Immune Health and Neurotransmitter Function: What You Need to Know

Fun fact: a hijacked immune system means hijacked neurotransmitters, especially in the case of tryptophan.

The primary pathway for tryptophan metabolism in the body is the kynurenine pathway, needed for supporting inflammation and immune function in case of virus or infection. In fact, tryptophan is so crucial for fighting inflammation that a recent study on mice found that mice who consumed diets low of tryptophan have altered gut bacteria and increased inflammation.

Tryptophan is needed for so many functions in the body. We need tryptophan to make serotonin, which definitely has an impact on mental well-being. We need it for sleep support, as serotonin flips the switch to melatonin at night, and we even need tryptophan to regulate GI function.

Tryptophan plays an important role for those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as well, so if the immune system is under attack, or the body is dealing with any other threat, tryptophan may not be available to support mood health. This is often referred to as the “tryptophan steal.” Some studies even suggest supplementing with tryptophan may be just as effective as taking an antidepressant to ward of seasonal depression. This make sense, because SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) work on the synapses of the brain to keep serotonin available for longer. If the body isn’t getting tryptophan to make serotonin, there isn’t much available to “inhibit reuptake.”

You can support tryptophan by focusing on getting more tryptophan rich food into your diet or by taking a tryptophan supplement, but I advise you to check with a professional before adding in a supplement like tryptophan.

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Tryptophan-rich foods I love and how I incorporate them:

Bananas – Not only do they contain tryptophan, they are a great source of B6, needed for the metabolism of tryptophan. I love having bananas on hand to eat with peanut butter, throw in a smoothie, or add to oatmeal or chia pudding. Which leads to…

Oats – I love making overnight oats, using a cup of liquid, 1/4 cup oats, nuts and seeds, protein powder, all mixed in a jar and put in the fridge overnight or for a few hours. I also love making power balls with a mixture of oats, peanut butter, honey, and other add-ins like coconut and chocolate chips. My boys help me roll the mixture into balls and set in fridge. Usually it gets eaten immediately!

Chocolate – The darker the chocolate, the higher the amount of antioxidants and tryptophan. I love a square in the evening, or mid-afternoon if I’m having a craving for something comforting. I love dipping a square in organic peanut butter (with one ingredient: peanuts).

Dairy – This is when quality goes a long way. For those who can tolerate dairy, looking for full fat, grass-fed and organic dairy will give the most nutrient value. Because dairy is such a staple in the American diet, I don’t need to specify how to incorporate it. But be sure you tolerate it well and the quality is top notch, or you won’t be getting the full benefits.

Tuna – Quality is extremely important in all seafood, due to water contamination. Look for wild-caught, sustainable versons, especially when you’re looking for shelf stable tuna to mix as tuna salad.

Various nuts and seeds – Pumpkin seeds are great sources to throw on a salad, while I love adding chia and flax seeds to my kids’ oatmeal or yogurt. Cashews and pistachios have more tryptophan than peanuts, but organic peanut butter is such a great quick source and can be added to anything to up the flavor (I’ve even drizzled it onto my stir fry dishes).

Chicken/Turkey – Always look for pasture-raised, antibiotic-free sources. For turkey, this is particularly challenging, so I usually stick to chicken.

Because we are in the middle of cold/flu season, our bodies are constantly fighting viruses and our immune systems are more vigilant than ever. Those with more adipose tissue will carry a higher viral load, so it is extremely important to load up on tryptophan-rich foods as much as possible.

If you’re curious to know more about tryptophan and how to supplement with it, message me. I’d love to support you as you support your neurotransmitters this season!

What Do I Do With All That Candy?

It’s the day after Halloween, and my dining room table is completely covered with candy. Some of my old favorites are featured: Reese’s pumpkins, peanut M&Ms, Milky Way, and Heath. In our house, my kids get to pick their favorite pieces, no more than ten (I’m flexible because the size varies), and the rest gets donated. Mom and Dad get to save a few as well, because ’tis the season, right?

I know there’s an intuitive eating movement to let kids have all the access and listen to their bodies for stopping cues, and I respect that… but it doesn’t line up with what we know about brain health. Big Food Patriarchy wants your kids (their consumers/users) hooked on candy for a lifetime, so of course they develop their products to hit the bliss point of food, without ever feeling the physiological satiation or urge to stop.

