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Foods that Love Your Heart and Make Your Brain Happy

close up of dark chocolate bar
What you choose to consume can have a huge impact on the levels of critical neurotransmitters in your brain. Tryptophan, an amino acid found in some protein foods, is the body’s building block for synthesizing serotonin, a neurotransmitter that tends to promote a sense of well-being. Foods rich in tryptophan include: pumpkin seeds, turkey, almonds, walnuts, cashews, split peas, black beans, spinach, egg whites, milk and game meats like elk.

Fat accounts for 60 percent of the dry weight of the brain. Omega-3 fats in particular are the most critically important fatty acids in the cell membranes of the neurons that comprise your brain. These healthy omega-3 dietary fats, including docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentanoic acid (EPA), appear to support a cheerful mood and good mental health.

A recent study of military personnel reported that suicide risk was highest in the individuals with the lowest DHA levels in their cell membranes. DHA and EPA are found predominantly in fish oil and cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna, along with shellfish including shrimp. Nuts and extra-virgin olive oil are other foods that are rich in brain-healthy monounsaturated fats and natural antioxidants. These foods have been shown to lower your risk for Alzheimer’s disease and stroke.

Color of Your Urine Affects Your Mood:

Your mood will be better if you stay well hydrated. Surprising, but true - a new study found that dehydration makes you feel irritable and ornery. Getting dry and thirsty activates specific neurons that tell your brain the system is getting dehydrated. This in turn sours your mood and makes you feel cranky. So how much fluid do we need to drink to stay cheerful? Stick to the tried and true advice; 6-to-8 eight-ounce glasses of water per day is your goal. Your water needs will be even higher as you increase your physical activity. The color of your urine is a reliable marker of your level of hydration: your urine should look clear to pale yellow, closer in color to white wine than yellow Gatorade.

Green Tea and Black Coffee Also Brighten Your Mood

I must confess I’m hooked on green tea. I drink at least four or five cups every day. Wherever I go I carry a few teabags in my pockets or backpack. I just love the way it makes me feel - energized and focused, but still relaxed and happy. These positive effects on mood result from green tea’s unique combination of a modest dose of caffeine with L-theanine - an amino acid that is the only compound found in nature or a pharmacy that boosts energy while at the same time lowering anxiety. The latest studies show that both tea and coffee not only brighten moods in the short term, but they lower risk of serious depression in the long run. Drink all the coffee you want - but cut yourself off after about noon to 2 p.m. - to make sure you sleep soundly at night. You can consume all the green tea your heart desires, and though I tend to avoid it within the two to three hours before bedtime, my 15-year-old daughter Caroline drinks green tea most evenings while she studies, and still conks right out when she snuggles into her bed.

Here’s One to Your Health and Happiness

My grandmothers and great-grandmothers loved happy hour - having a glass or two of wine or beer, or even sipping a shot of whiskey while they socialized with family and friends before dinner. It was no coincidence that they tended to outlive their hard-drinking husbands by decades.

We published an article showing that light-to-moderate drinkers (those who consume not more than 14 alcoholic drinks a week) tend to have better health, especially heart health, compared to non-drinkers or heavy drinkers. Red wine appears to be best, though any alcoholic beverage can confer health benefits if consumed responsibly. The key is to keep the dose in the safe range: not more than 14 drinks per week, ideally not more than one drink daily for women and up to two drinks per day for men. For many people, when it comes to alcohol, abstinence is easier than moderation. In this instance the old adage holds true: “One is too many and 10 is not enough.”

Dark Chocolate - Best in Small Doses!

Cardiologists and nutritionists agree: dark chocolate in small doses can be good for one’s heart health. The latest research suggests dark chocolate may help prevent atherosclerosis in arteries by making them more soft and supple, and restoring them to a more youthful condition.

A recent European study found that a once-daily small dose of dark chocolate high in flavanol antioxidants can relax the muscles in arterial walls and help enhance their natural Teflon-like non-stick surface, keeping the blood vessels dilated and smooth, which allows for enhanced circulation throughout the body. Even just the smell of chocolate has been shown to slow down brain waves and induce a calmer mood in many people.

Natural foods and beverages with deep hues, such as black coffee, green tea and black tea, red wine, dark chocolate, blueberries, blackberries and strawberries are rich in flavanols. These antioxidants rustproof your system, keeping your brain and body youthful, and reducing risk for heart attack, stroke, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. But don’t look for a “dark-chocolate pill,” savor this health food as a treat.

Still, you chocolate lovers need to be careful, because chocolate can stimulate the release of endorphins - natural opium-like neurotransmitters that induce a sense of relaxation and well-being. So, even if chocolate has therapeutic heart benefits, it’s like an addictive drug. Thus, it should be used in small doses, or not at all.

To be heart-healthy, it must be dark chocolate that is at least 70 percent cocoa. Here’s the tricky part - the correct daily dose is not more than 12 grams, which is about the size of two Hershey’s Kisses. Careful though, unless they are Hershey’s Bliss Chocolate Kisses, they won’t qualify as the 70 percent cocoa. Still, keep that serving size in mind - it’s about the size of two dice - no more. And by no means should you chocoholics take this as a license to binge on Snickers bars and chocolate cake; those standard high-sugar types of processed chocolate will only increase your risks for obesity, diabetes and heart attack.

My good friend Jerry eats a very healthy diet these days. He told me, “Since I stopped eating wheat, my small-dense (bad) LDL particle number has dropped by 50 percent, just as Dr. William Davis wrote about in Wheat Belly. Now I can eat nuts, which I could never do before. I also have two small pieces of dark chocolate, which might help my health and certainly is a good reward for eating healthy. I only eat dark chocolate, usually European with the first ingredient being cocoa, cocoa butter, cocoa solids, etc. and not sugar. Also, dropping wheat has made me change my taste buds and lose interest in anything that is processed.

In Good Health,

James H. O'Keefe, M.D.

Photo credit: flickr.com

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