What Makes You Feel Good - Sugar or Protein?


Ever wonder what really makes you feel good?  Many people will answer “sugar” because they notice the “high” as sugar is flowing into their blood stream and giving them energy.  Of course, we all know what follows - the “low” as the sugar runs out and we crave more sugar to feel good again.  As you may have guessed, the correct answer is protein.  It makes you feel good for the long haul.  Why is this?  Because protein is the structural basis for our body - our muscles, organs, glands, nails, hair, vital fluids (blood, hormones, neurotransmitters) and enzymes are all protein based.  

We can certainly see the physical nature of proteins – a healthy and strong body contributes to how we feel.  But that alone does not do it.  We need the mind as well.  This is where the neurotransmitters come in to play - the “messengers” from the brain to the body.  Protein is essential for building neurotransmitters and their receptor sites on cell membranes.  Think of receptor sites as parking spaces and the neurotransmitters as cars.  Without a place to park you just keep driving around in circles.  Once you are parked you can go about your business.  The same goes for neurotransmitters and receptor sites.  You need the message to be sent and for it to reach its destination – the cell.

Quite simply – neurotransmitters give us the ability to be happy, alert, remember, and focus.  There are two types of neurotransmitters.  Excitatory neurotransmitters energize, excite, stimulate, focus, learn, and remember.  Inhibitory neurotransmitters keep us happy, relaxed, and peaceful.  As with most areas of life, it is all about balance.  

There are six key neurotransmitters: For focus - dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine; for learning and remembering – acetylcholine; for feeling relaxed – GABA; and for being happy - serotonin.

Perhaps the most significant of all is serotonin, the “feel good” neurotransmitter.  Low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression.  The major anti-depressant medications (Prozac, Zoloft, and Lexapro) are known as SSRIs (or serotonin selective reuptake inhibitors).  These drugs work by making serotonin last longer in the brain so that you feel good longer.  Of course this is not addressing why one would be low in serotonin in the first place.  Low serotonin is also linked to cravings, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, aggressive behavior, and headaches.  Another important feature of serotonin is that it converts into melatonin.  This hormone regulates sleep and is an important antioxidant.  Some sleeping disorders may be from lack of melatonin.  Serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan which is found in turkey and seafood.  Also note that serotonin is depleted by high sugar (carbohydrate) diets.

Dopamine is our pleasure and reward neurotransmitter.  It is responsible for keeping us focused and alert (thus allowing us to receive our reward!).  Dopamine is made from the amino acid tyrosine which is found in poultry, fish (particularly tuna), eggs, beans, nuts and seeds.  Epinephrine and norepinephrine work with dopamine and are stimulating and energy-giving.  They are made from the amino acids tyrosine and phenylanine.  Low levels of dopamine are associated with attention and behavior disorders (such as addiction).

Acetylcholine supports our memory, attention, and ability to think.  One of the key ingredients is choline - found in highest quantities in eggs, beef, and beef liver, but also in broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

GABA is our calming neurotransmitter.  It is made from the amino acid taurine.  Taurine is a non-essential amino acid that can be manufactured from cysteine in the liver, but vitamin B6 must be present.  Taurine is found naturally in seafood and meat.  Low levels of GABA are associated with panic attacks, anxiety and insomnia.

As you can see protein (and mainly animal based protein) is a key source of the nutrients required to build our neurotransmitters.  Unfortunately, many of our diets lack sufficient protein.  If we follow the food pyramid or the new food plate we are getting approximately 10% of calories from protein while consuming 60% of calories from carbohydrates.  To your body carbohydrates are sugar, so this is a high-carbohydrate diet which depletes nutrients required for building neurotransmitters.
Proteins come from both animal (meat, fish, poultry, milk, cheese, eggs) and plant sources (whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds).  Only animal proteins are considered “complete” amino acids, containing all the essential amino acids.  If we are not eating sufficient animal protein, there is a considerable risk of not having sufficient raw materials available to make the neurotransmitters that are so crucial to our mental health.  So there are two inherent nutritional risks – first not eating sufficient protein and second not eating enough complete proteins.  Since our body is constantly building and repairing itself and our brain is constantly working, it requires a constant supply of protein.  Therefore I recommend protein is consumed with each meal. Following this type of diet your protein consumption will be more like 30-35% of daily calories consumed.

Bernard Rosen, PhD is a Nutrition Consultant and Educator. He works with individuals, groups, and at corporations to create individualized nutrition and wellness programs. He has offices in Thiensville and Glendale, WI. To learn more or to schedule an appointment, e-mail at bernie@brwellness.com, call (262) 389-9907 or go to www.brwellness.com.