Neurotransmitters and mood: Why it’s important to remember you’re an ape

For all the fanciness of modern existence; the cars, bars, and Hollywood stars; we are still ultimately bipedal apes wearing funny costumes, driving explosion powered metal boxes around in neat little grids of rocks we’ve rammed into the ground. The message from the media is that what you need to be happy is to participate in the endless cycle of consumerism. Derive all joy in your life from the brief thrill of buying something new. And when that joy fades, quick! Buy something else.

Obviously, happiness is a much more complex process than a linear series of material acquisitions. At the root of it, mood and emotions are chemical processes through which the neural network of our mind can interpret new and existing data. The four principle chemicals responsible for feelings of happiness are Serotonin, Dopamine, Noradrenaline, and Phenethylamine. Collectively, these chemicals are referred to as mono-amine chemicals, because, as the name implies, they contain a single amine group in the molecule. This structure allows them to be regulated by an enzyme present in your body known as Mono-amine Oxidase, or MAO. The mono-amine chemicals have functions that they play in your body, and also effects on mood exercised through receptors in the central nervous system. In order to maintain control of how many of these chemicals enter the brain, there exists a membrane known as the Blood Brain Barrier, which as you might imagine, forms a barrier between the greater blood supply, and the brain.

So, the factors that define your mood are the set of all things which effect Serotonin, Dopamine, Noradrenaline, Phenethylamine, and MAO, principally. Many of you may be familiar with drugs that have effects on these receptors, but there are also plentiful endogenous ways to manipulate your brain chemistry when you understand the basics of how it works.

Before we go into the science of how these chemicals work in your body, I’d like to give a brief overview of how each of them feels subjectively. These descriptions come from my own, non-peer reviewed research, using dozens of volunteers reporting on their mood under a variety of situations, including intoxication on chemicals whose principal method of action is known, including recreational substances like LSD, MDMA, and Cannabis.

Serotonin – This overall mediates your feelings of optimism and excitement. Given identical data about a scenario, a person with high brain levels of serotonin can perceive the situation as obviously going to work out fine, while the same person with low brain levels of serotonin will perceive the same situation as being obviously doomed. I’ve seen it dozens of times, and it still amazes me. If you find yourself feeling like nothing will work out, stop and consider factors that could be causing a low serotonin situation for you. This is the principal chemical effected by many commercial antidepressants, such as Prozac.

Dopamine – This is your sense of reward. That what you are doing is good and matters. If you feel like you are worthless, or that your life doesn’t matter, or that nobody likes you, you can likely point to a low level of brain dopamine. Opiates and amphetamines operate on Dopamine receptors.

Noradrenaline – This is the brain version of adrenaline. I sincerely hope your life has at some point provided you with an adrenaline rush. It is a mediator in the fight-or-flight response.

Phenethylamine – mediates the release of dopamine and noradrenaline

To start with, diet has a huge impact on how your body produces these chemicals. Like virtually everything manufactured by the body, mono-amine chemicals are assembled from amino acids, which we intake through our food. Serotonin is synthesized from L-tryptophan, Dopamine from L-Tyrosine, Phenethylamine from phenylalanine, and Noradrenaline is actually synthesized from Dopamine. As it turns out, a major factor in determining how much of each of these chemicals your body produces is about not only just how much of their precursors you ingest, but also what ratio those amino acids are present in relation to other amino acids, both in each protein you ingest, and in your total diet. All this is very complicated, but does come down to research you could do yourself about any and all food you eat. While I would laud the effort of doing this, it’s much easier to just take advantage of research other people have already done, and take some recommendations on foods that will contribute to a healthy balance of mono-amine neurotransmitters. Also important in this is healthy levels of cholesterol and sugars, to facilitate the syntheses, and give the brain energy. I’ve taken the liberty of assembling a brief list, and included some sites I used at the bottom if you’re interested in doing more of your own research.

Food: dried dates, -figs, papaya, banana, strawberries, sweet cherries, orange, mango, pineapple, grapefruit and hazelnuts. For cholesterol, raw eggs(fresh. Know your source!), raw fish(fresh. Know your source!). Foods to avoid: pretty much all processed food. These contain beta-carbolines which inhibit part of the synthesis process of serotonin Animal proteins, especially red meat, tend to contain very unfavorable ratios of amino acids as well. Sad for me, because I love brisket. A lot.

Also incredibly important is regular, deep sleep. Much of this synthesis is done only during deep sleep, so by denying yourself a regular full night of sleep, you are actively inhibiting the functioning of your brain and mood. This can actually create a feedback loop if left unchecked for too long. How this is occurs is that in order for you to sleep, your pineal gland synthesizes melatonin, the sleep hormone, from serotonin. So, if you are already serotonin deficient, you will have difficulty getting deep sleep, which will turn leave you more serotonin deficient. A vicious cycle. If you’re already in this loop, melatonin is available over the counter from most grocery stores and pharmacies. It works well for me, though many people report either no effect, or intense and sometimes frightening dreams under the effects of it. So, as always, do your research before ingesting mind-altering chemicals. I’d recommend http://www.erowid.org and http://www.wikipedia.org as starting resources on any mind-altering substance, and move on to more advanced sources as your understanding and interest allows.

A third, very important factor influencing happy chemical levels in your brain is exercise. Most people are probably familiar with endorphins, which are the chemicals that produce that “runner’s high”. Endorphins, or Endogenous Morphine, cause an increase in dopamine levels directly, but that isn’t necessarily the most important aspect of exercising for your mental health. Motor activity increases the firing rates of serotonin neurons, and this results in increased release and synthesis of serotonin (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2077351/?tool=pmcentrez). The extra serotonin produced will then allow deeper sleep. Ever notice how well you sleep after working your ass off doing manual labor all day? Yeah.

Exercise frequently includes another very important part of maintaining healthy brain chemistry, and that is going outside. It turns out exposure to bright light is actually really important to your brain. If you have seasonal affective disorder, you already know this, and probably have a “sun lamp” indoors to help you during the winter months. Even on cloudy days, it is much much brighter outside than inside normally gets. This effect is neutralized by sunglasses, as they limit the amount of light entering your eyes, thus telling your brain to produce less happy chemicals. I know they look cool, but is worth slightly crippling your brain? I personally stopped wearing sunglasses as soon as I was exposed to this information. In previous eras, this happened automatically, as nearly everyone’s occupation would involve long hours of manual labor outdoors. In our modern, technological society, opportunities for this can seem limited to many people. It’s important to find time anyways.

So, a quick summary of all this. Eat a lot of fruits and nuts and raw eggs and fish. Go outside and be active a lot. Sleep through the whole night. Why yes, it can be that easy. Eat right and exercise. Sleep at night. Of course the complicated part comes in that all of these things are habits, and habits can be very difficult to change, taking between 3 and 5 weeks of continuous effort for most people. I’d recommend changing one at a time, and if you have to pick one, go for outdoor exercise. The rest will probably fall into place fairly naturally as a result. In terms of a heuristic for how to live though, remember you are an ape. Think about what the wild homosapiens might do, what our hairier ancestors might have done. Despite the world we’ve built around ourselves, we’re still biologically predisposed to certain activities. It comes as no surprise that foods that would be highly available to our primate brethren are still the foods our brains ultimately desire. And remember, everyone else out there is just a confused monkey, too.

Links and related reading:
http://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/Nutritional_Pharmacology_of_Sleep_Depression.html
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2077351/?tool=pmcentrez
http://www.erowid.org
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serotonin
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dopamine
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noradrenaline
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phenethylamine
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monoamine_oxidase

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