally deficient in usable vitamin B-6. P-5-P is now available as a supplement, and individuals deficient in B-6 may get additional benefit from taking it in this form, usually about 20 to 50 mg. per day.
Folic acid has been recognized as necessary during the early months of pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects in the growing fetus. In adults, the most common psychiatric symptom of folic acid deficiency is depression, and research has shown that supplementing folic acid in those who are deficient can improve their mood.
Low levels of vitamin B-12 are also frequently associated with depression, and supplementation may help. The B-vitamins work together synergistically. So you may want to supplement all of them on general principles.
The only good fat is an . . . essential fatty acid!
Sometimes it seems like we are living in a low-fat world. But while reducing processed, refined fats is a good thing, we still need some fats, especially two essential fatty acids (EFA's): Omega 3 and Omega 6. There is a high demand for both of these in pregnancy and breastfeeding, and EFA's are important building blocks for all membranes.
The brain needs a high concentration of Omega-3 fatty acids, so it makes sense that studies have shown deficiencies of these EFA's to be associated with depression, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, and some forms of schizophrenia. Unfortunately, most of us are deficient in Omega-3s. Overt signs of deficiency may include dry skin, dandruff -- and low mood. But many people are deficient in Omega-3s without realizing it.
Foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids are fish and flax seed (or their related oils). Eating fish at least three times per week is helpful, but that may still not supply the required amounts fully. As a practical matter, many people should supplement this essential fatty acid for themselves and their children.
One tablespoon of unrefined flax oil is an appropriate daily serving. This must be uncooked, but it can be used in a tasty salad dressing or taken in supplements. Fish oil supplements can also be alternated with flax oil.
Minerals -- such as iron, copper, or magnesium -- are vital to many metabolic steps at the molecular level, the world of the very fast and the very small. As a result, many minerals are important to mental health.
Depression is one of the possible symptoms of iron deficiency. Magnesium is important for sleep and relaxation -- and without enough of these, anyone's mood will tend to drop. More specifically, mild magnesium deficiency is associated with anxiety. Some studies have shown zinc to be low in patients who are depressed, and zinc deficiency is related to other aspects of low mood, including fatigue and loss of libido, all of which point to depression.
All of these problems respond to supplementation of the appropriate mineral when its deficiency is their cause. Consuming a mineral means you are essentially eating a metal -- and you can imagine the challenge to your body of that! The form minerals come in makes a big difference in how well they are absorbed. For instance, "magnesium oxide" is the most common way that magnesium is supplemented, but the absorption in this form is very low. The best absorbed form of most minerals besides iron is as an "amino acid chelate." The names of chelates always end in "ate," such as magnesium glycinate (probably the best way to get magnesium), magnesium citrate, or magnesium aspertate. If your multi-vitamin supplement contains minerals that are amino acid chelated, it is probably made by a good company.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, so they are found in protein-rich foods. Although our nation as a whole probably consumes more protein than it needs to, there are many individuals who do not get enough.
For example, it is not unusual for a parent to have a muffin or toast for breakfast, a salad for lunch and take-out pizza for dinner: There's not much protein in that! Convenient sources of protein include hard-boiled eggs, nuts, humus and meat roasts that last several days. Try to go organic when you can.
Amino acids are the building blocks of the neurotransmitters involved in the regulation of our mood. For example, tryptophan is necessary for the neurotransmitter, serotonin, which is the target of such anti-depressants as Prozac. Numerous studies have documented the benefits of supplementing tryptophan or 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) (a byproduct of tryptophan that is several steps closer to serotonin) for depression. Please refer to our other columns for more information on 5-HTP.
Tyrosine and phenylalanine are two other amino acids that can affect your mood. Phenylalanine becomes tyrosine in the body, and tyrosine is the amino acid base of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine, as well as thyroid hormone. Deficiencies of any one of these can lead to depressed mood, and studies have shown that supplementing tyrosine or phenylalanine can decrease symptoms of depression.
Another important amino acid is taurine. Taurine is itself a neurotransmitter, but some of its other functions have an even more direct relationship to a person's mood. Taurine helps transport magnesium into our cells, so deficiencies can cause muscle tension. Overall, taurine has a very balancing function in the body. It is quite depleted during breastfeeding, which makes it particularly worth noting.
Amino acids are especially important to balance with each other. Therefore, if you decide to supplement these nutrients, you should do so based on laboratory analysis of them and in consultation with a health professional.
The big picture
Of course, the foundation of good nutrition is not supplementing for specific deficiencies that can sometimes seem a little esoteric, but maintaining a well-balanced diet with plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, quality proteins and water. And most people benefit from taking a general-purpose, high-potency, multi-vitamin/multi-mineral supplement their entire life because it is very difficult to get all the nutrients we need in the foods most of us eat today.
Another general-purpose way to get high-quality nutrients is to consume "green drinks." There are many brands, usually freeze-dried combinations of algaes and grass juices (like wheat grass juice), and they can give you a nice lift in energy and mood. Even a busy parent can mix a scoop or two of green powder into a glass of juice. There is one note of caution, however: Some green drinks have herbs such as ginseng, and many contain algae, which has detoxing properties; either of these might tax the system of a woman who is pregnant or nursing, so if that means you, check with your doctor before trying one.
Too much of a sweet thing
So far we have focused on the depressing effects of nutrient shortages. But there is one nutritional substance that can lower mood when present in excess. And that's our old friend, sugar.
There are studies indicating that some people experienced improved mood by eliminating sugar; in fact,
significant changes in brainwaves have been documented in some individuals
after saying goodbye to sugar. For people who really like sugar, (and Jan is
among them), it is a kind of addiction. Frankly, if you're hooked, the best
method is usually cold-turkey, total elimination. Simply reducing sugar
intake leaves the craving in place, while totally eliminating it results in
less desire for sugar after a week or two. Substituting for sugar with
nutritious snacks like nuts, or chips with guacamole or hummus can help
boost your energy and mood.