The past few pandemic years have been a merry-go-round of too many stressors to count. Small wonder self-care has taken center stage as people look for ways to soothe their psyches and carry on. While movement, meditation and relaxation are essential for maintaining an even keel, if you’re eating poorly – think sugar, starchy foods, processed and junk foods,– you’ll likely still wind up with slipping and dipping moods. That’s because, in part, the trillions of multi-species bacteria that make up your gut microbiome aren’t getting enough of the nourishment they need to do their best work – and that means your brain suffers too. Simply put, food can have a powerful impact on mood and mental health. If, as the pandemic wanes, you’re finding mood swings, anxiety, depression and other emotional disorders are still taking a toll, take a closer look at what you’re putting in your system. Here’s a top line on how the brain and gut are intimately connected and how you can get them to work together better to put you in a better mood:
It starts with bacteria.
Patients are often surprised when I talk about how important the ‘gut microbiome,’ – the microscopic bacterial community that lives in our gut – is to our health, well-being, weight, and mood. While it may seem fantastic that these trillions of invisible creatures can affect so many aspects of our health, consider that our bodies did not evolve in a hermetically sealed vacuum. Rather, we co-evolved with the bacteria that were on this planet long before we got here. Consequently, there are many functions we can’t perform on our own. Without the bacteria that live within us, we couldn’t absorb much of the nutrients we consume.And, when that bacterial community is out of balance, it can lead to poor immunity, allergies, joint pain, skin problems – and yes, mood disorders too.
Mood isn’t all in your head.
For decades, mood disorders have been treated primarily with some combination of medication and talk therapies. More recently, as scientists learn more about the continuous two-way conversation between the gut and brain, it’s become obvious that we should look at diet as part of the problem and, ideally, part of the solution. Mood and mental health isn’t all in your head, it’s in your belly too.
In fact, the gut-brain connection is so powerful, that belly troubles can be the cause of mood disorders or the result of them, even for people with more complex psychiatric issues like OCD and PTSD. A healthy, nutrition-driven diet can be an extremely helpful addition to any treatment plan. No matter where you fall on the mental health spectrum, the idea is to think good food to upgrade mood. A lousy diet, well, that just adds insult to injury.
Your microbes help mood management.
We need the microbiome to keep our gut healthy, and the gut, besides being responsible for digestion, helps us process thoughts and emotion. The belly and brain are constantly communicating via the vagus nerve: sending orders, chemical compounds and information back and forth. (The gut nervous system, the enteric nervous system, is often referred to as “the second brain.”) So, what’s that microbiome doing to affect what your brain’s up to? The bacteria help manage hundreds of functions in the body, including neurotransmitter production, which is where mood and brain come into the picture.
Among the mood-management agents making the vagus nerve trek from gut to brain are serotonin (the happiness neurotransmitter), gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA (the calming neurotransmitter) and dopamine (the focus and pleasure neurotransmitter). Also along for the ride are helpful microbiome-made compounds like the short-chain fatty acid butyrate, which supports mood, memory and slows neurological decline.
So, if your microbiome isn’t being fed the foods they thrive on – think prebiotics, probiotics, healthy wholesome foods — then production of all those mood-supporting chemicals slow to a crawl, short-changing your brain of the stuff that keeps it – and you –feeling good.
Gut bacteria can make you hungry – or not.
You should also realize that your belly bacteria may help influence your food choices as well as the production of the hormones that regulate hunger. According to the journal BioEssays, university researchers concluded that the beneficial bacteria in our guts may be steering us towards the healthy foods that enable them to thrive, while the less beneficial ones may be pushing us toward the bad stuff so they can survive. They can influence our food cravings, change our taste receptors, produce toxins to make us feel bad and release chemical rewards to make us feel good. No wonder some scientists call them “mind-altering micro-organisms!”
The good news is we are by no means powerless against the microbes battling for dominance. Fortunately, through our own diet and lifestyle choices, we can choose which microbes will manipulate us – and give the friendly bacteria the upper hand against the unfriendly bacteria trying to steer us to their favorite sugars and unhealthy fats.
Feeding your gut and your head matters.
When you eat well, not only are you feeding your gut, but you’re also feeding your head, literally. Just as virtually nutrient-free processed foods and sugar can make you feel tired, uninspired, up one minute and down the next, foods that are fresh, whole and nutrient-packed will keep neurotransmitter and chemical-compound production in your gut humming, and your mood in a better place. What are the best mood foods? Here are my good mood do’s – and the foods that can best help you to keep spirits high:
6 Good Mood Do’s (and the links to help you do them):
- Get your gut in order – as in, focus on getting it into balance, healthy and strong
- Repair your leaky gut – work on rebalancing it, and ‘plugging up the holes’ that let toxins escape, inflaming your body and tanking mood
- Protect your microbiome – with foods and behaviors that soothe, strengthen and protect
- Slash your stress – too many stress hormones circulating in your body changes the balance in your gut for the worse, causing unfriendly bacteria to flourish at the expense of the beneficial ones
- Try ditching gluten – a gut that’s not bacterially diverse will likely be more sensitive to gluten, giving rise to allergies, leaky gut and inflammation that can trigger symptoms like “brain fog,” depression and anxiety. Ditching gluten entirely can greatly reduce symptoms, and for some, get rid of them completely, so, why not?
- Move more, meditate more, de-stress more – all of which will contribute to the health and balance of both of your brains (the gut ‘brain’ and the brain in your head!)
7 Good Mood Foods:
When you think of food as something that can either help improve your mood, or quickly sink it, choices become considerably easier to make. Instead of mindlessly eating foods now that will only bum you out later, get these goodies into your regular rotation, and enjoy the great taste and good vibes:
- Fermented foods – to add friendly bacteria to the gut
- Herbs and spices – great for gut health, with anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and anti-fungal benefits
- Oily fish – think small, cold-water fish like sardines, anchovies, herring and mackerel. These are all rich in omega 3’s.
- Nuts, Seeds & Legumes – a handful of nuts and seeds daily, and small servings of legumes a few times a week will do the trick
- Plain, unflavored kefir, miso and unsweetened kombucha (many bottled kombuchas are sugar bombs, so read labels closely)
- Edible sources of vitamin D – mushrooms, egg yolks, and salmon
- Polyphenol-rich foods – like extra virgin olive oil, berries, green tea, dark chocolate, olives, and much more.
4 Mood-Boosting Supplements:
For additional brain and body a little extra support, supplements can also lend a helping hand:
- Vitamin D: Research indicates a link between low mood and low vitamin D levels, so I encourage patients to take at least 2,000 to 5,000 IU/day through the winter to keep brain chemistry, especially neurotransmitter action, humming.
- Omega 3s: With their role in the synthesis of mood-elevating serotonin, the more the merrier, literally.
- 5-HTP is the precursor in the biosynthesis of mood-boosting serotonin, so I often recommend 200-400mg at bedtime.
- Magnesium: Low levels of magnesium can compound mood dips by inhibiting the conversion of tryptophan to 5-HTP, which can decrease the production of mood-stabilizing serotonin and melatonin. 400-600mg of magnesium glycinate taken at bedtime is well tolerated by most people.