Amino acids and Neurotransmitters
The next consideration for optimum brain function is to have adequate supplies of the right amino acids from protein to provide raw materials for making neurotransmitters and neuropeptides, i.e. the chemicals nerve cells use to communicate. For example, if you want to heighten alertness and attention, increase your sense of wellbeing, and help ward off the effects of stress you would do well to increase your levels of the amino acid Tyrosine. Tyrosine converts into the alerting neurotransmitters dopamine and noradrenalin, and then into the hormone adrenalin. (Note: adrenelin is also referred to as epinephrine). Collectively these molecules are referred to as catecholamines.
Dopamine the "feel good" neurotransmitter
Dopamine is a “feel good” neurotransmitter associated with the reward centers in our brains, helping to generate feelings of optimism and enthusiasm. Dopamine and the other catecholamines facilitate normal nervous function, and help reduce fatigue and keep energy levels constant. For example, adrenalin, along with other hormones produced by the adrenal glands, helps sustain blood sugar, upon which our brains are extremely dependent. Another largely overlooked reason for the energy-maintaining effects of the catecholamines is the fact that particularly noradrenalin and adrenalin are very anti-inflammatory…(think of an epi-pen to keep airways open after a bee sting or other anaphylactic reaction). As discussed previously, by combatting inflammation they allow your energy-producing mitochondria to keep going, and this is key to a healthy brain and nervous system.
On the other hand, inflammation shutting down mitochondrial energy production is a key event in developing diseases like Alzheimer’s, ALS, or Parkinson’s, because brain cells that can’t produce energy die! (In Parkinson’s disease, it is specifically dopamine and the catecholamines that stop being produced normally by the brain.)
It is actually the release and/ or sustained presence of catecholamines that allows drugs like cocaine, amphetamines, or certain antidepressants to produce feelings of exhilaration, energy, or mood improvement. The problem is these substances do nothing to actually build or replete your catecholamine reserves, and they cause dependency. Tyrosine on the other hand is your body’s natural means of producing catecholamines.
Tyrosine is also required for producing thyroid hormones, and melanin, i.e. the colour pigment in our skin and hair, and is present in virtually all proteins throughout the body. Tyrosine is not considered essential, because it can be produced from another amino acid called phenylalanine. And even though protein deficiency, and by default tyrosine deficiency, in the developed world may be rare, as always there can be a big difference between simply having enough to avoid clinical symptoms, and achieving optimum results by raising your levels. Here protein rich foods such as fish, poultry, dairy proteins, or nuts and seeds can be helpful, as can tyrosine supplements, which can specifically boost your blood levels, particularly when taken on an empty stomach in the absence of other proteins or amino acids that compete for its absorption.
Though some websites claim that tyrosine supplements are ineffective, I have to say, this makes little sense, and is definitely not consistent with the results I have observed over the years. My experience has been that the increase in alertness can be quite immediate, if you take enough…which according to Health Canada can be up to 10 GRAMS TWICE A DAY! Laugh Out Loud. If nothing else this reflects its safety, but I would try 1-3 grams at a time to start with.
Acetyl-L-Carnitine and B Vitamins for Energy
Dopamine, along with another neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which is very important for learning and memory, can also be raised by taking Acetyl-L-Carnitine, (ALCAR.) Even though ALCAR and its sister compound called L-Carnitine, are manufactured in the body from amino acids, they are actually much closer in structure to a B-vitamin, and like the other B-vitamins play critical roles in our energy, metabolism, and nervous system. (As covered in past articles on this blog, the basic function of Carnitine is to allow the transport of free fatty acids into the mitochondria to be burned…i.e. without it we can’t burn fat. But if you can burn fat, it’s a great source of energy…particularly for tissues like the heart.)
In addition to raising dopamine and acetylcholine levels in the brain, ALCAR also allows for better oxygen utilization, and in turn better mitochondrial function, and more energy. In this regard it works synergistically with other mitochondrial support substance, such as Alpha-Lipoic Acid, and Co-enzyme Q10. In other words, ALCAR is capable of energizing and protecting your brain, and has been researched for its ability to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. It has also been shown to help clear ammonia from the body, heightened levels of which can directly impair brain function. But, you don’t have to be experiencing brain malfunctions to glean ALCAR’s benefits. Anyone who wants better learning, memory, alertness and attention span can use it. For this purpose I recommend 1-2 grams per day. The effects tend to be more noticeable if you take it on an empty stomach, though it can take a while for them to appear…up to 90 days. For more information on ALCAR or L-Carnitine.
