Maslow’s Hierarchy: The Physiological Needs 2 – Nutrition (eat your way to a better mood)

Posted on January 4, 2013



Click on image to read Harvard’s advice on how to eat healthy.

(Related posts: Overview of Maslow’s Hierarchy and part 1 of physiological needs)

You are what you eat. There is so much literal truth in this cliche. Every single molecule in our body was produced by a series of complex biochemical reactions that tear down that big plate of food we had for lunch into basic parts and reassembles them in complicated ways to create our skin, eyeballs, stomach, teeth, and brain etc., which are the tools we use to conduct our lives. Our brains, remarkably effecient, run on about 20 watts of power and every cell in it, and all the thoughts and experiences they create, are ultimately constructed from the food we eat. Needless to say what we eat has a huge impact on our health and well-being. It’s important to ask ourselves: What do you want your body’s cells to be made from?

The health consequences of a poor diet on the body are well known, but the cognitive and emotional effects aren’t as widely appreciated. People often eat too much unhealthy fast food to save time, money, and work, but if they understood the consequences and the benefits of the food we build our bodies with, then they’d realize that over the long term, they’re cutting themselves short. They’re not enjoying the full benefits of their bodies and lives as much as they could. This is like having a Ferrari but slowly ruining it by using low quality fuel, leaving it in bad weather, and not changing the oil. Many would scream at this thought regarding the car, but for some reasons we tolerate and even celebrate the treatment of our bodies this way (e.g. hot dog eating contests).

So the point of this post is to describe current research about the effects of what we eat has on the mind, brain and behavior, and how we can use this knowledge to finely tune our minds and bodies for better performance and increased well-being.

The basic idea is that the brain is affected by the nutrient environment of the body. We can have localized cerebral deficiency states, specific areas of the brain that lack nutrition. If we find the right balance at the right time then our brains work better. We can directly influence our brain activity and behavior through managing our nutrition. The source for the nutritional information is the US National Institute of Health.

We’ll focus on the two most common dimensions of mood and emotion that affects us the most: depression vs. happiness, and anxiety vs. calm.

1. Depression and Happiness. For those experiencing low energy, a sad mood, not feeling pleasure etc, then making adjustments to the following nutrients could be helpful.

Sugar. Consuming excess sugar can lead to depression. Too high blood sugar leads to mental confusion and inflammation in brain. Too low blood sugar causes depression anxiety, mental confusion, irritability and aggression. So maintaining healthy levels of blood sugar is very important for mental health. We can balance our blood sugar by eating low-glycemic foods like the ones listed in the graphic above.

Vitamins. Blood tests reveal that depressed people are  low in Vitamins B1, B2, B6, and folate.  Oral contraception decreases B6 which is crucial for building the neurotransmitters our brain cells use to communicate.

Foods high in B1 (thiamin): tuna, sunflower seeds, navy beans, black beans, peas, lentils, and sesame seeds. Eat foods high in B1 to increase energy, and maintain healthy myelin sheaths on nerve cells.

Foods high in B2 (riboflavin): venison, yogurt, soybeans, milk, portabella mushrooms, spinach, almonds, and eggs. Eat foods high in B2 for increased energy by maintaining healthy metabolism in the liver and good oxygen activity in the heart.

Foods high in B6: tuna, beef, chicken, turkey, venison, potatoes, cod, sunflower seeds, halibut, and spinach. Eat foods high in B6 for producing healthy neurotransmitters to maintain healthy mood and cognitive function.

Foods high in folate: lentils, pinto beans, chickpeas, spinach, beans, and greens. Eat foods high in folate for increased energy and positive emotion through healthier red blood and nerve cells (via methylation of neurotransmitters).

Amino acids: Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and many of the brain molecules for brain functioning.  Tyrosine and tryptophan are important ones for a healthy nervous system.

Tyrosine builds neurotransmitters in the brain. Always take supplemental amino acids away from protein-rich foods because protein uses up all the transport molecules, so supplements are just wasted. Carbohydrates like juice help absorption. It can make you jittery. It’s not good for anxiety, but for depression. Foods high in tyrosine: eggs, soy products, cheese, seaweed, and fish.

Tryptophan produces 5-HTP which becomes serotonin, an important neurotransmitter involved in depression and happiness, and then becomes melatonin, which helps sets sleep-wake cycles and can be used to help jet lag.

Tryptophan increases serotonin, helps depression and sleep. It regulates circadian rhythm, but it’s not a sleeping pill. It can be better than antidepressants (or used in combination) because nutrition creates new neurotransmitters while drugs recycle used ones. Foods high in tryptophan are poultry, seafood, dairy products, nuts and seeds, and beans. It’s best to take with chromium.  Chromium increases entry of tryptophan in the brain and creates serotonin. If you’re depressed and intensely crave sugar, then taking supplemental chromium with food could help.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids – the brain is mostly fat. Some fatty acids like DHA are replaced as soon as every 2 weeks in the brain, so that’s how quickly nutrition can cause physical changes the brain. We need quality fats to make neural processes function properly. Fish oil and flax seed oil help produce BDNF, a substance that helps nerves grow. Low BDNF is correlated with depression. 60% of our brain is fat, we can choose to have a brain made from healthy fats or unhealthy fats.

2. Anxiety and Calm. For those who are prone to anxiety, worry, or get stressed, angry, and irritated easily may want to focus on adjusting these nutrients to help balance mood.

People who are chronically stressed and anxious have high levels of lactic acid in their blood and brain and are sensitive to external lactic acid  which will cause shallow breathing and tense muscles. A non-anxious person would have no reaction. So lactic acid seems to be a biological marker of anxiety and the following nutrients help counteract it’s effect and can help reduce anxiety and high stress.

L-Glycine, an amino acid which is good in acute situations, when used as a supplement it loses effect over the long term. It may work by reducing lactic acid in the blood. Foods high in L-Glycine include meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, carrots, turnips, celery, mint, alfalfa, spinach, garlic, potatoes, figs, oranges, raspberries, pomegranates, melons and almonds.

Vitamin B3 – There are 3 forms, niacin, which causes flushing of the skin in high doses, niacinamide which is better as a supplement, and inositol, a form that helps balance the water levels in our bodies. B3 benefits the liver and helps prevent panic attacks and is even used in the treatment of bulimia, OCD, and depression. Foods high in niacinamide are maitake mushrooms, salmon, turkey, and almonds. Foods high in inositol are grapefruits, oranges, beans, citrus fruits, cantaloupe, and whole grain bread.

Vitamin B12. Supports serotonin and is good for both depression and anxiety. It helps nerve, and frontal lobe development and health. Foods high in B12 are sardines, salmon, venison, lamb, beef, shrimp, halibut, scallops, yogurt, and milk.

GABA is a neurotransmitter that calms us. When you drink alcohol or take benzodiazepines like valium  your manipulating your GABA system towards calm. Healthy GABA levels keep us calm, but supplemental GABA doesn’t cross blood-brain barrier well. It’s thought that GABA produced from fermentation from lactobacillus hilgardi found in Korean kimchi does cross the blood-brain barrier.

Supplements vs food. Food is generally the best way to get nutrients but the levels may not be high enough, so supplementation may be necessary. If you do choose to supplement, talk to your doctor, build up the dose slowly, and realize that results may take weeks or even months. Talk with your doctor, before starting particularly if you’re on medication or have a medical condition.

Which diet is best? Generally speaking the Mediterranean diet  is considered healthiest. Certain aspects of many Asian diets like Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Japanese combines many of these quality foods, anti-oxidant spices, and the nutrients mentioned above.