Happiness comes easy for some, but for many it's a daily struggle. Some of us carry the weight of the world on our shoulders, while others detach easily from the ugliness, or can better appreciate the beauty in all things. Unhappy people may be cursed with internal strife and fears, crippled from early life trauma, genetically predisposed, rife with major injuries, lost loved ones, and so on. So, our set points for happiness differ markedly, and are influenced by current circumstances. Yet, it's what we do to improve our circumstances that makes all the difference. Much depends upon how we solve the riddles in our lives, or try to develop a better outlook. That also goes for what we put in our bodies, because nutrition is the foundation of wellness.
I was moved to write this post by a recent article entitled "Escaping the Clutches of Helplessness", which speaks out about the sorry state of our country's mental health (attached link). Though very interesting, and worth the read, I was frustrated (again) by the fact it said nothing about nutrition. Certainly, happiness is much more than what we eat, or how many happy pills we take, but it's hard to listen to "experts" who don't even pay lip service to it. Hence, I took it upon myself to fill in the blanks.
Happiness starts by getting out in the sun, without which makes us sad during the winter months. Vitamin D is produced naturally in the skin by sunlight, and is also available as a dietary supplement. A day in the sun may provide up to 20,000 IU of vitamin D. In warmer weather, exposure of the arms, legs and head for 15-30 minutes can provide several thousand IU of vitamin D. Just don't apply sunscreen until you get your fill of this important vitamin. But don't get burned in the process, because that is what's linked to skin cancer. Scientists are now suggesting that upwards of 4000 to 5000 IU per day of vitamin D3 is optimum for bone health, cancer prevention, cardiovascular function, auto-immune disease (i.e., MS, lupus, type 1 diabetes) prevention, muscle strength, and resistance to infection. Unfortunately, the medical authorities are still recommending a paltry 400-800 IU daily. Vitamin D also helps increase the sense of well-being, improve sleep, reduce inflammation, and relieve depression, all of which contribute to happiness. High doses may very well relieve some of the negativity in your life.
Equally important for happiness are the omega-3 fatty acids, which make for better bodies in many ways. They support heart, brain, mood, joint, skin, immune, allergic, digestive, metabolic and vision health. The eye and brain contain high levels of DHA, the mature form of omega-3 found in fish, which improves communication between nerve cells and promotes nerve cell growth. Omega-3s also reduce inflammation, a process that fuels many modern diseases, like depression, anxiety, cognitive dysfunction, heart disease and cancer. Omega-3s quell inflammation through a variety of mechanisms: by increasing the fluidity of membranes, altering gene expression, and reducing inflammatory signals. Low omega-3 levels in the brain are linked to lower intellectual performance and dementia. Mental disorders like depression, anxiety, bipolarity, ADHD, and behavioral problems are benefited by omega-3 supplementation. Fish oil is given to prisoners to keep them from rioting, and during pregnancy and early childhood to make happy mothers and babies. Omega-3 deficiency is a risk factor in major psychiatric disorders, personality disorders, despair, homicide, suicide and suboptimal social cohesion. Taking omega-3s also protects against the dumbing-down caused by sugar. Just the relief from arthritis obtained from consuming fish oil is worth a smile or two. The typical American diet is quite low in omega-3s, and high in omega-6 fatty acids, which can increase inflammation. Fatty fish such as herring, sardines, salmon, halibut, trout, tuna and mackerel are great sources. Eat parsely or cilantro along with it, and take a multivitamin, multi-mineral supplement, to reduce mercury toxicity. DHA can also be obtained from grass-fed meat and dairy, from algae, and from pharmaceutical-grade fish oil or krill oil supplements. Omega-3s are also obtained from vegetarian sources like flaxmeal, walnuts, hemp and chia seeds, but it may be difficult for the body to convert these sources to DHA. Other healthy fats found in olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, and leafy green vegetables also decrease depression risk.
