Whenever we think about mental health and emotional well-being, the first thing that comes to mind is our brain - The way it functions and how it relates to our mood and emotions.
It wasn’t until recently that I became more curious about the link between mental well-being and physical health, particularly around nutrition.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that there have been several studies on the food and mood connection that we can all use to our benefit.
Let me ask you, how often do you use phrases like “Stick to your gut” or “I have a gut feeling”? We’ve been using these phrases for years to evoke intuition but in fact, they refer to a link between our guts and brains called the gut-brain axis.
The intestine has its own separate nervous system and generates many of the same neurotransmitters, including serotonin, that the brain generates. As a matter of fact, 90% of serotonin is produced in our guts and 90-95% of our immune system lives in our guts.
Serotonin, also known as the happy hormone, is a neurotransmitter believed to help regulate mood, social behavior, appetite, digestion, sleep, and memory. This means that diet and the health of our gut ecosystem affect brain function.
Food and Mood Connection
Just like any other organ in our bodies, the brain structure and function are dependent on nutrients including amino acids (protein), fats, vitamins, and minerals, which is why diet and nutrition have emerged as strong candidates in regulating mental health. There’s even early stage but compelling evidence on probiotics used to treat depression and anxiety, although not yet conclusive, more studies are underway to support this.
The World Health Organization states: "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." Studies show that there's a link between health and longevity and that positive mood within the normal range is an important predictor of health.
All of this means that what we eat affects how we feel and how we feel also affects how we eat. When we’re stressed, serotonin and dopamine levels decrease and cortisol levels increase, which triggers cravings for sugar and fat. This is just one example of brain chemical reactions.
In terms of nutrition, I strongly believe it’s the building block to physical and mental health.
I see food as a way to connect with emotions and memories, and as the organic fuel that the body needs to perform at its best, physically and emotionally - Two very strong components that should live side by side.
How to Improve Mood Naturally
Now, there are a few things that we can do to boost our mood and enhance brain function naturally:
Improve Gut Health
1. Food Diversity: Increase food diversity in your diet to improve the diversity of microbes in your gut.
2. Prebiotics: These are fibers that feed friendly bacteria. Some examples include bananas, oats, garlic, leek, and onions.
3. Probiotics: These are live bacteria. Foods high in probiotics are ones that have been fermented like tempeh, kimchi, and sauerkraut.
Combining these 3 tips will ensure a healthy gut that produces good bacteria and improves your overall health.
Improve Brain Health
Here’s a list of 5 components in mood-boosting foods that support mental health and wellness.
1. Tyrosine: An amino acid normally found in protein-containing foods. Some include peanuts, almonds, avocados, bananas, beans, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, soy foods, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, and flaxseeds. Foods rich in this amino acid can help with the production of dopamine, which is one of the brain's neurotransmitters that contributes to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction.
2. Omega 3: Among many other benefits, studies interestingly indicate that people who consume omega-3s regularly are less likely to be depressed. Plant-based omega 3 foods include walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds.
3. Flavanols: A study analyzed the evidence to date that flavanols (found in dark chocolate and cocoa, among other foods) may benefit human brain function. Flavanols are a form of flavonoids, plant-based substances that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Adding dark chocolate occasionally in our diets can provide antioxidant benefits.
4. Carbohydrates: Research shows that when you stop eating carbohydrates, your brain stops regulating serotonin, a chemical that elevates mood and suppresses appetite. And only carbohydrate consumption naturally stimulates the production of serotonin. Make sure to include whole foods rich in carbohydrates in your diet like rice and potatoes. Other natural ways to raise serotonin include exposure to natural light and exercise.
5. Hydration: Dehydration can impair brain function, lower mood, and create anxiety. Make sure you hydrate your body daily.
There’s a lot to be discussed on this topic but the main takeaway is that a lack of nutrients affects not only our physical health but also our mental health, mood, and energy levels. This is why health should always be approached from an overarching angle that starts with nutrition.
A balanced and nutrient-dense diet ensures optimal body and brain function that is more likely to support a sustainable and healthy lifestyle.