This piece is going to address how what we eat affects how we feel, how what we eat affects our gut health and the role this plays in our mental health. We know that an ice cream sundae on a hot summer day makes us feel better in the moment, but I’m going to get instead into how nutrients affect our mood and behavior. Our brains are complex organisms that use chemicals as neurotransmitters. These chemicals are affected by our diets, whether healthy or not, and have a direct effect on our behavioral regulation. When you do not consume a healthy diet which provides a complete variety of nutrients, you will notice this in how you feel mentally and physically. When you live on junk food, your mood is going to be affected accordingly. You are only selling yourself short when you go short on nutrients.
Connecting the brain and gut.
Our gastrointestinal tract begins at our mouths and ends down under at our rear ends. The gut is like a big port that permits certain substance in, allowing specific actions to occur, and then passing waste along. Millions of nerve cells and micro-organisms line the gut and interact with each other to influence our moods and provide other benefits. Serotonin is an important chemical and neurotransmitter in the human body. It helps to regulate our mood and social behaviors along with our appetite and digestion, sleep, memory, sexual desire and function. (1) Over 90% of our serotonin is produced in our gut either from the microbiota or through an interaction between the microbiota and nerve cells. Because serotonin influences so many regulatory functions and helps regulate our moods, maintaining a happy, healthy gut is part of eating for mood regulation. (2) Serotonin helps set the tone for our brain activity. It plays a role in our daily rhythm because it is involved in our daily functions, such as sleeping and digesting. Serotonin interacts with our endocrine system and influences the production of other neurotransmitters, such as melatonin. Serotonin is also a mood regulator which is why eating to maintain healthy serotonin levels is a part of eating for good mental health. (2)
Foods to consume for a healthy gut and a happier mood.
After ingestion and through interactions with gut microbiota, tryptophan is eventually turned into serotonin and other chemicals. Regularly consuming foods such as rice, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, salmon, and dark leafy greens will ensure you are getting enough tryptophan in your diet. (2)
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Salmon also provides omega-3 fatty acids, which interact with gut microbiota to maintain a strong intestinal wall and increase the production of anti-inflammatory compounds. You can find omega-3 fatty acids in other fish, such as mackerel, herring, sardines, and anchovies. Chia seeds, walnuts, and soybeans also contain omega-3 fatty acids, but they are ALA, which is less preferable to the EPA and DHA in fish. (2)
These foods are thought to regulate our gut microbiota by decreasing the bad organisms and increasing the good ones. Foods highest in polyphenols include cloves, star anise, cocoa powder, Mexican oregano, celery seed, dark chocolate, flaxseed meal, and chestnuts. But you can also get some by basing your diet around a variety of whole fruits and vegetables and adding in seeds and nuts. You can also drink your polyphenols in both tea and coffee. (2)
This material in food helps keep the contents of our gut moving along. Bacteria in our gut also ferment the fiber to produce butyrate, a chemical that helps maintain brain health. A diet that includes high-fiber whole grains also helps increase our gut microbiota diversity and decreases spikes in blood sugar that can lead to irritability and unpleasant moods. Get whole grains from rye, barley, brown rice, oats, millet and popcorn. (2)
Probiotics and Prebiotics
Probiotics increase gut microbiota diversity, and prebiotics help feed existing bacteria. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh, and water kefir are all yeast, or bacteria containing foods that add to your gut microbiota. Keep that microbiota strong by eating prebiotic foods such as chicory root, raw dandelion greens, leeks, onions, garlic, asparagus, spinach, bananas, and soybeans. (2)
Consuming a diet rich in whole foods that contain fiber, tryptophan, polyphenols, and both pre and probiotics help to keep your gut in good condition. A strong healthy gut means you will also have more regular moods. If you noticed in all of these foods we need to have in our diets, you did not see anything such as candy, cookies, cake, ice cream, pizza, or anything that contains simple carbs or refined sugar. None of these were processed foods either. All the foods listed are either whole foods or ingredients you might add to dishes made from these whole foods.
We promote dropping simple carbs, or refined sugars, from your diet along with processed foods. By switching to only whole healthy foods, you will feel better physically and mentally as your blood sugar and insulin levels will be steady with no spikes or dips. By eating healthy, you will notice that you are also feeling less stress and this in itself will help to make your weight loss journey easier to achieve your goals. Everything we consume can, and will affect how we feel and our moods, whether in a good or bad way. The choice is yours to make, only you can decide how you want to feel. Choose wisely my friends, choose wisely.
(1) Medical News Today
(2) AFPA Kate Tendall M.S.