Ever heard the saying, “The way to someone’s heart is through their stomach?”
Well, what if I told you that one way to boost your learning (and your mood) could be through your stomach also?
The brain science: Between your brain and your stomach is a two way “street” that houses the longest neve in the body. It’s called your vagus nerve and it sends signals between your stomach and your brain and vice versa.
In other words, your vagus nerve collects information from your gut, and fires it off to your brain. Then your brain responds in a very specific way regarding peak performance for your brain and how you feel overall.
Depending on what you ate, you’re in the driver’s seat sending positive or negative messages via your vagus nerve and those messages have a definite effect on how you feel and whether or not you’re in the primo state for learning.
The key is knowing exactly which foods give you a learning advantage and improve your motivation and focus!
(Medical disclaimer: Nothing in this article is intended to be construed as medical advice. Please consult your doctor regarding any changes to your diet possible food allergies or before taking any type of supplement).
Table of Contents
1. Natural Ways to Boost Your Dopamine So You Will Be In the Best State for Learning
2. Cut Down on Sugar
3. How to Enhance Serotonin to Boost Your Brain and Your Mood
4.Get the Benefits of Omega 3s
5. Improve Your Brain and Gut Health
5 Ways to Use Food to Improve Your Learning and Mood
1. Natural Ways to Boost Your Dopamine So You Will Be in the Best State for Learning
What is dopamine anyway?
Dopamine is one of the neuromodulators (brain chemicals) that affects your learning, motivation, and focus. It is often called the “motivation molecule”
One of the circuits it affects is the mesolimbic or reward pathway in your brain. When you anticipate a reward, your dopamine levels spike up, fueling your desire to act to pursue that reward.
This is the source of your motivation. It gives you the drive to work towards something you want and makes you feel good when you get it.
Because of this, dopamine helps laser target your focus to the thing you want to learn.
Together with other neuromodulators like adrenaline and acetylcholine, your dopamine puts you in the best state for learning!
So you’re probably asking how you can boost your dopamine levels with food.
(Remember to ask your doctor before changing your diet or taking any supplements).
Brain research and neuroscientists including Andrew Huberman at Stanford University, say one way you can boost dopamine levels is by eating foods which contain the amino acid l-tyrosine.
L-tyrosine is a non-essential amino acid and a precursor to dopamine – your body can synthesize these amino acids to create dopamine!
You’ll find l-tyrosine in many high protein food sources such as grass fed beef, lamb, steak, other meats, soy, yogurt, eggs, cottage cheese, nuts, pumpkin seeds, legumes and more.
And the great news is that these high-protein foods can also boost your levels of acetylcholine and adrenaline. These are neurotransmitters which, according to the National Institutes of Health, play a strong role in enhanced brain function, learning and memory.
Bottom line: when you want to be alert, motivated and focused, it’s better to opt for protein-rich foods. So no starchy foods or sugar before exams, because starchy foods, as you’ll see later, increase your serotonin levels. And this in turn induces calmness and can make you sleepy.
Eat protein in the morning to increase your concentration earlier in the day. Studies suggest that higher levels of l-tyrosine may reduce brain fog also. Just remember that l-tyrosine has a stimulating effect, so you don’t need to take tyrosine supplements or eat foods high in tyrosine late at night.
After you’ve spoken to your doctor and/or nutritionist and feel you may be very low on dopamine, you might consider l-tyrosine supplements.
However, a word of warning – there are studies that also say l-tyrosine supplements might lead to a dopamine crash in the aftermath.
This basically means that followed by an initial spike of motivation and focus, you may feel lethargic and down later on
So discuss the foods that help you boost l-tyrosine naturally and then, with your nutritionist or doctor, ask whether l-tyrosine supplements might be something to add in order to create more dopamine.
Your health care provider will be your guide about supplement dosage and whether or not they are best to add in addition to tyrosine boosting foods!
2. Cut Down on Sugar
You know how sometimes, before you start on a big project, or even in the middle of it, your sweet tooth kicks in and you want to reach for the nearest donut?
In the short term, you’ll feel great, but just a few minutes later, you want more because your blood sugar dropped – it’s kind of a vicious cycle isnt’ it?
When the neurons in your gut sense sugar, they send off signals to your brain that boost your dopamine level.
In fact, there have been medical studies showing that even if you can’t taste the sugar, your gut will still detect its presence and let your brain know.
But the problem with getting a dopamine rush from sugar is that it’s followed by a dopamine crash.
The Brain Science: Here’s why this happens.
Dopamine is actually a double-edged sword in some ways. It might be nicknamed the pleasure molecule, but for every spike in pleasure, there’s a corresponding increase in pain.
This might not be physical pain or even a feeling you’d recognize as pain but it can feel like a really strong, almost irresistible urge for more.
So the greater the surge of dopamine, the more acute this corresponding sense of pain. And it’s this pain that makes you want to have more.
It’s why you often end up craving sugary foods the more you eat them.
The bad thing about this?
Every time you get more of what caused the dopamine spike, each subsequent spike of pleasure is lower. And in contrast, each spike of pain is higher.
