We live in a world where health is often equated with our physical size. In order to be healthy you must fit within conventional standards. This concept is called weight bias.
However, we are now seeing - and experiencing first hand - that health can mean many things to many people, and that there are many more things to consider for a person to live a healthy, vibrant life.
Two of this things are the health of your gut and your mental health. Actually, the two factors are closely related. The health of your gut can have a direct impact on how you feel. In other words, there is a direct link between food and mood.
Gut health. What is this buzzword?
Almost everyone is talking about gut health these days. Everybody is drinking kombucha, eating sauerkraut or adding collagen and gelatin to their cooking repertoire. But why?
“All disease begins in the gut.”
Our gut - or gastrointestinal system - is vital for breaking down foods so our body can assimilate the nutrients. It also acts a protective barrier keeping toxins in your digestive tract to be dispelled through your detox pathways (urine and stools). You don’t want these toxins entering your bloodstream and being distributed throughout your body.
So the health of your gut is key for several reasons. Our gut is home to more than 1 trillion microorganisms. There are many different types of bacteria in your gut and the key to gut health is in maintaining a healthy balance of good and bad bacteria.
When you have more bad bacteria than good, you may find you crave sugary foods as the bacteria thrive on simple carbohydrates. This can result in digestive discomfort, bloating, flatulence and gas as the bacteria ferments in your gut. Charming!
These functions are only some of the reasons gut health is important. It is an emerging field of study and one we are only just scraping the surface on. But, if your gut health is compromised and you aren’t absorbing nutrients from your food, you can see how your mood would be affected.
Researchers from John Hopkins University were the first to come up with the concept of a “second brain” in the walls of your digestive system. This “little brain” is called the enteric nervous system (ENS). But it’s actually not so small. The ENS is two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract from your throat to your anus.
According to Jay Pasricha, M.D - director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, the main role of the ENS ‘brain’ “is controlling digestion, from swallowing to the release of enzymes that break down food to the control of blood flow that helps with nutrient absorption to elimination,”
The enteric nervous system doesn’t seem capable of thought as we know it, but it communicates back and forth with our big brain—with profound results.”
The ENS may trigger big emotional shifts experienced by people coping with symptoms of poor gut health; IBS, constipation, diarrhoea, food sensitivity and bloating. “For decades, researchers and doctors thought that anxiety and depression contributed to these problems. But our studies and others show that it may also be the other way around,” Pasricha says.
The team of researchers are finding evidence that irritation in the gastrointestinal system may send signals to the central nervous system (CNS) in your real brain that trigger mood changes.
In large part this has to do with key neurotransmitters formed from amino acids and the messages they signal to your brain. If you’re not eating enough of the key amino acids found in protein to form these neurotransmitters, or your body is not absorbing them due to compromised gut function, these signals can’t get to your brain. Key neurotransmitters for mood include serotonin - your happiness hormone and dopamine.
An imbalance of bad to good gut bacteria and leaky gut are relatively common due to our modern lifestyles and reliance on processed foods, exposure to processed vegetable oils, and just the level of stress we are exposed to day in- day out. But they often go hand in hand. If you have an impaired gut you will often have low mood, and vice versa. And we all know that when we feel low it can lead to further less-than-ideal food choices and lethargy towards nourishing movement.
It’s a difficult cycle to navigate.
Actionable points for food, mood and good health.
The first step is to work on gut health. Avoiding inflammatory foods such as refined grains - especially gluten - and sugar to starve off the overgrowth of bad bacteria.
Include probiotic-rich foods in your diet to feed the good bacteria such as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh and fermented veggies.
Lastly, include glycine rich foods such as gelatin, collagen, bone broth and organ meats to help seal and heal your gastro lining.
To help tackle the mental health component of the puzzle, you need to include precursors to neurotransmitters in your diet. Because neurotransmitters are formed by amino acids which are the building blocks of protein, these amino acids are most complete and abundant in animal proteins such as eggs, oily fish and meat. However plant based foods such as bananas are nuts are also good sources of dopamine, tryptophan and serotonin.
Lastly, we cannot overstate the impact stress and fulfilling social connection has on our overall health. If you feel your mood needs a boost, spend some quality down time with loved ones or in nature. Managing your stress - especially in the face of chronic illness or mental health challenges is vital.
If you are feeling low, you can talk to us or your healthcare provider about strategies specific to your situation. Chat to us here.