I’m all about teaching my kids to listen to their bodies, but we also have to understand the neurotransmitter hijack that occurs with these engineered food products and the long term impact on developing brains.

It’s not about willpower, discipline, or being able to eat intuitively. It’s about understanding that our brains are wired for survival. And anything that gets our serotonin and dopamine hitting harder and faster pumps up our norepinephrine to make us feel good in the moment – until we don’t anymore, and we need another stronger hit.

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The Pantry Item That Could Be Wrecking Your Mental Health

Lately I have been on a rampage against commonly used inflammatory vegetable oils. They are everywhere, in every dressing, sauce, packaged good, and even in frozen vegetable mixtures and “healthy” items. Because of what I know about how these inflammatory oils impact our cell membranes and lead to oxidative damage, I get enraged that so many food companies and “health coaches” or nutrition experts promote their use.

The main oils I try to stay away from are vegetable, corn, soybean, canola, sunflower, and safflower. The reason these oils wreak havoc on cellular health is because they are in the category of omega 6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAS). Omega 6 oils are not bad on their own, and we actually need them, but when we are consuming more omega 6 oils than omega 3s, excessive inflammation can occur. Also, these oils are very sensitive to oxidation under high heat, which can also cause damage on the cellular level.

In a perfect world, we would have a balance between omega 3 fats and omega 6 fats. In the era of processed convenience food, it just isn’t the case. Excess intake of vegetable oils like canola and soybean have been linked to anxiety, aggression, and poor cognitive function. While intake of omega 3 oils (found in fatty fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds) has been shown to improve cognitive function and reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and even chronic pain.

Most restaurant items contain inflammatory oils, because they’re cheaper. Even if you go to a restaurant and decide to make a “healthy” choice of ordering a salad, chances are that salad dressing is packed with canola or soybean oil, along with lots of sugar. I try to avoid restaurant salads as much as possible. The last time I mistakenly ordered a shrimp salad at a chain restaurant, it was so sweet it tasted like dessert!

But here’s the thing – I like eating out. It can be a fun treat, and my family usually eats restaurant food about once a week. I don’t want to be the food police at a restaurant. I don’t want my need to control or stress about food to ruin an enjoyable dining experience.

This brings me to my pantry. I have control over what I make at home. I love cooking from scratch, using whole food ingredients as much as possible. I love knowing that I am supporting my family’s brain health through nourishing recipes that keep us full and fueled for our busy lives.

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Popular Phrases That Don’t Support Whole Body Health

If we’re going to partner with our bodies for whole body healing, we need to understand that the way we choose to talk to our bodies about our choices of nourishment impacts the way we digest and utilize nutrients. A body in stress won’t digest! Our thoughts pave the way for everything that happens on an intercellular level. If we are stressed about our food choices, it alters the way we digest.

Does what you put into your body impact your health? Of course! But what you tell yourself about your food and your body determines if you can access “rest and digest,” which is important for healing and restoration.

During a meal, we want to be relaxed, filled with gratitude, and completely present in our bodies to load our senses with the pleasure-filled experience of eating.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. Food is not just fuel. Food is comfort, healing, information, and nourishment on so many levels.

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Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer: What’s the Connection?

Breaking news: A HUGE study, published in March 2022, showed that people who consumed high amounts of aspartame were associated with a 22% higher risk of developing breast cancer and 15% higher risk of developing obesity-related cancers. Other sweeteners that were included in the study were sucralose (Splenda) and acesulfame potassium, though 58% of the participants consumed aspartame.

The cohort study was initiated in France in 2009, and looked at the diet of 102,685 people. It’s important to note that almost all of the participants consumed less than the government-recommended allowable daily intake… so it’s not like they were consuming it all day long, all the time. Even a small amount seemed to make a difference in health outcomes.

Artificial sweeteners can be found in:

  • Gum
  • Diet drinks
  • Light yogurt
  • Pedialyte
  • Microwave popcorn
  • Whole wheat bread and English muffins
  • “Carb balance” tortillas
  • Some protein powders and health bars (including Pure Protein and Quest)
  • Sugar free candy
  • Sugar free coffee syrups
  • Energy drinks
  • Sugar free ice cream and other desserts

Aspartame has long been linked to tumors in mice, but other artificial sweeteners (including Splenda/sucralose) are also linked to depression, anxiety, ADHD, cognitive decline, insulin resistance, weight gain, cardiovascular disease, and microbial imbalances (which affect everything else).