This is why people often develop addictions for things that cause massive dopamine spikes, like certain drugs or alcohol.
While sugar won’t cause an insanely huge dopamine spike like cocaine or amphetamines, it can still be addictive.
Each subsequent time you consume something sugary, you’ll experience less and less dopamine.
On the contrary, you’ll experience more and more pain from the withdrawal symptoms, pushing you to have more sugar.
This can actually damage your dopamine pathways and make it difficult for you to regulate your motivation, alertness, and focus.
The bottom line: Don’t overindulge in sugary foods! Practice moderation and seek out healthy alternatives like fresh fruit instead (not the juice).
3. How to Enhance Serotonin to Boost Your Brain and Your Mood
An increase in your serotonin levels makes you feel comfortable and content where you are and with what you have.
So, if you are too alert or anxious, it makes more sense to activate your serotonin pathways instead of dopamine.
And good carbs are a great source of serotonin!
In fact, you might have noticed that you tend to feel content, almost sleepy, after a meal rich in carbohydrates.
Your body is diverting more resources to digesting those carbs, and your brain is releasing serotonin!
If you’re trying to optimize your alertness at certain times of the day with high protein foods, try carbs on the menu at night for the relaxation benefit.
The relaxation effect might help ease you into better sleep!
Note, though, that not all carbs are equal. Many carbs have a high sugar content and can even add to your weight.
Nutritionists say that brown or black rice and whole grains are better carb sources.
Refined carbs like white flour, white rice and sugars with empty calories tend to cause those bad dopamine spikes. Plus, they add to your weight.
The rule of thumb here is to go for good carbs in the evenings when you want to relax.
They’re also the better option if you’re feeling overly alert and anxious, to the point that it overwhelms your brain.
You can also purchase supplements which boost serotonin levels, but again, do consult your doctor first.
4. Get Omega-3s from Fish Oils
For starters, your brain is made up of almost 60% fats. And incorporating more Omega-3 fatty acids in your diet helps you grow, repair, and improve the functioning of your brain. This happens along with hundreds of other benefits for your entire body.
There’s also a lot of great research showing how Omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce depression symptoms!
Depression is often associated with things like poor motivation, brain fog, poor mood, and other symptoms which negatively affect well-being.
Although Omega-3s aren’t a cure-all, studies show that a daily intake of 1000 mg of EPA (a type of Omega-3) can help alleviate depressive symptoms!
Along with the boost in mood and motivation, Omega 3s also reduce inflammation, protecting your brain and improving its mechanisms.
So once you check with your health care provider, you may want to look into fish oil supplements. You can also increase your Omega 3s through more food such as fatty fish and flax seeds, though these won’t be able to fulfill your Omega-3 quota by themselves. Again, you must absolutely consult with your doctor first.
Omega-3s are also blood thinners which can be harmful before medical procedures and your doctor may tell you to stop takin them. Or they could be harmful if you’re already taking blood thinners for medical conditions or bleeding disorders.
5. Maintain Gut Health with Probiotics
These microorganisms can be both good and bad. And because they live in the gut, they can affect the neurons there that send signals to your brain to manage your levels of dopamine and serotonin.
Remember how the vagus nerve sends information both ways – between your gut and your brain, and your brain and your gut?
Ultimately, these microorganisms affect your brain and body. That’s why it’s so important to maintain the right environments for the good microbiomes in your gut to thrive.
Lots of people take probiotics to maintain the healthy bacteria in their gut. However, there is such a case as too much of a good thing.
Brain scientists say that too many probiotics can actually lead to brain fog. And if you have an autoimmune condition, some doctors say they can cause a “flare” in your condition.
If you’re experiencing brain fog, you struggle to pay attention, learn, remember, and function cognitively.
Naturopathic doctors and nutritionists say that one way of creating the right environment for good bacteria in your gut is including fermented foods in your meal.
Food like kimchi or sauerkraut increase good gut bacteria, without going over the desired level and causing brain fog.
Meanwhile, things like some artificial sweeteners (like those present in carbonated drinks and the type you might put into coffee) can increase the bad bacteria. So, that’s something you’ll want to discuss with your health care provider and how to reduce their use.
Final Word: By knowing how what you eat affects your brain, you can take control of things like your learning, focus, memory, mood, and motivation.
Years ago, my very first book addressed the connection between food and learning, so I know how powerful this information is.
Now that you have some new knowledge about food, learning and your mood leave a comment and let me know some of the ways you’re thinking about how to use food to improve your learning and mood.
Pat Wyman is the CEO of HowtoLearn.com, HowtoLearn.Teachable.com, best selling author and an internationally noted brain and learning coach known as America’s Most Trusted Learning Expert.
Her superpower is helping people learn, read and remember everything faster. She has helped over half a million people in schools and corporations such as Microsoft, Intel and Google improve their lives with her learning strategies, learning styles inventory and courses, including Total Recall Learning™.
Pat is also the best-selling author of more than 15 books, a university instructor, mom and golden retriever lover!
Professionals and students: Contact Pat about the Brain 2.0 Learning and Career Advantage Assessment and customized faster learning programs.