Have you observed how some meals, or patterns of eating, leave you feeling satisfied and uplifted, and others leave you sluggish or even anxious? The direct links between food and moods are increasingly well evidenced but one particular exciting area of research is the connection between the human digestive system and overall mental wellbeing.
There's a reason why the gut is often referred to as the ‘second brain’. Embedded in your intestinal wall are 500 million neurons that make up your enteric nervous system (ENS).
Your ENS plays an important role in the production of 30 different neurotransmitters including serotonin which helps regulate mood and sleep. We associate serotonin with the brain as it plays a role in depression and emotions associated with wellbeing - but it actually exists in the largest concentration in our intestines. It is not surprising then that prolonged stress can disrupt the digestive system.
Furthermore an imbalance in the wealth of bacteria that resides in our intestines, may also be an influential factor in our emotional responses to situations.
In a recent study from UCLA, a group of forty women was divided into two groups by the composition of their gut bacteria. Researchers then measured their brain activity for emotional responses to negative images and found the brains of women with different bacterial profiles reacted differently to the stimuli, with markedly higher levels of anxiety and distress being reported in the group with higher levels of a certain bacteria group called Prevotella.
Some other ways your daily food choices affect how you feel physically and affect your mood:
- You’re cutting out or skimping on essential food groups, which your body needs to fuel itself and produce serotonin, the brain’s “feel good” chemical.
- You’re forgetting essential vitamins and minerals, which can contribute to depression, inability to concentrate and chronic fatigue. A diet lacking essential nutrients such as b vitamins, zinc, magnesium and iron can disrupt our biochemistry and may alter mood and behaviour.
- You’re not getting ample omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to a lower incidence of depression.
- You’re eating many processed foods or high sugar foods, which may contribute to a larger waistline, feeling tired and sluggish and potentially lead to insulin imbalance and inflammation when over-consumed. When weight is gained as a result, this can clearly have further negative effects on mood and self-esteem.
- You’re not drinking enough water, and dehydration can cause headaches, mood changes, lethargy and poor concentration.
So, the key take-out point here is a well-balanced daily diet based on whole foods that contain a spectrum of nutrients can make you feel happier and calmer, quite simply by making you - and your gut microbiome - healthier.