By Judith J. Wurtman, PhD, research scientist,department
of brain and cognitive science, Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, Cambridge. She is author of Managing Your
Mind & Mood Through Food (Scribner) and The Serotonin
Solution, a weight-loss book for people who overeat because
of stress (Ballantine).
The neurotransmitter serotonin has a calming effect. Its presence in the brain boosts concentration, relieves feelings of anxiety and at night or if you're sleep-deprived-makes you feel drowsy. To make serotonin, your brain needs a supply of the amino acid tryptophan. Like tyrosine, tryptophan is found in proteins. But eating more protein won't increase levels of tryptophan inside your brain. In fact, a high-protein diet depletes the brain's tryptophan supply.
Tryptophan must "compete" with tyrosine and other, more plentiful amino acids to enter the brain. It tends to be "crowded out" by them when you eat protein. To increase the brain's supply of tryptophan, eat carbohydrates_ without protein. Doing so triggers the release of insulin, which shunts some of the amino acids, it can easily enter the brain.
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