As a passionate nutritional therapist and health coach, I came to this profession having been unwell myself and not finding the answers. Much of my role is to connect the dots – we are not body and mind – we are one whole being and everything is connected. The gut and brain are involved in a long distance, but extremely close relationship. So it’s no surprise to learn that what we eat can have a huge impact on how we feel, our emotions, mood, brain fog and sleep.
We all know about that gut instinct. Or a feeling in the pit of our stomach. Or going with our gut. It’s no coincidence that these idioms relate our feelings to our digestive system – and now we realise that this connection is more real than we ever knew.
GUT BRAIN CONNECTION
The gut, and the food we feed it, will influence our brain. Primarily this is due to the fact that it produces many neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) which then get sent to the brain. Our gut bacteria are responsible for producing around 90% of our serotonin (happy hormone), which is often imbalanced with people suffering depression or anxiety. So when we realise that it’s our gut rather than our brain that produces so many of our neurotransmitters, we begin to realise that we can alter our brain chemistry quite literally by nourishing our gut bacteria, and in doing so, we can influence our mood with our food.
So how do we feed our gut microbiome? Well the good bacteria like to eat fibre – so increasing our intake and variety of whole fruits and vegetables is a good start. We can also repopulate good bacteria into the gut by eating fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi. These are abundant in beneficial bacteria in a truly absorbable form.
Another way to keep our gut bacteria happy is to manage our stress levels. The stress hormone cortisol encourages the growth of bad bacteria and inhibits the good bacteria. Not good news for keeping this delicate ecosystem of bacteria in balance. So finding ways to unwind is really important. Physical stresses on the body will also affect our mood, and these include sugar, highly processed foods, sweeteners, bacterial infections, and medications like antibiotics and antacids. They all have a negative effect on the balance of the gut microbiome and therefore on our mood. So the state of our gut clearly influences our state of mind.
As with all good relationships – this is a two-way street. The gut brain connection working in the opposite direction is demonstrated by that familiar feeling of anticipatory butterflies in our tummy. This shows that a thought, or emotion of anxiety actually has a direct physical effect on our gut, making us feel, or be, sick.
GOOD MOOD FOODS
Finally when we’re talking about mood foods – fats are essential – since the brain is made up of around 60% fat! So we need to feed it good fats to keep it happy and functioning optimally. So avocado, nuts, seeds, oily fish. These all contain omega 3 which is an essential fatty acid (so called because our body needs it but can’t make it, so we have to get it from our diet). This is not to say that food can heal all mental health issues alone, nor is it to downplay the role that medications have. Rather it’s about understating the role of food in our mental health and using food as part of a wider treatment plan.