Calm Down and Relax
On the other hand, for those who want more calming and relaxing effects, or better sleep, you might consider the amino acid Tryptophan, or its direct downstream metabolite 5-Hydroxy-Tryptophan (5-HTP), from which your body produces the neurotransmitter serotonin, and in sequence, the hormone melatonin. Turkey, for example, is very high in tryptophan, and this is largely why there is a race for the couch after holiday dinners where people tend to feel relaxed, and drowsy after eating large amounts of it.
Tryptophan or 5-HTP work best when consumed with a carbohydrate to raise insulin levels, thereby pushing other amino acids into storage, but leaving tryptophan in the blood free to convert into serotonin, and/or melatonin. Yet, in order for your body to make these conversions, the active, or “co-enzyme” form of Vitamin B-6, called Pyridoxal-5-Phosphate, or P-5-P must be present.
In addition to enzymatic conversions such as this one, the B-complex of vitamins perform an absolute myriad of critical metabolic functions within your nervous system, being directly involved in energy production, methylation, gene modulation…and the list goes on for miles. To review all of these functions is way beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that something I learned at the Institute for Functional Medicine is that the first sign of a B-Vitamin deficiency is disruptions in the nervous system, including fatigue, insomnia, nervous twitches, restless limbs, etc. Though this doesn’t necessarily mean that B-vitamins will magically erase all signs of these issues, in attempting to address them they are the first base to cover, i.e. ensure that you are getting an adequate to optimal supply.
It is important to remember that due to different enzyme activities and rates, people can vary drastically in their B-vitamin requirements. According to a paper by renown scientist Bruce Ames, PHD, up to 10,000 times (!!!) for any given B-vitamin. So this means you may need to play around with your intake to find the levels that are right for you. A recent advance in B-vitamin supplementation is the availability of the more active co-enzyme forms, like P-5-P mentioned above, which allow the body to skip conversions before being able to use them. Other examples of these co-enzyme supplement forms include Riboflavin-5-phosphate for Vitamin B-2, or MTHF (Methyl-Tetra-Hydro-Folate), a highly superior alternative to regular folic acid.
Many are already familiar with how vital Vitamin B-12 is for energy and normal functioning of the nervous system, and even though it’s not a co-enzyme form of Vitamin B-12, the methyl-cobalamin form in supplements is a welcome improvement on the inferior cyano-cobalamin supplement form that used to dominate. As well, a relatively new fat-soluble form of Vitamin B1 called Benfotiamin is more active within the nervous system and provides benefits that regular Vitamin B1 (i.e. thiamine) supplements don't.
A Note for Vegetarians
For vegetarians or vegans who are perplexed about getting enough of the right amino acids, or B-vitamins in their diet, including Vitamin B-12, which is generally found only in foods of animal origin, there are options. Spirulina is a species of blue green algae cultivated for human consumption. It is an excellent source of Vitamin B-12, and is easy to absorb and digest. It is also a complete protein containing a ratio of amino acids similar to the human body. In addition the amino acid or peptide chains it contains are very short, and readily available to the nervous system where they can exert distinct improvements in mental clarity and alertness. Essential fatty acids, like GLA are also found in spirulina. Though it is no taste delight, it is quite a complete superfood. In 28 years of helping people with nutrition and supplements, it has been my experience that once people consume it for a few months, the benefits in mental acuity and overall health are very noticeable.
The health benefits of another algae called chlorella are comparable to Spirilina. Which one is more helpful tends to vary with the individual. Once more, these are FOODS!
The list of helpful supplements for improving brain function and performance certainly doesn’t end here! For those of you who want more info on the topic, watch for Optimum Health’s upcoming e-book on the subject…Nutrition and Supplements for a Better, Happier Brain. Until then…
Alternative Medicine Review - L-Tyrosine Monograph
Clinical review: Immunomodulatory effects of dopamine in general inflammation, Read here
Acetyl-L-Carnitine Slows Brain Aging, Robert Crayhon, Ph.D., International Journal of Integrative Medicine - Vol.2, No.3 - May/June 2000
University of Maryland Medical Centre: Tyrosine summary
Disclaimer: The above information is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your physician.