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Favorite Foods for Brain Health

I love supporting my mental health through nutrients from food. When I stopped dieting and started focusing on ADDING colorful variety and nutrient density, it was a much needed mindset change.

This helped me to learn to listen to my body’s needs, instead of viewing my body as a project I needed to perfect and relying on diet and food companies’ marketing instead of my own intuition.

I spent many years choosing food items with the marketing phrases “diet,” “reduced fat,” “low fat,” “low calorie,” and “sugar free,” never knowing that those things were harming my mental health.

It has been so freeing to find what nourishes my unique body and not being enslaved to anyone else’s rules. These three categories (protein, veggies, and fiber) are things I have learned make me feel great when I include them every day!

What are your must haves? My guess is yours might look different than mine, which is a beautiful, bioindividual thing!

The Benefits of Carbs for Your Brain

To carb or not to carb? It seems it is always the debate in nutrition these days.

Yes, we need carbs, and carbs support our mental health.

The top benefits of carbohydrates for mental health are:

  1. They feed good gut bugs and create a more diverse microbiome.
  2. They help us sleep better!
  3. They improve mood health.
  4. They keep stress hormones in check.

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The Items I Always Include on My Grocery List

Every week, usually Thursday or Friday, my husband and I plan our meals for the following week. We choose three meals, without a specific day in mind when we’ll make them, which gives us room for leftovers or unexpected events. We are pretty flexible, loosely scheduled people – so this works for us.

While the meals vary because I can’t have the same thing every week for dinner, there are some items on our list that don’t change. Since I like to leave wiggle room for the unexpected, there are pantry and fridge stocking items that I always try to include – just in case.

What follows are the items I make sure to have present as much as possible. They’re in no particular order, but I may have saved the best for last. 🙂

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Why Cutting Calories Creates Long-term Chaos

Are you cutting calories to lose weight?

A recent groundbreaking study, authored by 17 experts in the field, was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition called, “The Carbohydrate-insulin Model: a Physiological Perspective on the Obesity Pandemic.”

This study highlights these important areas:

  • An excess of calories doesn’t cause fat storage.
  • Caloric restriction often decreases metabolic rate and increases hunger.
  • What the energy source is made up of makes a difference in how the body digests and utilizes it,
  • Processed, easily digestible carbohydrates signal a cascade of hormonal and metabolic shifts that lead to fat storage and HUNGER.

The Energy Balance model has always stated that when you consume more calories (energy) than what you expend, you will store fat. What we are learning (and seeing in real time) is that it isn’t so much the calorie quantity as it is the quality. WHAT you consume will cause metabolic changes in the body, because not all calories are alike. A chronic restriction of calories alone can cause your basal metabolic rate to decrease, while driving the body weight “set point” up.

Restricting calories and consuming a lot of foods with a high glycemic load causes your body to absorb glucose quickly while also decreasing metabolic fuel concentration so soon afterward that your brain then believes it is depleted of energy sources (called “cellular semistarvation”) and will soon elicit hunger and cravings, so that the cycle keeps perpetuating. Whew! This requires a lot of work on your body’s part!

I don’t share this to stress anyone out. If you’ve been reading my blog or listening to my podcast, I don’t do the diet thing. But I do want to encourage people to partner with their bodies in order to find a place of healing and wholeness. The best way to lighten the stress load from a nutritional standpoint is to focus on whole food sources that are fiber-rich and help assist the glucose response.

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Tips for Kids’ Back-to-School Anxiety

It’s back to school time – which means a time of heightened anxiety for some kids.

There are so many supportive tools to help with a “brain that is always awake” (to quote one of my children, when explaining his overactive, sensitive mind).

Because our calming neurotransmitters are formed in the gut, optimizing nutrition makes a huge impact on brain health, so it’s a bottom-up approach as well as top-down. Remember – if your child isn’t getting or digesting protein well, he or she may not be making the neurotransmitters they need for calming/stress relief. So sometimes a little support can help, but nutrition is key!

There are so many safe, evidence-based tools to help our children thrive during times of anxiety.

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