You may not be fat but hopefully your brain is around 60% fat. Most of this is arachidonic (AA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA) fatty acids. AA fats are my favorite fats and I discuss more on why you want to eat pasture meats, wild fatty fish, butter, and egg yolks here. Not only will you dampen the inflammation you’re perhaps dealing with in your calves or shoulder, but you’ll also dampen the inflammation in your brain. That’s huge when it comes to not just your fitness but your overall health. Herbs such as turmeric and ginger are also powerful natural anti-inflammatories if you seek to improve NT status and your BBB. *Read Part I of this series here if you’re lost already!
A lower carb, higher fat and protein diet goes beyond the anti-inflammatory benefits. The higher protein increases the amount of the amino acid tyrosine that gets into the brain via the BBB. Tyrosine is the main precursor to dopamine. This means that more protein and less carbs allows for a higher level of dopamine in the brain and more motivation. Look at it the other way – if you’re eating too many carbs and not enough protein then your leaky brain is not getting the adequate nutrients to make dopamine and your motivation will suck. But it gets worse…
Higher glucose and insulin levels also allow too much of the amino acid tryptophan into the brain. This is what causes the Thanksgiving coma many experience each year. It’s from all the carbohydrates, not the tryptophan in the turkey. Though the tryptophan does play some part as it is the precursor to serotonin. So you get sort of a double-whammy effect resulting in too much serotonin (along with insulin which causes brain and body fatigue) and eventually the brain receptors no longer pay attention to such high and erratic levels. Essentially you end up with too much serotonin and your body craves more and more much like a person with Type 2 diabetes has too much insulin. Your brain runs inefficiently off serotonin now – and your gut slows down the production of serotonin since the brain has too much, so you end up with gut problems such as constipation and leaky gut symptoms to go along with your leaky brain. You’re a main-brain and second-brain mess and your motivation to do much of anything will be minimal at best. Cleaning up the diet is the main priority to correct this although for many the motivation to do that isn’t there; it’s a double-edged sword.
Nutrients to Get You Motivated
Though diet is paramount when dealing with any brain issue, sometimes the NT levels are not adequate due to nutritional deficiencies. Vitamin B6 is perhaps the most important nutrient when discussing proper dopamine and serotonin levels. B6 is needed for both NTs as well as for proper prostaglandin synthesis. (Prostaglandins are hormone-like compounds that act as inflammatories.) I often use the active form of vitamin B6, pyridoxal-5′-phosphate, with my patients.
Actually if you crave chocolate it may be because it’s a natural source of a compound called phenylethylamine (PEA) which helps to increase dopamine in the brain. The sugar and caffeine may be part of the craving too when your body is feeling depleted!
Folic acid and vitamin B12 are also needed for both serotonin and dopamine synthesis. These are also common nutritional deficiencies today not simply because they are often inadequate in the diet, but because they are needed by most in their methylated form. Methylation, a normal biologically process, is said to be impaired in at least 20% of the population, some say as much as 40%. So if you don’t properly methylate your B12 and folic acid, then you might have problems ranging from low energy, poor motivation, hormonal problems, and even cardiovascular issues. I use methylated folic acid (5-MTHF) and methylated B12 (methylcobalamin) often in my patients suffering from NT imbalances.
Vitamin B12 and folic acid are also needed for proper red blood cell production. They have a major influence on the size (volume) of the red cells. One way you can assess a need for B12 and/or folic acid is to look at your Complete Blood Count (CBC) lab test. If your MCV is greater than 91.0 fL then that could be an indication of deficiency. A MCV over 97 fL is often regarded as megaloblastic anemia, (the red cells are too large), yet even over 91.0 fL can indicate a problem. Women taking hormone replacement therapies including the common birth control pill and some dangerous IUDs often deplete B6, B12, and folate. This can result in not only hormonal problems but also impaired brain health.
You can also have too few red cells from inadequate B12 or folate, as well as from an iron deficiency. The brain needs oxygen just like it does sugar, and if you starve it of oxygen then your brain function will suffer. Iron deficiency is more common in women for obvious reasons (menstrual cycle), though you guys can be low too. You need iron to not just make a red cell for O2 transport to everywhere including your brain, but you also need iron to make dopamine and serotonin. Iron is found in green leafy vegetables, egg yolks, and red meat, although some may need to supplement. A hemoglobin level below 12.0 g/dL for women and 14.0 g/dL for men or a hematocrit level below 37% for women and 42% for men can be a sign of anemia.
Hormones and Your Brain
Hormones have a major effect on your brain. As you’ve learned, excessive insulin levels can greatly impact the health of the brain. But it goes beyond insulin. Dopamine stimulates luteinizing hormone (LH), a hormone that triggers the release of progesterone in women and testosterone in men. Likewise, dopamine uptake requires healthy levels of progesterone in women and testosterone in men to function well. Estrogen is necessary for appropriate uptake of serotonin, and both estrogen and testosterone affect the frontal lobe of the brain which is associated with our mood and keeping us out of a state of depression.
Low estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone levels are associated with inflammation, further driving the inflammatory cycle and lower dopamine levels and back around to lower sex hormonal levels. This will also impair thyroid function, which is needed to sensitize receptor sites to dopamine with progesterone. I discuss the athlete’s thyroid in this article. Higher inflammation from insulin resistance pushes a woman to higher testosterone levels and a man towards higher estrogen levels. Next you know she is growing some facial hair and he is sporting some breasts – and the effects of those alone on the brain are enough to make anyone a bit depressed!
Proper Training and Your Brain
Exercise is great for the treatment and prevention of depression and for many it can be the cure. Many athletes are suffering from some type of brain imbalance due to their diet and overall unhealthy lifestyle. For many, excessive training makes everything worse.
Our brain needs stimulation just like it needs glucose and oxygen as previously discussed. This stimulation can be mental (brain games) and physical. Some athletes just need a new source of stimulation to get out of an unmotivated rut. If you’re used to running only on the road – hit the trails. If you always swim in the pool – find some open water. Get out of an old habit to stimulate your brain. You can’t grow new neurons but you sure can improve their function. If you just lost interest then you might need to do something different and new to motivate you. That new motivation will naturally increase dopamine which will in turn stimulate LH which will increase your sex hormones! This is one reason why you feel so good doing something new such and adventurous such as a mud run or a new skill.
However, many athletes just need to change what they’re doing wrong to get their motivation back. Though high intensity interval training (HIIT) is a great way to increase nitric oxide which is necessary for brain health, too heavy of such training too often leads to high cortisol and other stress hormones. High stress hormones mean less oxygen to your brain and less production of those sex hormones needed to make serotonin and dopamine. So if you think true aerobic exercise is worthless, think again. And if you think HIIT all the time is the way to go, think again, and again. It doesn’t mean that HIIT and anaerobic training isn’t valuable, because it is, but just not all the time. Push yourself too much and you increase inflammatory compounds, (one common one called Interleukin-6) and that can have a dramatic impairment on your immune system. Chronically high cortisol levels ends with a person fatigued and depressed. So if you’re training too hard and depleting your sex hormones, you can impact your brain chemicals too.
Some athletes, especially endurance athletes, deplete themselves so much that they become unmotivated and fatigued for an entirely different physiological reason. They will literally stink from it. This is discussed here in Part III.
Also check out my podcast with the guys at Trail Runner Nation where we discuss Parts I & II of this Motivation Series.