How to improve mental wellbeing? Your brain chemicals hold the answers.
The World Health Organization defines mental wellbeing as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community” . Your brain produces chemicals that contribute to your mental wellbeing. These include serotonin, dopamine, GABA, acetylcholine, and oxytocin. Many supplements for mental health aim to increase their levels to promote wellbeing. Though these brain chemicals perform a variety of functions in the body, they need to be produced exclusively in the brain for brain benefits.
Serotonin: the feel-good chemical
What is the best way to lift mood naturally? Increase your serotonin levels. Serotonin in the brain is responsible for regulating your mood and sleep-wake cycle. Researchers trying to answer the question of how to improve your mood focus primarily on the role of serotonin. Higher levels of serotonin are associated with better mood. Brain scans show that serotonin levels increase when participants were in a better mood and decreased during low mood .
Serotonin is produced from tryptophan, a building block of protein. Once consumed, tryptophan is converted to 5-HTP which is then converted to serotonin (5-HT).
Ways to increase serotonin levels:
- Increase tryptophan intake: Foods high in tryptophan include (per 100g): Frozen dried tofu (750mg), Chia seeds (720mg), pork (630mg), mozzarella cheese (600mg) and chicken (380mg). Your body uses less than 3% of food’s tryptophan to make brain serotonin .
- Supplement with 5-HTP: This is the efficient way to increase serotonin levels because 5-HTP can easily enter the brain and is directly converted to serotonin.
- Exposure to bright light: Exposure to light activates serotonin production . The NHS recommends this as a treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which is accompanied by low mood . A general recommendation is exposure to 10,000 lux (measure of intensity of brightness) for 30 minutes per day .
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Dopamine: the reward and pleasure chemical
Good food, sex, socializing, thrill-seeking and other activities that give you a sense of reward and pleasure, are courtesy of dopamine. Dopamine contributes to mental wellbeing by motivating and challenging you. Studies  found higher dopamine levels in motivated individuals and in response to challenging tasks and new experiences.
Dopamine is produced from L-tyrosine (building block of protein), found in protein rich foods. L-tyrosine enters the brain and is converted to L-DOPA which is converted to dopamine.
Ways to increase dopamine levels
- Increase tyrosine intake: Foods high in L-tyrosine include (per 100g): Parmesan cheese (2300mg), frozen dried tofu (1800mg), beef steak (1200mg), egg (500mg). For those with inadequate dietary intake or restrictions, L-tyrosine can be taken in supplemental form to increase dopamine levels.
- Exercise regularly: Aerobic exercise like walking, running, and swimming increases dopamine levels . Animal studies found that exercising increased dopamine levels by 40% and the levels stayed high for a week . Another study found exercising for 2 hours increased dopamine levels by 30% . Exercise is a great way to increase serotonin and dopamine levels.
- Practice meditation: Meditation, an act of mindfulness, has shown to increase dopamine levels by 65% during a single hourly session 
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GABA: the relaxation chemical
GABA is the main relaxation brain chemical that maintains the balance against excitatory brain chemicals . Low stress levels are needed to maintain optimal GABA levels . Food sources like kimchi, sourdough, fermented fish, and white tea can provide small amounts of GABA, but only a small amount can enter the brain 
L-theanine is a nutrient found in green tea, which easily enters the brain and has an effect within 30 minutes . L-theanine can increase the relative concentration of GABA and promote relaxation without sedation .
Ways to increase GABA levels
- Practice yoga: Practising yoga for an hour, three times a week is shown to increase GABA levels by 13%-27%, based on the level of experience .
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Acetylcholine: the memory and attention brain chemical
Acetylcholine is a fast-acting brain chemical that is involved in learning, memory, focus and attention tasks . Increasing acetylcholine levels improved memory recall during tests, reaction times and number of tasks completed   and a high amount of acetylcholine is released in brain areas that process short term memory for long term retention .
Acetylcholine is produced from choline, a nutrient found in protein-rich foods. Those with low choline intake can take it in supplemental form, with the best available one being Alpha GPC. Alpha GPC is 41% choline by weight and increases acetylcholine levels faster than other forms of choline. It can freely enter the brain to increase acetylcholine levels in 1-3 hours after intake .
Ways to increase acetylcholine levels:
- Increase choline intake: Foods high in choline include (per 100g): beef liver (426mg), fried egg (273mg), smoked salmon (224mg), dried shiitake mushrooms (202mg).
- Supplement with Alpha GPC: Alpha GPC is an efficient form of choline needed to increase acetylcholine levels. Choline supplementation is shown to improve working memory, even in alcohol-damaged brains .
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Oxytocin: the bonding chemical
Oxytocin is a hormone that is intimately involved in social bonding and promoting trust . It decreases stress and anxiety by promoting familiarity and bonding. It is referred to as “love hormone” due to its role in romantic attachment . It is also involved in sexual and reproductive functions.
Ways to increase oxytocin levels:
- Embrace your loved ones: Hugging a loved one or a pet is shown to increase oxytocin levels due to increased bonding experience
- Volunteer: Positive social interactions like giving charity and volunteering for a cause increase oxytocin levels .
- Sing: Singing, regardless of whether you are an amateur or professional, increases oxytocin levels 
- Get a massage: 15 mins of moderate pressure massage was shown to promote calmness and increase oxytocin levels .
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