Most of us are vaguely familiar with the relationship between low neurotransmitters and symptoms of mental health disorders. For too many years, I’ve heard people say that the reason they are depressed is because of a “chemical imbalance” in their brains. What they usually mean is that their brains don’t produce enough of a neurotransmitter, and thus they are depressed. However, did you know that research has never proven that a chemical imbalance is the cause of mental health disorders? Conventional wisdom says that when a person experiences symptoms of depression (low motivation, sadness, insomnia, fatigue, brain fog, feelings of worthlessness, etc.), they may also have high or low levels of neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, dopamine or serotonin. But not one study has ever proven that a chemical imbalance causes depression. On the other had, research has shown that poor digestion results in inflammation, and chronic inflammation underscores, and even causes, essentially all mental illness.
Let’s look at a few basic facts about the neurotransmitters impacting our mental health.
- First, neurotransmitters are formed through the processing of amino acids. We get amino acids from protein in our diets.
- Amino acids combine with co-factors like vitamins, minerals and enzymes to become neurotransmitters.
- Sugars, refined foods, poor sleep and toxins inhibit the proper digestion of food, which diminishes the body’s ability to form neurotransmitters.
Three of the most common neurotransmitters we hear about in mental health are GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric Acid), dopamine and serotonin. If your GABA levels are low, you’re likely to experience symptoms of anxiety disorders. If your dopamine levels are low, you might be experiencing symptoms of ADHD, depression or anxiety. If your serotonin levels are low, you’d experience symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders. (This is obviously a very simplified explanation. There’s overlap between all of the neurotransmitters, even ones I haven’t mentioned here. This is just to formulate a foundation for your care and further research).
So if you’re experiencing symptoms of anxiety, ADHD or depression (or all three!), what nutritional adjustments can you make to help your body produce the right levels of these neurotransmitters?
I like smoothies because it’s easy to combine many foods for the biggest nutritional impact. So let’s start with this Favorite Smoothie Base and look at how it can be modified to address different mental health needs.
Remember, every smoothie has three basic elements – protein, (healthy) fat and fiber.
Favorite Smoothie Base
- 1 cup water (add more to adjust smoothie consistency)
- 1 cup greens (fiber)
- 1 scoop protein powder
- 1 Tablespoon healthy fat
For a smoothie that will support serotonin development: add 1/2 cup frozen pineapple, 1 cup spinach for your greens and 1 tablespoon of unsweetened almond butter for your healthy fat.
For a smoothie that will support GABA development: add 1/2 a banana, 1 cup spinach for your greens, 1 tablespoon of matcha green tea and 1 tablespoon of coconut oil as your healthy fat.
For a smoothie that will support dopamine development: add 1/4 apple and 1/4 cup frozen berries (either strawberries or blueberries), 1 cup kale and 1 cup frozen broccoli for your greens, and 1 tablespoon of MCT oil for your healthy fat.
If you would like additional fiber (to help keep you full longer), add 1-2 tablespoons soaked or milled chia seeds or (ground) flaxseeds to your smoothie. You don’t need to grind the flaxseeds first if you have a really high-powered blender.
*For Trim Healthy Mamas, all of these recipes are XOs. If you would like them to be Es, reduce the amount of fat in each recipe to 1 tsp.
Making simple changes in your nutrition can go a long way to healing your struggles with mental health disorders. If you haven’t already, look back on my previous posts to help start your journey! And please share your successes – I’d love you share in the joy!
Brogan, K., MD. (2017). A Mind of Your Own: The Truth About Depression and How Women Can Heal Their Bodies to Reclaim Their Lives. Harperwave.
Haas, E., M.D.; Levin, B. PhD.; R.D. (2006). Staying Healthy With Nutrition: Celestial Arts.
Hyman, M., MD. (2009). The Ultramind Solution. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc.