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Focus On Protein and Tyrosine

Read time 6 mins

What is protein?  

Protein is a macronutrient and a vital component of our diet. It plays a key role in the functioning of our body. The term "macro" refers to the fact that we need to consume large quantities of these nutrients to meet our body's needs. Proteins are a complex network of molecules made up of chains of amino acids - these are the building blocks of protein.  

The digestive process breaks down dietary protein into these individual amino acids, which are used to produce essential components for our body to function. Two amino acids, tyrosine, and tryptophan, are essential for the production of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. Tryptophan is also an ‚Äėessential‚Äô amino acid, which means that it is not produced by our body and therefore we need be consume it in our diet.¬†¬†

Neurotransmitters are chemicals produced by nerve cells called neurons in our brain. These chemical messengers carry information between brain cells and communicating with one another. Adequate levels of protein in our diet help these chemical messengers work efficiently and communicate effectively.  

Dopamine is one such neurotransmitter, and it is needed to regulate mood, motivation, and behaviour. People with ADHD often face difficulties with attention and focus, which may be linked to changes in the brain's dopamine system.  

Dopamine is often referred to as the "feel-good" chemical due to its association with feelings of pleasure and reward. Low levels of dopamine can result in ADHD symptoms such as depression, lack of motivation, and fatigue.  

Can protein consumption affect brain health? 

When we consume the amino acid tyrosine, it is converted into L-DOPA, which then turns into dopamine. However, this conversion process relies on specific enzymes in the body. 

Studies (1) suggest that incorporating tyrosine-rich foods into your diet can potentially enhance the levels of dopamine in your brain. Consuming foods that are abundant in tyrosine can lead to improved brain function and elevated mood. 

To increase your tyrosine levels, you can munch on nuts and seeds. Almonds, walnuts, and flax are excellent sources of protein and tyrosine, making them a great option for snacking to give your dopamine levels a boost.   

Tyrosine-rich foods include:  

avocados,  

sesame seeds, 

pumpkin seeds, 

bananas,  

dairy products,  

eggs,  

fish,  

chicken, 

turkey,  

soy products.  

Keep in mind that consuming more tyrosine may not necessarily result in increased dopamine levels. Dopamine production is a complex process that depends on a number of factors including the availability of enzymes, other essential nutrients, and co-factors.   

Moreover, stress, being sleep deprived, and intense exercise can lead to the depletion of tyrosine levels in the body, causing a decrease in dopamine production. This can result in symptoms such as fatigue, lack of motivation, and depression. 

Protein and Blood Sugar 

Did you know that combining (2) protein with carbohydrates during a meal can have a positive effect on your blood sugar levels? When we eat protein, it slows down the digestion of carbohydrates and prevents sudden spikes in blood sugar levels. This is particularly important when consuming refined sugars, which can cause sharp increases and decreases in blood sugar levels, resulting in feelings of fatigue and hunger for some people after eating. By pairing protein with carbohydrates, we can help regulate our blood sugar levels, which can result in more consistent energy levels throughout the day.  

Protein can help maintain stable blood sugar levels by providing (3) a steady supply of energy over a longer period. This is because protein takes longer to digest, which means it provides a slow and steady release of glucose into our bloodstream. This can prevent large spikes and subsequent drops in blood sugar levels, which can help us maintain energy, focus, and concentration throughout the day. 

The results of a small study (4) suggest that the order in which we eat different types of macronutrients can have an effect on our blood sugar and insulin levels after meals. 

Researchers conducted a study to examine whether eating protein and vegetables before carbohydrates could potentially help regulate glucose levels after eating. The participants included were obese, had type 2 diabetes and were taking a medication that helps to control blood sugar levels. 

During the study, the participants were given the same meal, but the order of consumption was changed. In the first week, the participants frist ate carbohydrates, this was followed by protein and fat fifteen minutes later. They then in the second week ate the same meal in the reverse order, with protein, vegetables, and fat first, followed by carbohydrates fifteen minutes later. 

The study's results were very interesting. They found that consuming protein and vegetables before carbohydrates led to a substantial decrease in glucose levels at 30, 60, and 120-minute intervals. Also, insulin levels were found to be lower when food was consumed in this order.   

The take away here is that consuming protein-rich foods such as lean meats, fish, eggs, beans, and nuts can help stabilise blood sugar levels and prevent big fluctuations. This in turn can help us maintain energy, focus, and concentration throughout the day, which can be especially important for people with ADHD.   

Start with a protein breakfast   

Choosing a breakfast that is rich in protein and also contains oats has been shown to have certain benefits (5), including an increase in satiety (the feeling of fullness) and improving concentration levels. 

A protein-rich breakfast has potential benefits for people with ADHD. Studies suggest it may reduce impulsivity, a core ADHD symptom. 

Whilst consuming high amounts of fat and sugar can negatively impact our cognitive function, consuming protein may have other beneficial effects (6). A study was conducted on healthy men to test the effects of following a high-protein diet for three weeks. The results showed that those who followed the diet had improved reaction times. The study measured response inhibition, which is a way to test impulsivity. Researchers believe that tryptophan, which is found in almost all proteins, may be responsible for these effects. Findings have also shown that when people consume more tryptophan, they tend to have lower levels of emotion-related impulsivity. 

Further research (7) has indicated that a balance breakfast can positively impact cognitive function, particularly in individuals with ADHD. 

So, to recap; while the relationship between protein intake and ADHD is complex and further research is needed, there is evidence to suggest that a balanced breakfast rich in protein may have potential benefits. 

Proper nutrition, including adequate protein intake, is beneficial in all areas of mental and physical well-being. 

Here are some tips for getting more and varied protein sources into your diet:  

  1. Incorporate protein-rich foods: Include protein-rich foods in every meal and snacks wherever possible, such as lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, beans, lentils, tofu, and nuts. Try to choose lean sources of protein to limit saturated fat intake. 
  1. Use dietary supplements: If you struggle to get enough protein from whole foods, consider using protein supplements such as whey protein powder, and pea protein powder. These can be added to smoothies, oatmeal, yoghurts, baked goods, pancakes, and waffles. 
  1. Snack on protein-rich foods: opt for a protein-rich snack such as hard-boiled eggs, egg muffins, cottage cheese, beef jerky, edamame, or hummus with crackers and add these foods to carbohydrate snacks to help balance blood sugar.  
  1. Top foods and snacks with a tablespoon of ground or chopped nuts, chia seeds or ground flaxseeds to increase protein intake. 
  1. Eggs provide an excellent source of protein. Try omelettes or egg muffins and make sure you add vegetables each time. Chop some veg and add to your omelette or muffins when cooking (peppers, onion, tomatoes) or serve with some green beans, sweetcorn, broccoli, or asparagus. 
  1. Make homemade protein yoghurt: add chia seeds, nuts and seeds, nut butter or flax to Greek or Coconut yoghurt. 
  1. Add nut butter, walnuts or cheese to slices of apple or a handful of grapes for a protein-rich snack with added nutrients.  
  1. Snack on cheese, cottage cheese, mackerel pate or humous with crudities of chopped veggies such as carrots, peppers and celery, or oatcakes or wholemeal crackers. 
  1. Have lunch-pack style shop-bought packets, or containers of pre-cooked lean protein in the fridge to quickly add to salads or sandwiches for lunch. You can have pre-cooked these when making dinner by cooking an extra portion, allowing them to thoroughly cool and storing in the fridge in an airtight container. Check out the book I authored on 100 friendly ADHD recipes and meal planning for more inspiration.

How much protein do I need?  

The amount of protein your body needs varies depending on several factors such as your age, gender, weight, physical activity level, and overall health condition. For adults, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. So, if you weigh 70.76 kilograms, your body would require approximately 56 grams of protein daily. However, this is just a general guideline, and individual protein needs may vary based on specific circumstances.

About the author  

Sarah Osborne is the founder of So Nutrition and a dedicated BANT Registered Nutritionist specialising in uncovering the links between ADHD and gut health and addressing concerns such as IBS, appetite regulation, sleep patterns, and mood fluctuations.

With a compassionate, patient-centred approach, Sarah harnesses the power of evidence-based nutritional science to enhance overall health. Employing a diverse toolkit that includes thorough case analysis and functional laboratory assessments, she strives to pinpoint potential nutritional and microbiota imbalances and support the body towards optimal well-being.

As a spouse and parent to loved ones navigating ADHD, Sarah intimately understands the challenges firsthand. Witnessing profound transformations in their gut health, cognitive focus, and quality of sleep following strategic dietary and lifestyle adjustments inspired her to channel her clinical expertise towards aiding neurodivergent individuals on their journey to wellness.

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