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Alison Rose Levy

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Fix Your Mood with Brain Food

Posted: 01/05/09 10:20 PM ET

Have you noticed? A lot of people are feeling funky lately.

With over $1.9 billion spent annually on antidepressants, and sixty million Americans (26% of the adult population) experiencing either depression or anxiety, Americans are not a happy bunch -- happiness prescriptions aside. If you or someone close to you is suffering, you may have wondered what, apart from prescription meds, can be done?

Undoubtedly a wide range of external stressors (like a Humpty Dumpty economy or an explosion of international war zones) contribute to nose-diving moods -- as do emotional factors, such as psychological traumas, turmoil, and work, health, or relationship tensions. All of these, alone or in combination, can stretch you to the limits of your coping and beyond.

But along with all the external triggers are internal, biochemical factors that most people aren't aware of, says Dr. Mark Hyman, author the newly published, The UltraMind Solution, (Scribner, 2009.) In this book, Hyman, director of the UltraWellness Clinic and author of the bestseller, UltraMetabolism, shares the tools he developed as a self-described "accidental psychiatrist." A medical doctor, Hyman practices Functional Medicine, an integrative approach that aims to balance bodily biochemistry through the use of targeted nutrients.

Though Hyman never trained as a psychiatrist nor considered psychiatry his specialty, brain fog, depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorders, and even dementia were so prevalent among his clinic patients that he began to apply the same integrative principles and techniques which he used to treat (merely) physical problems -- and that's how he discovered that mental problems are also physical. Hyman believes that we're in the midst of a veritable epidemic of what he calls "broken brains," nearly all with some physiological imbalance at their foundation. (His website, www.ultramind.com has more info.)

While Hyman does not minimize (and in fact he encourages) the use of relaxation, mind-body techniques, and psychotherapy, he maintains that people stand a better chance of improvements from those approaches, when their brain biochemistry is balanced first.

And that's why he recommends fixing our moods by feeding our brains the foods they need.

For those who haven't learned their grey matter's nutritional preferences, this book is a veritable cookbook of recipes for brain balance.

Like the rest of us, our brains need:

• Healthy fats to keep their cell walls integral but permeable -- such as omega-3 fats, and phosphatidylserine and phosphatidyl choline, available from foods and supplements

• Protein building blocks, such as the amino acids, tyrosine (to improve focus), 5-HTP (for mood uplift) and taurine (for relaxation). Obtainable from foods and supplements

• B vitamins that function as co-factors for nerve and brain function

• Minerals, like magnesium and zinc

In the book, Hyman offers both a series of concise short tests that help to identify potential areas of brain imbalances by assessing the most common symptoms. Do you have sufficient levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine which governs the capacity to focus -- but lower levels of serotonin, the contentment neurotransmitter?

Although anyone already on prescription meds should remain on their medication until they can undertake this program with medical supervision, if you haven't yet taken the plunge into prescription drugs, trying this program first makes sense--particularly since a recent study found that antidepressants are mostly ineffective except for those with the most severe depression. Hyman is no fan of indiscriminate medication use -- because he's found it's more effective to treat the causes of brain imbalances with targeted nutrition and supplements. However, as an MD, he's also wisely included in his book assessments to help you determine when you can safely use self-care, and when it's necessary to consult a physician.

His six week program (and follow-up recommendations) contain invaluable, practical advice on the little known art of feeding your brain to optimize mood, energy, and function. By nourishing the brain with the right nutrients, supplements, and supports, you can strengthen your ability to remain centered, alert, and content -- whatever life dishes out.

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