Proteins, Amino Acids, and Neurotransmitters

How the Food We Eat Can Heal the Brain

Natalie Lorusso

One of our unique modalities here at Bridging the Gaps is our focus on using amino acids to help improve abstinence symptoms and support overall recovery.  While in treatment, our clients are taught about the importance of optimal nutrition and how to rebalance their neurotransmitters through diet and healthy supplementation.

Neurotransmitters & Recovery

There are four main neurotransmitters involved in addiction and recovery: Serotonin, GABA, Dopamine, and Norepinephrine.  Our inhibitory neurotransmitters, Serotonin and GABA, help with mood stability, happiness, ability to filter the noise, and relaxation.  Our excitatory neurotransmitters, Dopamine and Norepinephrine, help with learning, motivation, sleep, attention, pain management, and boosting self-esteem.  Given all the important roles of our neurotransmitters, it is vital we have healthy levels of each in order to function on all cylinders. 

Drugs become addictive by increasing the amount of neurotransmitters produced and either filling a legitimate need or causing withdrawal symptoms when discontinued.  Since our neurotransmitters work on a negative feedback system, if we produce too much of any artificially, our body will not continue to make more.  This can lead to dependence on whatever substance has been causing the increase in any of our neurotransmitters.  Fortunately, it is possible to rebalance our neurotransmitters through proper diet and supplementation and reduce or even eliminate our dependence on these substances.

Eating for Recovery

When combined with the right vitamins and minerals (cofactors), amino acids can be converted into neurotransmitters.  The amino acids tryptophan, tyrosine, and phenylalanine are the precursors for the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. For example, in the serotonin pathway pictured, tryptophan works with iron and B vitamins 3, 6, and 9 to become serotonin.  Even just one meal containing tryptophan and its cofactors can cause an increase in serotonin levels.  So, what foods contain these important amino acids? 

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, so when we eat protein-rich foods, our body will break them down into amino acids that can be used to balance our neurotransmitters.  Protein-rich foods include all animal products (meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, dairy) as well as plant-based protein sources like beans and legumes.  When choosing plant-based/ vegetarian protein sources, it is important to consume complementary proteins to ensure you are eating all of the essential amino acids.  There are nine essential amino acids that must be consumed in the diet because our bodies cannot make them on their own.  While all animal proteins are complete (contain all nine), most plant-based foods are not.  However, plant-based foods can be combined to create complete proteins, these are called complementary proteins.  To create a complete vegetarian protein, combine a whole grain and nut or legume.  For example, brown rice with black beans or whole wheat toast with peanut butter are complementary proteins and contain all nine essential amino acids.  Eating a high protein diet alone is not enough, though.  We also need optimal amounts of the vitamin and mineral cofactors, so it is important to follow a balanced diet full of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. 

Supplementing for Recovery

It is best to get the nutrients we need from our diet, but many people fall short of the ideal in one way or another.  Additionally, when dealing with deficiencies, some extra help may be needed to get our bodies back to a more balanced state.  This is when supplementing comes into play.  Amino acids and their cofactors can also be taken in the form of supplement capsules to help increase the amounts of specific neurotransmitters.  These supplements can be purchased over the counter at health shops and in the pharmacy section of many grocery stores.  If you are interested in adding supplements to your diet, you should first consult with your primary care provider.

How Can We Help?

While in treatment, we provide our clients with the food and supplements they need to rebuild their neurotransmitters and improve overall health.  We have specific neurotransmitter nutrient packs that are assigned to each client based on drug of choice and client identified symptoms.  Each pack is designed to include necessary amino acids and cofactors to help increase the amount of a specific neurotransmitter.  Our clients are also taught and have access to healthy sources of both animal and plant proteins.  As well as lots of fresh, frozen, and canned fruits and vegetables.  We strive to give our clients the opportunity to learn and practice healthy habits that will help them achieve and maintain sobriety. 

If you are interested in more information or exploring our treatment programs, please give us a call at 540.535.1111 or visit our website.

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