Written by our Precision Nutrition Certified Strength, Women’s Bodybuilding, and Nutrition Coach Emily Mailloux
Well everyone, it’s Halloween week, which seems like the perfect time to talk about brains! In my last article we discussed sugar, and how eating a diet high in processed foods can impact your physical health. But did you know that the food you eat can also play a role in your mental and emotional health?
Here’s the lowdown
When you eat food, it passes through your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which is lined with millions of neurons. The function of these neurons is highly influenced by the billions of “good” bacteria (or probiotics) within your GI tract. These bacteria are essential to your health – they protect your intestines by providing a barrier against toxins and “bad” bacteria, limit inflammation in the body, improve how well you absorb the nutrients from food, and activate the neural pathways between the gut and the brain.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in your body that helps regulate sleep and appetite, inhibit pain, and manage mood (it’s known as the “happy-making” neurotransmitter). 95% of your body’s serotonin is made in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, so the production of serotonin is also affected by the presence of “good” bacteria in the GI tract. Poor GI health can prevent the production of serotonin, so you’ll have less of the “happy-making” chemicals in your brain.
Still with me? Now, if the bacteria population in your gut is out of whack (too many bad bacteria and not enough good bacteria), it can lead to irritation, inflammation, or full blown “leaky gut” syndrome (a chronic inflammation throughout the body). A leaky gut can encourage more inflammation in the body, which creates a vicious cycle. The resulting chemical imbalance from chronic inflammation is linked to many health problems, including cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and depression. Now consider that 60 liters of blood are pumped through your body into your brain every hour. If that blood is nutrient-deficient, it interferes with your brain’s function, and its ability to create serotonin.
Food and Mood
So you can start to see that the workings of your GI tract not only help you digest your food, but can also impact your mood and emotions. Without the right nutrients, your brain won’t get what it needs. Studies have shown that eating a diet largely comprised of processed foods and not enough nutrient-dense foods could increase your chances of becoming depressed by up to 60%. That’s a scary-high statistic.
11 Ways to Improve your Health and Mood
So what can we do to improve our gut health, thereby improving our serotonin production and neuron function, and feel better and happier?
First, avoid refined sugars. Multiple studies have shown that a diet high in refined sugars can impair brain function, and has also been shown to worsen symptoms of mood disorders, including depression. These refined sugars also worsen inflammation in the body, which returns us to the vicious cycle mentioned above. Many people have reported that eating processed foods has worsened their symptoms of depression and other mood disorders. Also, simple carbs (high in sugar) can lead to high spikes followed by plummeting energy levels, which has negative effects on mood.
Try to reduce or cut out alcohol, a known depressant, and caffeine, which also leads to energy highs and lows. Caffeine may also worsen anxiety symptoms and promote insomnia (and we all know a lack of sleep certainly affects our mood the next day!)
Increase the presence of probiotics (the “good” bacteria) and decrease the presence of antibiotics (“bad” bacteria) in your gut. You can ingest probiotics from yogurt or from unpasteurized fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, and kombucha, or you can take a probiotic supplement. Whenever possible, buy meat that is organic and antibiotic-free. If you have to take an antibiotic from your doctor, increase your intake of probiotics to balance out the bacteria in your gut while on the antibiotic. Studies have shown that when people ingest probiotics, their anxiety, stress levels, and mental outlook all improve.
Shift your diet from a typical Western diet (high in processed and refined foods and sugars) to more of a traditional or Mediterranean diet (high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, fish, and seafood, with modest amounts of lean meats and dairy.) Studies show that the risk of depression is 25-35% lower in those who eat a traditional diet, as compared to those on a Western diet.
Include protein sources such as turkey, beef, eggs, some dairy products, and dark, leafy greens in your diet, all of which contain tryptophan, an amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin and can alleviate depressive symptoms.
Eat more Omega 3 fatty acids (found in fish, nuts, seeds, and algae), which provide building blocks for healthy brain development and function.
Eat more selenium, an essential mineral that the body can’t make on its own. You can get selenium from cod, Brazil nuts, walnuts, and poultry. Selenium works with other nutrients to create an antioxidant balance in our body’s cells.
Drinking bone broth, a stock made from chicken or beef bones. It contains glycine, which can help heal internal wounds, including those in your gut.
Increase your Vitamin B intake, either from foods (meat, eggs, seafood, green leafy vegetables, legumes and whole grains) or through a Vitamin B supplement. Some studies have shown that a deficiency in Vitamin B can be linked to depression.
Increase your Vitamin D intake (either through sunlight, fortified grains, milk, or by taking a supplement). Vitamin D is essential for brain development and function and a deficiency can lead to depression.
And finally, pay close attention to how you feel after eating certain foods. Keep a journal of what you ate and how you felt afterwards, both physically and mentally.
Challenge yourself this week to eliminate one food from your diet, either a known stomach irritant, or something that you’ve been curious how you’d feel without it (some examples: alcohol, sugar, dairy, gluten). Take it out of your diet completely for one week, and pay close attention to how your body and brain feel during the week.
Happy Halloween! Get out there and eat some brain food this week!