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How to Optimize Brain Chemistry Naturally


Small daily measures can counter the negative impacts of “sneaky leaks”

by: Lisa Leshko Evers MA, BSN, RN

Remember the last time you checked your bank balance? I will bet you were feeling quite confident that everything was great! You had happily returned to work after the pandemic and have been productive, diligently following your budget. What if, however, you notice that your balance is $500 less than anticipated?

Your first response may be to think that someone else (the bank) must have made a mistake. But after examining the items line by line, you notice that everything is correct. You discover, however, that you have been making little withdrawals (debits) without paying attention or recording them in your ledger—fancy coffee for breakfast, quick midday snack, happy hour with friends, fast food for dinner, and such.

If these small withdrawals happen infrequently, they may not have a huge impact, but when done repeatedly, those debits definitely impact the bottom line. Our neurochemistry works in much the same way. We keep enjoying life daily, having fun, meeting all our obligations, thinking we are making the proper deposits, until one day we are sadly overdrawn, and didn’t see it coming. Our world comes to a crashing halt!

How can we prevent that sudden shock and increase our overall balance/vitality daily? Two choices: We either stop wasting resources or make more deposits to increase our bottom line. When this concept is applied to our neurochemistry, the medical system often attempts to incre

ase the desired chemicals in our bodies through the use of pharmaceutical agents (akin to making more deposits to raise our bank balance). Each medication, however, comes with a variety of side effects (including suicide), so it’s important to consider other options.

After touching upon four important neurochemicals and learning what supports their healthy levels, we will investigate what may be draining the system and suggest ways to course-correct. First, Do No Harm!

Favorite Neurochemicals

Dopamine—The “feel good hormone. Integral for motivation and focus on desired goals. Set achievable, small goals along the path, and celebrate completion; tyrosine-rich foods help.

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Serotonin—Helps us feel important and aids regulation of mood, sleep, and appetite. Sunshine at least 20 minutes daily along with tryptophan-rich foods raise levels.

Oxytocin—The bonding”hormone. Touch, hugs (8/ day, each lasting 20 seconds), love, and massages increase releas

e of this hormone.

Endorphins—These help us overcome stress and pain due to physical activities. Create brief euphoria that masks physical pain; stimulated by pain. Exercise, laugh, cry and stretch—all stimulate the body to release its own endorphins, as does dark chocolate and the use of vanilla and lavender aromas.

Identify and Modify the Sneaky Leaks

Despite the body’s best attempts, there are times when these four neurochemicals can become diminished, resulting in changes in focus, motivation, moods, empathy, pain. The most common culprit seems to be the American diet. As Huang (2019) points out, “high-fat Western diets and sugar-sweetened beverages have been associated with higher risk of depression or depressive symptoms”. One might suggest that fats and sugars are draining the feel-good neurochemicals in the USA.

Instead of choosing medication initially, I envision physicians of the future prescribing “balanced dietary patterns, such as the Mediterranean diet, and certain foods, such as fish, fresh vegetables, and fruits”, as they “have been associated with a lower risk of depression or depressive symptoms”. (Huang, 2019) Recall that the father of medicine, Hippocrates, once said: “Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food”. Time to take heed!

As a bonus to improving our moods, these dietary changes also improve chronic health care problems such as cardiac disease, hypertension, cognitive decline, and diabetes. What an amazing impact that could make on the federal budget also, since the CDC reports that “90% of the nation’s $3.8 trillion in annual health care expenditures are for people with chronic and mental health conditions”.

Everything is connected. Chronic stress, inactivity, and poor sleep patterns have also been shown to reduce serotonin levels along with vitamin D, magnesium, omega 3 fatty acids, B vitamins and folate. It is empowering to know that we could start feeling better naturally by avoiding the things that drain/harm us and replacing them with healthier choices. When we know better, we can do better!

Improve the Bottom Line

Take one baby step at a time, with confidence! Consider replacing high-fat, sugary fast foods with nutritionally dense foods (rich in tyrosine and tryptophan, perhaps), or decreasing stress by turning off electronics and taking a 30-minute walk after work/dinner with your family each day. Such a great way to unwind and reconnect (raising oxytocin, too)! At the end of the day, how about creating a relaxing bedtime ritual so that everyone gets to sleep earlier and awakens refreshed and recharged? This is how we set the foundation for a healthier, more vibrant and loving life; one positive choice at a time.

In an article exploring further ways of increasing serotonin without drugs, Young (2007), reminds us, “Another reason for pursuing nonpharmacologic methods of increasing serotonin arises from the increasing recognition that happiness and well-being are important, both as factors protecting against mental and physical disorders and in their own right.” (p. 394)

Key strategies linked to increased serotonin levels include:

  • Positive mood focus. “Reported levels of happiness were positively correlated and reported levels of sadness were negatively correlated with serotonin synthesis in the right anterior cingulate cortex.” (p. 395) Plant seeds of positive moods by asking yourself (or clients) to rate pain on a scale of 0-10 with “10 being the BEST you’ve ever felt.” Relive happy, loving memories and soak up the natural increase of healing neurochemicals.
  • Exposure to bright light. “The mood-lowering effect of acute tryptophan depletion in healthy women is completely blocked by carrying out the study in bright light (3000 lux) instead of dim light.” (p. 395) Get outdoors in the sunshine 20-30 minutes a day or bask in the light of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) lamps in the winter.
  • Exercise. “A comprehensive review of the relationship between exercise and mood concluded that antidepressant and anxiolytic effects have been clearly demonstrated.” (p. 395) Combine your physical exercise outdoors in a sunny garden and reap a double benefit (exercise and bright light).
  • Diet (healthy). “Tryptophan, which increases brain serotonin in humans as in experimental animals, is an effective antidepressant in mild-to-moderate depression.” (p. 396) Examples of tryptophan-rich foods include eggs, turkey, and chicken with complex carbs like whole-grain breads, cereal, brown rice, and sweet potatoes, corn and carrots.
  • Brain chemistry is not set in stone and can be improved with knowledge and simple changes in daily life! Be sure to ask questions of your health care provider and discuss non-drug therapies. The neurochemicals in our bodies are constantly fluctuating, like the tides, based not only on innate physiology but on the environment and our response to it. These variations are important and can be viewed as the positive struggle for homeostasis and health.

Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to make one healthy choice today to add value, and modify one harmful issue that may be upsetting your body’s neurochemical balance. Your health and vitality are built upon a series of daily choices. Time to reclaim that wisdom, take action and co-create your best Self ever!

Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/pathways-out-pain/202106/how-optimize-brain-chemisty-naturally

Photo: https://www.kurzweilai.net/the-social-origins-of-intelligence-in-the-brain

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