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Food + Exercise + Mindset = Happiness

Claire Wakefield

At the risk of sounding like the Sheldon Cooper of the Naturopathic world, today I want to talk a little about the Chemistry of our emotions and mood.. (One of my absolute favourite topics, so forgive me when I keep on talking.. lol.)

Mental health is by far one of the largest ‘issues’ I see in clinic, yet I still feel like most of us are only scratching the surface on how to correct it.  The current medical model of ‘antidepressant’ medications is dying a fast death, with the next generation of ‘gut flora’ importance breaking through.  This was a major step in the right direction, but to me it still falls massively short of the big picture, and leaves so many thinking that they can replace their Zoloft with a bottle of Probiotics.

This is a really western/shortcut way of thinking, and sorry guys.. im here to tell you that answer isn’t rocket science, but it does take work.

With a background Fitness, Life Coaching/counselling and Naturopathy, I feel like I’ve stumbled across the perfect storm when it comes to helping lift peoples’ moods- why?  Because to put it frankly, these are the three key areas that need to be addressed if you want to rebuild what you don’t have- the right neuroendocrines.

Today’s science lesson is all about the three things we need in order to keep us “happy”; Serotonin, Dopamine, and GABA.  (Id love to add Endorphins and Oxytocin in there too, because they are where we find our extra vibrancy for life- but they’re not directly related to ‘happiness as such’, so we will let them cheer from the sidelines for now).  

The bottom line to happiness, is that all three of these chemicals need to be at sufficient levels to bind into their respective receptors and cause a certain action.  If any of the chems drop too low, then there are very definite patterns of behavior and mood that can be observed and felt. 

If you are low in Serotonin, you may experience:

  • Frequent worry or anxiety
  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Seasonal mood disorders, particularly Depression
  • Perfectionism or controlling nature
  • Hyperactivity or self -judgment
  • Digestive issues
  • Moodiness
  • Craving alcohol or wine later in the day

If you are low in Dopamine you may experience all of the above, but also a complete lackluster for life in general.  Low Dopamine generates zero enthusiasm or motivation for anything, chronic boredom..  Flat, nothing.

Low GABA:

  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Easily overwhelmed
  • Unable to relax
  • Racing thoughts that keep you awake
  • Sensitivity to bright lights and loud noises
  • Cold hands and feet
  • IBS

 There are a number of factors which will affect your pool of Serotonin, GABA and Dopamine; and in order for them to be at their optimum, the body needs to be able to make and store them.

The first and most obvious is making sure you have the right building blocks.  You cant bake a cake without eggs (or their equivalent). Likewise, you cant build Serotonin, Dopamine or GABA without the right ingredients either. Full stop. 

There are a number of ways you can prevent yourself from getting the right nutritional ingredients, but the main ones are a complete lack in your diet, or something that is preventing you from absorbing those nutrients when you eat them.

I can hear a few of you chiming in here about the MTHFR mutation and the need for activated forms.  Well I want to let you in on a little secret- the activated forms of your folate, B6 and B12 are all the forms which are readily available IN FOOD.  Right now I know there is a push for the importance of the active Bs for mental health, but this push has come from a big pharma and medical model where they were once giving useless synthetic forms of the nutrients which weren’t even bioavailable to most.

I would like to say it again.. the active forms of Folate, B6 and B12, are all the forms of nutrients you will find in your food.  (this is the part you need to learn how to prepare your food so you don’t lose those nutrients in the cooking process).

Another hugely important factor for neuroendocrine production, is lifestyle and behavior.  This one might sound a little more ambiguous, so ill use Dopamine as my favourite example;

Dopamine is our reward chemical.  The one that keeps us addicted to things for the pure pleasure of it- It’s the buzz you feel.   There is a well known study on rats that were isolated and given the option of food or cocaine, only being able to choose one at a time. The rats chose cocaine over food until they died. That’s how strongly Dopamine can affect our brains.

Because Dopamine is all about reward, it is important to strategize and goalset in achievable increments, and then reward yourself for reaching them.  It might sound small and insignificant, but I can tell you now this is a huge step for your mental health and Dopamine levels.

Many years ago I trained a number of different athletes, and the important thing I found, was to continue to keep the goals coming for them- because the moment they reached one or won a race, etc, if they didn’t have another target they would fall into heavy, apathetic depression.  A symptom of Low Dopamine.

Exercise and sunlight/ light therapy – If in doubt, take it back to the way nature intended… Words ive always lived by in clinic. 

It is well researched and documented that both exercise and sunlight can help improve mood and stamina.  I would assume this is achieved by boosting circulation to the brain, improving nutrient uptake (metabolism), and also achieving those micro-goals I just spoke about. 

Gut Flora – yes, being a Naturopath I have to throw in a mention for the millions of micro-beasties that inhabit our digestive tract.  It is well known that these guys play a massive role in converting nutrients into the likes of Serotonin, etc, so that our brain and body can have them at their disposal.  We really do need to look after our guts, but again the emphasis needs to be put onto the fact that these guys require certain nutrients in order to go about their function. 

Lastly id like to point out the feedback loop that occurs between those gut bugs and your brain- it works both ways!  What do I mean by this?  Well, the behavioral, focus and goalsetting i mentioned earlier, all have a direct effect on your mood and therefore have the ability to alter your gut flora!

If we were to line one hundred people up with the same mental health concerns, chances are there would be at least 50 different reasons they had all presented this way.  Yes, the brain chems need to be in the right place at the right levels, but we need to take a step back and ask at the individual level, why and how  do we fix this?

I might leave all that there for now… I think I already got a bit carried away with the length of this article, lol.. but in all seriousness.. Mental health is a complex puzzle. As I said earlier, its not really rocket science, but it does take work and entire lifestyle changes.



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