Many of these fats -- in the brain, eyes and throughout the body -- are prone to oxidative damage (rancidity). Uncontrolled oxidation is thought to be the mechanism behind most modern diseases, like cardiovascular disease, cancer, Alzheimer's, blindness, etc. Indeed, the aging process is largely about the accumulation of damaged fats. Several antioxidants can mitigate oxidation and protect omega-3 fats in tissues, including carotenoids, vitamin E, curcumin from turmeric, capsaicin from hot peppers, CoQ10, extra virgin olive oil, olive leaf extract, certain fibers, fruits and vegetables, green tea, red wine and chocolate. Even coffee is full of antioxidants if roasted properly, or taken as green coffee extract. The yellow carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, are especially protective of omega-3s in the brain. They also protect against age-related blindness, which can lead to dependency, depression and unhappiness. Neural tissue must be protected, because it is difficult to regenerate, and that requires an assortment of antioxidants from a healthy, balanced diet, along with select supplements.
Adults with higher serum antioxidant levels tend to be more optimistic. For every standard deviation increase in optimism, there was an increase in carotenoid concentrations of 3-13% in age-adjusted models. Most of these carotenoids come from colorful fruits and vegetables, or from dietary supplements. Conversely, optimists are more likely to engage in health-promoting behaviors, such as healthier food choices, so the association may work both ways. Also, those with higher socioeconomic status were more likely to score high on optimism, are better educated on health, and can afford healthier food and lifestyles. So, it is not certain if carotenoids contribute to optimism, or whether they are coincidental. Just the same, an abundance of carotenoids in the diet has been repeatedly linked to a variety of health benefits and longevity. This is based on a recent review of 62 studies of plasma carotenoids and health outcomes. Sadly, over 95 percent of the US population falls into the moderate or high disease risk category, based on their low consumption of carotenoid foods and supplements.
Raising serotonin in the brain is another means of improving mood and making happy people. Serotonin also influences sexual desire and function, appetite, sleep, memory and learning, temperature regulation, and some social behavior. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter produced from the amino acid tryptophan. There are many good sources of tryptophan from protein foods, one of the best being undenatured whey powder. A nutritional supplement called 5HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) has been shown to raise serotonin levels. Another way to increase serotonin is via exposure to bright light. The two B vitamins that help maintain serotonin levels are vitamins B6 and B12. They may help reduce irritability, weakness, insomnia and calm the nerves, which can promote happiness, especially during the winter months. Vitamin B6 is also anti-inflammatory, likely by its ability to increase omega-3 incorporation into cell membranes. Another worthy mention in this area is SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine), a popular supplement that helps produce mood-elevating neurotransmitters. Though expensive, some folks swear by SAMe.
There is also a substance in green tea called theanine that has a calming effect and promotes sleep. A natural mood elevator and anti-depressant called phenylethylamine (PEA) is found in chocolate. However, blue-green algae has nearly 50 times more PEA than chocolate, and is also an excellent source of omega 3s, vitamins and minerals, as are many sea vegetables. It is hard for a body to be completely happy without all these vitamins, minerals and essential oils. Magnesium in particular is a standout for its ability to calm muscles and nerves, and to foster sleep. Add fiber to the diet to make the good bacteria in your gut happy; make them happy, and they will return the favor, by removing many of the toxins from your body. Lastly, sugar, sweets and carbs are some of the most comforting foods on the planet, despite their serious drawbacks. Nevertheless, a tablespoon of raw honey daily is healthy, and often hits the spot. It will increase the amount of tryptophan that reaches your brain, which is why sweets make us so happy. The list of happy foods, herbs, spices and supplements goes on and on.
Indeed, a variety of food and supplements can enhance happiness. Sometimes it helps to experiment a little, since each of us has different needs. For instance, I found that doubling my fish oil dose to 2 grams daily keeps me from being a sad sack. The ideal recipe is to cut down on refined sugar, processed and overcooked foods, and to consume a variety of fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, grass-fed, free-range (happy) animal products, and to supplement with high-quality DHA, high-dose vitamin D, a variety of antioxidants, whey protein, B complex, chelated magnesium, and a top-shelf multivitamin. You'll be happy you did.
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