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Food and Your Moods

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Learn how some foods can cause depression, whereas other foods, vitamins and supplements can actually enhance your mood and relieve depression symptoms.

by Julia Ross, author of The Diet Cure

Learn how some foods can cause depression, whereas other foods, vitamins and supplements can actually enhance your mood and relieve depression symptomAre you an emotional basket case who can't get by without comfort food? If you had more strength, could you power through your problems without overeating? Should you feel ashamed of yourself for needing emotional sustenance from foods? No! I hope to help you understand why you are using food as self-medication. It's not because you are weak willed, it's because you're low in certain brain chemicals. You don't have enough of the brain chemicals that should naturally be making you emotionally strong and complete.

These brain chemicals are thousands of times stronger than street drugs like heroin. And your body has to have them. If not, it sends out a command that is stronger than anyone's willpower: "Find a druglike food or a drug, or some alcohol, to substitute for our missing brain chemicals. We cannot function without them!" Your depression, tension, irritability, anxiety, and cravings are all symptoms of a brain that is deficient in its essential calming, stimulating, and mood-enhancing chemicals.

Why Are Your Natural Mood-Enhancing Chemicals Sometimes Deficient?

Something has interfered with your body's ability to produce its own natural brain drugs. What is it? It's obviously not too unusual, or there wouldn't be so many people using food to feel better, or taking Prozac for depression relief. Actually, there are several common problems that can result in your becoming depleted in your feel-good brain chemicals, and none of them is your fault!

You may have inherited deficiencies. We are learning more all the time about the genes that determine our moods and other personality traits. Some genes program our brains to produce certain amounts of mood-enhancing chemicals. But some of us inherited genes that undersupply some of these vital mood chemicals. That is why some of us are not emotionally well balanced and why the same emotional traits seem to run in families. If your mother always seemed to be on edge, and had a secret stash of chocolate for herself, it should come as no surprise that you, too, need foods like candy or cookies to calm yourself. Parents who have low supplies of naturally stimulating and sedating brain chemicals often produce depressed or anxious children who use food, alcohol, or drugs as substitutes for the brain chemicals they desperately need.

Prolonged stress "uses up" your natural sedatives, stimulants, and pain relievers. This is particularly true if you have inherited marginal amounts to begin with. The emergency stores of precious brain chemicals can get used up if you continually need to use them to calm yourself over and over again. Eventually your brain can't keep up with the demand. That's why you start to "help" your brain by eating foods that have druglike effects on it.

Regular use of druglike foods such as refined sugars and flours, and regular use of alcohol or drugs (including some medicines), can inhibit the production of any of your brain's natural pleasure chemicals. All of these substances can plug into your brain and actually fill up the empty places called receptors, where your natural brain drugs - the neurotransmitters - should be plugging in. Your brain senses that the receptors are already full, so it further reduces the amounts of neurotransmitters that it produces. As the amounts of these natural brain chemicals drop (remember, they can be thousands of times stronger than the hardest street drugs), more and more alcohol, drugs, or druglike foods are needed to fill newly emptied brain slots. This vicious circle ends when these substances you ingest are unable to "fill the bill" any longer. Now your brain's natural mood resources, never fully functional, are now more depleted than they ever were, and you still crave your mood-enhancing drugs - whether it's sugar or alcohol and cocaine.

You may be eating too little protein. In fact, you almost certainly are if you've been dieting or avoiding fatty foods, many of which are high in protein, too. Your brain relies on protein - the only food source of amino acids - to make all of its mood-enhancing chemicals. If you are not getting enough protein, you won't be able to manufacture those crucial chemicals. A little later in this chapter and in chapter 18, you'll learn about complete and incomplete proteins, and what is "enough" protein for you. Simply put, eating the equivalent of three eggs, a chicken breast, or a fish or tofu steak at every meal might get you enough protein to keep your brain in repair.

The Physical Cause of Emotional Eating

In the late 1970s, I was the supervisor of a large San Francisco alcoholism treatment program. Our clients were very serious about getting sober, and we gave them the most intensive treatment available anywhere. Yet they could not stop drinking. Eighty to ninety percent relapse rates were standard then, and still are, in the alcohol and drug addiction fields.

As I studied these heartbreaking relapses, I began to see a pattern. Our clients had stopped drinking, but they had quickly developed a heavy addiction to sweets. Sugar is almost identical to alcohol biochemically. Both are highly refined, simple carbohydrates that are instantly absorbed, not needing digestion (complex carbs, like whole grains, need time to be digested). Both sugar and alcohol instantly skyrocket blood sugar levels and temporarily raise levels of at least two potent mood chemicals in the brain. This high would be followed by a low, of course. So, just as when they were using alcohol, our clients who had switched to eating large amounts of sugar were moody, unstable, and full of cravings. Since alcohol usually works even faster than sugar does, at some point, caught in a particularly low mood, they would break down and have a drink to get some relief. One drink would become a full-blown relapse.

In 1980, when I became the director of the program, I began hiring nutritionists to help solve this disturbing relapse problem. They suggested to our clients that they quit eating sweetened foods, foods made from refined (white) flour, and caffeine, and that they eat more whole grains and vegetables. Unfortunately, these nutritional efforts didn't pay off. For reasons that we understood only later, our clients just couldn't stop eating the sweets and starches that eventually led them back to alcohol. For six years we struggled for a solution, then, in 1986, we found one.

The solution came from Dr. Joan Mathews Larson, the director of a nutritionally oriented alcoholism-treatment center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This brilliant pioneer, the author of Seven Weeks to Sobriety, introduced me to a technique that was quickly eliminating her alcoholic clients' cravings and raising her center's long-term success rate from 20 percent to 80 percent! The technique involved the use of specific amino acids that could rapidly feed the addicted brain exactly the type of protein that it needed to naturally fill up its empty mood-chemical sites. The results were spectacular. No longer did alcoholic clients need sweets or alcohol to feel good! Amino acid therapy revolutionized the work at our clinic, too, dramatically raising our success rates with alcohol and drug-addicted clients. Moreover, we were able to successfully treat clients with other addictions as well. In fact, our most spectacular successes were with food-addicted clients. Ninety percent of the compulsive overeaters we have treated with amino acid therapy have been freed from their food cravings within forty-eight hours.