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How protein can boost your mood

When we think about protein, muscle building often comes to mind. But protein is a macronutrient involved in so much more than just supporting our aesthetic and strength goals in the gym.

Egg and avocado on toast

The macronutrient breakdown of the food on your plate isn’t just important for energy and performance, it’s crucial for your mood and ability to adapt to stress. Macronutrients are broken down into carbs, proteins and fats, and getting a good balance of each macronutrient is key to a healthy, balanced nervous system.

Protein is a particular macronutrient that plays a key role in the stress response, influencing how you feel mentally and emotionally in many ways. Some studies have even identified an association between low protein consumption and an increase in mood fluctuations in adults. Let’s take a deeper look at what makes protein so special and how it works to support mood and balance stress.

Amino acids

Amino acids are the building blocks of the body. These organic compounds combine to form proteins that provide structure to the body – but they’re also involved in many other vital processes from hormone health to neurotransmitter function.

There are 20 amino acids that your body requires to function, and while your body can make non-essential amino acids on its own, there are 9 amino acids that are deemed ‘essential amino acids’ because they must be consumed through your diet in the form of protein-rich foods like eggs, red meat and poultry, beans, legumes and dairy products.

Each essential amino acid performs a range of functional benefits within the body from acting as a precursor to neurotransmitters, to regulating blood sugar and promoting collagen production.

Protein supports neurotransmitter function

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that allow neurons, our nerve cells, to communicate with each other throughout the body. Neurotransmitters send and receive signals to other neurons, glands or muscle cells, and serve many crucial functions in the body including appetite regulation, sleep/wake cycle, and mood.

Amino acids function as precursors for neurotransmitters, particularly in the brain. A lack of protein in the diet can lower concentrations of essential amino acids – which may deplete neurotransmitters in the brain. Serotonin and dopamine are two neurotransmitters that are closely linked to mood regulation and stress, and adding more protein to your diet has been shown to boost the production of these feel-good neurotransmitters.

Serotonin

Serotonin is our ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter involved in mood regulation, appetite and cravings, learning, sleep coordination and digestion.

  • The essential amino acid tryptophan is a precursor for serotonin. Eating enough high protein foods from bioavailable sources (turkey is particularly rich in tryptophan) may support the production of serotonin.

Dopamine

Dopamine is our ‘reward and motivation’ neurotransmitter involved in alertness, mood, blood flow and more. It’s closely involved in the reward pathways of the brain that control motivation, cravings and desire and feelings of pleasure (think: the dopamine hit you get when you scroll social media).

  • Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid that the body turns into the dopamine precursor tyrosine. It also plays a crucial role in the production of other amino acids, as well as the function of other enzymes and proteins.

Protein stabilizes blood sugar

Having greater blood sugar fluctuations has been shown to negatively influence mood, but using protein to buffer the highs and lows of blood sugar may be an easy and effective tool to support mood and manage stress.

While protein doesn’t influence blood sugar directly, it helps to stabilize blood sugar by slowing the release of carbohydrates into the bloodstream. When you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into glucose – a major source of energy for the body. That glucose is then absorbed into the bloodstream and your blood glucose (or blood sugar) levels increase.

Of all macronutrients, carbohydrates release the largest amount of glucose into the bloodstream, which naturally requires more insulin to help move the glucose from the bloodstream and into our cells. If there isn't enough insulin to move glucose into cells or effectively store it for later use – it can accumulate and cause a blood sugar spike. After any spike, blood sugar levels can drop dramatically, leaving us with the familiar ‘sugar crash’ feeling that often follows a carbohydrate/sugar-heavy meal. These dramatic highs and lows are often referred to as a ‘blood sugar rollercoaster’ because once they start – the pattern tends to continue throughout the day.

Pairing carbohydrate-rich foods with protein has been shown to significantly reduce post-meal blood glucose levels in comparison to eating carbohydrates alone.

Whey protein and stress

Whey protein is a trending supplement within the body building community, but research shows that there are so many more benefits than just body composition when it comes to whey. As a by-product of the cheese making industry, whey initially starts as cow’s milk which contains two types of protein – casein and whey. During the heating process, the milk is split into curds and whey and after a drying process and further straining (plus a few more steps!), the end-product is the whey protein powder that lines the shelves of supplement stores.

Rich in protein, standard whey protein powders contain 20-30g per serve. Along with contributing to the many benefits that protein-rich foods provide, there is some research suggesting that mood-boosting benefits of whey protein specifically. One double-blind study highlighted whey’s ability to help the body cope with stress, showing that the active compounds found in whey may help to reduce cortisol while supporting the production of serotonin.

Types of protein

While including both within a balanced diet is going to be beneficial for your health – there are a few things to become aware of when it comes to selecting your protein of choice. The amino acid content differs between plant based sources of protein and animal sources. Most animal sources contain all 9 essential amino acids, while you’ll only find complete plant-based sources of protein among soy products (tofu, tempeh, edamame). Plant based sources are also rich in fiber and other phytonutrients which can reduce the absorption of protein, while animal sources provide more bioavailable forms of protein. Including both types of protein in your diet is a great way to boost your protein intake and ensure optimal bioavailability.

Plant based sources:

  • Beans and legumes
  • Nuts
  • Quinoa and wild rice
  • Tofu, tempeh and edamame
  • Hemp and chia seeds
  • Wheat

Animal sources:

  • Fish and seafood
  • Lean meat and poultry
  • Eggs
  • Dairy products (cheese, yoghurt, milk)

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