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What are chemical imbalances and can they be controlled by diet?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

All of our bodily functions, messages and impulses come from our brain, so what happens when it is deprived of certain nutrients, or when it isn’t getting the fuel it needs for us to function optimally? This is known as a chemical imbalance. It’s when the neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers in the brain are not steady.1

Why would you have a chemical imbalance?

Anyone can have a chemical imbalance and it’s nothing to be ashamed of! Research has linked chemical imbalances to some mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety.2 Anything that affects certain neurotransmitters, such as a lack of exercise, or a lack of certain nutrients in your diet, can cause an imbalance. 

How can you keep your brain neurotransmitters balanced?

When your neurotransmitters are balanced the reward system in your brain is triggered to release dopamine, which is associated with positive, happy emotions. When dopamine is released, our brain recognizes the action that caused it and we feel compelled to repeat it again for another pleasurable feeling. The good news is that there are things you can do to trigger this dopamine release, and the more you get in the habit of doing them, the easier they will become.

Exercise more frequently. If you’re low in dopamine this may well be low down on your priority list, but if you can try to exercise, even if it’s just a short walk outside in the fresh air, research has shown3 that it can have a big impact on your mood by balancing the chemicals and neurotransmitters in the brain.

Learn to say no. Taking on too many tasks can lead to stress and confusion. If you feel overwhelmed with everything you are being asked to do, take a pause and simply say ‘no.’ You don’t have to take on more than you can handle and you will find yourself feeling a lot more balanced once you start to apply this.

Enjoy your down time. What do you like doing in your free time? Are you happiest when walking the dog? Maybe you like to paint or draw? You might find cooking relaxing, or you may be happiest when you are simply spending time with friends and family. Whatever you enjoy doing, make sure you allow yourself time to do it.

Can chemical imbalances be controlled through diet?

While habits can no doubt have an influence on our dopamine levels, and by extension, our overall mood, one of the major factors of chemical imbalances comes down to our diet. Food really can affect mood and chemical imbalances and diet are strongly linked.

Dopamine and serotonin

Both dopamine and serotonin—the ‘happiness’ chemicals responsible for better mood, better sleep and better overall wellbeing—can actually be found in certain foods. High levels of dopamine can be found in certain fruits, such as bananas, plantains and avocados. The leaves and beans of velvet beans also contain high levels, and lower levels can be found in citrus fruits, apples, tomatoes, spinach, peas and beans. Certain foods are also rich in serotonin, including folate-rich foods like broccoli, dark leafy green vegetables, legumes, beetroot, citrus fruits and eggs, and fiber-rich foods like whole grains and oats, vegetables and pears.

Glutamate and GABA

Glutamate is converted by the body into Gama-Amino butyric Acid (GABA), which has been shown to regulate the nervous system, with low levels being attributed to depression and anxiety.4 Sources of glutamate include seafood, fish sauces, fermented beans, miso, seaweed, soy, mushrooms and spinach. Direct sources of GABA include certain vegetables like tomato, spinach, mushroom, potato and sweet potato, whole grains like oat, wheat, barley, rice and buckwheat and chestnuts. Furthermore, there are food sources that—which not containing GABA themselves—can stimulate the production of it. These include probiotic foods like yoghurt and kefir, and also green tea.

What does this all mean for your diet?

If you start to pay attention, you might be able to notice how certain foods make you feel. Pay attention not just to how you feel straight after eating, but also the next day. Are you full of energy, happy and calm, or are you anxious and on edge? If you’re not so well attuned to the foods that make you feel good and those that don’t, try eating only ‘clean’ foods for a few weeks (no processed foods or refined sugars) and see how you feel then. It’s quite possible that when you slowly start introducing other foods back into your diet you will then be able to tell what isn’t doing you any good.

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