As we leave lockdown, one of the most distressing aspects of these recent events for many has been the feeling of being out of control and vulnerable to outside dangers and pressures. Mental Health Awareness Week’s key theme this year, kindness, is very apt in this respect. Doing acts of kindness is a powerful practice that makes us feel good. It’s something positive we can choose to do, and in so doing, regain some control over how we feel.
This got us thinking about other practices that can boost this ‘feel-good factor’, or the ‘happy chemicals’ which will help counterbalance the stress and anxiety we’re going through. Serotonin is one such neurotransmitter, in other words a chemical which travels through our nervous system, like the little globules you can see jumping from one nerve ending to another on the image to the right. Serotonin plays a big part, not only in our mood, but also our sleep cycle, sensitivity to pain, and how our body regulates blood pressure. When levels are low, we also tend to crave comfort foods, which might explain a lot if you feel as if you’ve been unable to stop eating while being stuck at home during the lockdown. Here are ten things you can do to boost your levels on a daily basis.
- Go for a lunchtime walk: sunlight hitting our retina triggers our body to synthesise serotonin. Even better if you can walk in nature – ‘Vitamin N’ is fundamental to mental and spiritual health.
- Raise your heart rate for 30 minutes: aerobic exercise has been shown to have the strongest link with serotonin synthesis in the brain (‘runner’s high’). Whether you go for Joe Wicks’s 9am workout or break into a jog on your lunchtime walk, you’ll feel better instantly.
- Focus on good thoughts: remembering positive events has been shown to boost serotonin production.
- Aim to include oily fish at least 3 times a week, and sprinkle seeds on your meals: omegas 3 fats Improve serotonin receptor sensitivity, in other words, our nervous system will be more finely tuned and you’ll feel more positive feelings. Fish such as salmon, anchovies, herring, sardines and the delicious smoked mackerel shown here can really give your lunchtime salad the feel-good factor.
- Include good sources of protein: the building blocks of protein, amino acids are what the body uses to produce serotonin, so they are a vital ingredient for happiness. Tryptophan in particular is the amino acid which gets synthesised into serotonin, and you can get it from seeds, wild salmon, meat, eggs (keep the yolks), beans.
- …Alongside complex carbs: oats, sweet potatoes, beans, brown rice are great mood boosters but beware the refined high sugar carbs. They will increase serotonin release but only short term, before making you crash back down again very quickly. They can become a ‘food as drug’, something you rely on when under stress or attempting to give up smoking, so it’s always best to go with the slow burning carbs instead.
- Lose the booze (or cut down): alcohol is a depressant and regular use can disturb the metabolism of brain serotonin.
- Include fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir: did you know that 90% of our serotonin is located in our digestive tract? Our gut bacteria play an important part in regulating serotonin synthesis so we’d do well to look after it with some great probiotic foods.
- Avoid ‘diet’ drinks: the artificial sweetener aspartame contains about 50% phenylalanine which has been shown to deplete serotonin.
- Vitamin C rich foods: vitamin C helps the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin, another good reason to ‘eat the rainbow’ and include colourful plant foods such as peppers, kiwis and broccoli.
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H Naude, Direct and indirect cellular effects of aspartame on the brain, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition volume62, pages451–462 (2008) doi:10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602866 08 August 2007