Your remarkable brain—just like a computer—is an information-gathering machine and is constantly processing incoming data, then responding at lightning speed with “output.” As you go about your normal day-to-day activities, millions of messages are flying “back and forth” in your brain, influencing your daily decisions, actions, moods and emotions.
Neurotransmitters are internal chemicals that allow brain cells to talk to each other, or to communicate from cell to cell. Hour by hour and moment by moment, they efficiently manage your movements, emotions, pain, pleasure, heart rate, muscle tone and more.
Two neurotransmitters that are closely involved in all this “brain activity” are norepinephrine and acetylcholine. According to a group of researchers from the American Pharmacists Association, “The two most common neurotransmitters released by neurons of the ANS (Autonomic Nervous System) are acetylcholine and norepinephrine.”
They have been described by researchers as “control centers”—like a pushy boss telling your brain cells (neurons) what to do. They keep “mental” traffic moving efficiently, and act like a car’s accelerator, revving up the engine (or brain) when needed.
While foods don’t actually contain neurotransmitters, they do have vitamins and other substances that the body can use to make neurotransmitters. For example, foods rich in the amino acid “tyrosine” are needed for the brain to produce norepinephrine. And foods rich in the nutrient “choline” allow the body to produce acetylcholine. So if you want to know how to stimulate these neurotransmitters, you’ll need to know what foods contain tyrosine and choline!
Foods That Help Create Norepinephrine
When your body has the raw materials it needs, (tyrosine) is can produce norepinephrine that is involved in mood, focus, memory, alertness and concentration. Low levels are linked to lack of energy, focus, and motivation. Norepinephrine acts similarly to caffeine without any negative side effects, so there are no huge crashes!
To create norepinephrine in the body and reap its benefits, you will need to eat foods that are rich in tyrosine. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, foods high in tyrosine include, “chicken, turkey, fish, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese, peanuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, soy products, lima beans and avocados.”
Specifically, turkey and chicken are low-fat protein sources that are rich in the amino acid. Chicken is very common in the diet but turkey, not so much! Try turkey sausage for breakfast, turkey sandwiches or substitute ground turkey for regular hamburger.
Cheese is another good source of tyrosine. Particularly high are Gruyere cheese, followed by Swiss, Edam, blue cheese and cottage cheese. And soy based foods are rich in tyrosine. The highest in percentage is tofu, followed by soy flour, tempeh, natto (fermented soy paste) and soy chips. Tempeh is made by a natural culturing process and involves fermentation that binds soybeans into a cake form.
And if you are not a vegetarian, lean beef and lamb are tyrosine-rich. Good choices are grilled steak (lean selections are best), beef tenderloin, rump roast, lamb shoulder, lamb roast, particularly those raised in New Zealand & Australian lamb (meats produced in New Zealand and Australia are more likely to be lower in fat and grass fed).
Foods That Help Create Acetylcholine
The nutrient called choline—a natural ingredient found in eggs, lecithin and other foods—has long been a “buzz” word in the natural food industry. As the name suggests, the neurotransmitter “acetylcholine” is made partly from choline. One of acetylcholine’s main jobs is to allow your cells to communicate with each other.
To produce adequate amounts of acetylcholine for brain function, you require choline in the diet. In addition to its other functions as mentioned above, choline helps breakdown fats, protects cells and is involved in numerous other bodily reactions. Acetylcholine is important for your memory, and for the ability to concentrate and focus. A deficiency may lead to a decline in cognitive function.
And as for depression, scientists have long known that the brain uses the signaling chemical called “serotonin” to ease depression. But they now say that acetylcholine is important, too. Dr. Marina Picciotto from Yale University says, “Acetylcholine disruption may be a primary cause of depression. If we can treat the root cause, perhaps we can get a better response from the patient.”
Foods that are rich sources of choline (needed for acetylcholine production) include meats, dairy, poultry and fish, with the highest levels found in liver. For vegetarians, chocolate, peanut butter, Brussels sprouts and broccoli all contain significant levels of choline. Wheat contains choline, but it’s found only in the “wheat germ,” so you will only get it if you eat whole-wheat products.
Lecithin—found in egg yolks and soy—is a fat-based nutrient frequently used in food processing. It is a rich source of choline and can be purchased in health food stores. You can add it to smoothies to boost the choline content. It is mild tasting and will not change the flavor of your smoothie.
Wheat—the grain source of most breads, pastas, pastries, muffins, bagels etc—is a good source of choline “if” you eat whole grain products. When you choose foods made from white flour (which is the most common source of starchy foods), you will not get the important wheat germ, which is where the choline is found. Go for whole wheat products for adequate quantities of choline.
As the message goes, it is extremely important to eat a diet that is healthy, balanced, natural and rich in unadulterated and unprocessed choices. And when focusing on foods that will feed the brain and help your body create neurotransmitters, you will want to eat a wide variety of all the foods mentioned above. That way, you will be feeding your brain with health-promoting nutrients that build neurotransmitters, allowing your moods and emotions to work at their peak!
McCorry, L. et al. Physiology of the Autonomic Nervous System. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. 15 Aug, 2007. 2007 Aug 15; 71(4): 78.
Parslow K. Surviving the American High-Tech Diet. Tate Publishing. Jun 2014.
Picciotto, M. Potential Root Cause of Depression Discovered by NARSAD Grantee. Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. 18 Apr, 2013.
Staff. Tyrosine. University of Maryland Medical Center. http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/tyrosine
Whole Foods. http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=50