Today’s workplace is fast-paced and intense; school is difficult and strenuous. Many resort to caffeine consumption or prescription drugs, such as Ritalin, to gain a cognitive edge over their competition. This route is problematic, as it may lead to addiction, an eventual tolerance to caffeine, and may not be sustainable. Luckily, there’s another solution: one can alter his or her diet to boost cognition. This can be done by consuming foods which lead to increased dopamine and acetylcholine—two neurotransmitters which function as our brain’s “on switch.”
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is associated with drive and happiness. ADHD medications stimulate neurons in the brain’s frontal lobe to increase the release of dopamine. In doing so, one’s energy, motivation, and focus increases. It is impossible to obtain the full effects of Ritalin from dietary changes; however, a proper diet can increase dopamine—ultimately increasing one’s ability to produce quality work, one’s confidence, and one’s focus.
Dopamine can be produced from two building blocks: Phenylalanine and Tyrosine, both of which are amino acids found in common store bought foods. Phenylalanine is commonly found in high-protein food. Chicken, cottage cheese, and turkey are the most cost-effective (and fairly low calorie) sources of Phenylalanine. Other good sources of Phenylalanine include egg, milk, sausage/pork, and duck. Tyrosine is a more direct building block to dopamine and can be found in similar foods—such as chicken, cottage cheese, pork, milk, and beef.
If one is a vegetarian of vegan, there are several alternative sources of Phenylalanine and Tyrosine. The best examples include oats, egg, yogurt, ricotta, soybeans, walnuts, chocolate (dark), and almonds. Due to the high caloric content of these foods, one may wish to add Phenylalanine and Tyrosine supplements into one’s diet to enhance dopamine production.
It should also be noted that several dietary habits decrease dopamine production, and ought to be avoided. Foremost, caffeine wreaks havoc on dopamine production. A cup of coffee or black tea causes a temporary spike in dopamine via neuron stimulation—this is the main reason a cup of coffee increases focus, and one among many reasons that coffee increases wakefulness. Once one becomes dependent upon caffeine, one’s brain produces less dopamine. That is, in the long run, caffeine consumption can lead to less focus. Rather than consuming coffee or black tea, try switching to green tea or yerba matte. Both of these teas are great sources of anti-oxidants, which protect neurons, and may inhibit caffeine’s ability to decrease dopamine production. Additionally, each of these teas contain caffeine, so you won’t experience an intense caffeine withdrawal.
Processed food may also decrease our body’s ability to produce dopamine. Thus, when increasing your high-protein meats, avoid sources such as chicken nuggets, and stick with high-quality chicken breast from the deli. Another small suggestion is adding a water filter to your sink. Tap water contains traces of lead, and it is proven that lead hurts our ability to produce dopamine.
The role of Acetylcholine is less known than that of dopamine, but this neurotransmitter at least partially contributes toward enhanced cognitive abilities. First, it is known that Acetylcholine is involved in the memory process—it transfers long term memories to short term memories and is necessary to retrieve verbal memories (have you ever struggled to find the right word for something? A low level of Acetylcholine may have contributed toward your problem). Second, this neurotransmitter contributes toward wakefulness, and as we know, energy is necessary for productivity. Third, Acetylcholine is thought to increase the brain’s “speed”—high levels result in faster retrieval of memories and faster thinking. Finally, limited evidence shows that Acetylcholine is the key neurotransmitter in creative thinking.
Acetylcholine’s building blocks are best found in fatty foods—but just as with dopamine, avoid processed food, as saturated fat hurts acetylcholine production. You may wish to consider adding some of these fatty foods into your diet: avocado, sausage, nuts (especially almonds and peanuts), ground beef, cream/whole milk, animal liver, and cheese. Unfortunately, the aforementioned sources contain a high-calorie count—so if you’re on a diet, try the following suggestions: skim milk, eggs (which are perhaps the best food to increase Acetylcholine levels), fish, fleshy vegetables, such as artichokes, turkey, and oats. If these foods don’t boost your energy level, try adding choline supplements into your diet—choline is a precursor to acetylcholine, and slightly boosts Acetylcholine synthesis.