How food determines your mood

As scientists explore why some people are affected by stress more than others, what we eat plays a role in a healthier mental state.

PORTLAND, Maine – Dr. Andrea Nazarenko is a psychologist and author of When food hurts: 4 steps to a happy lifestyle. She talks about the importance of healthy, clean eating, and why it plays a role not only in physical health, but also in mental health.

Just as our heart and lungs cannot function optimally without adequate nutrition, our brain cannot function optimally without supplying it with the nutrition it needs. This means that what we eat determines how we feel… and the answer to unblocking your anxiety or depression may not be in your brain, but rather in your gut!

“Feel Good” insects and our second brain

To understand the complex ways in which food affects our mood, we must look beyond our plate and into a beautiful world of microscopic organisms living inside of us. Called the microbiome, this ecosystem filled with microscopic creatures plays a vital – but often overlooked – role in shaping our emotional, mental, and physical health.

The gut-brain axis refers to the direct and indirect communication between the gut and the brain. This pathway plays a huge role in our stress response and mental health. Science demonstrates the importance of the gut in a growing number of psychiatric, neurodevelopmental, age-related and neurodegenerative disorders, including autism spectrum disorders, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

A healthy gut is the key to a healthy brain

The trillions of microorganisms that live in our gut play a huge role in the functioning of the brain. An unhealthy gut can lead to imbalances in neurotransmitters, neuroinflammation, and can even affect the way your body perceives and handles stress. This can lead to mood disorders such as depression or anxiety which are considered to be chemical imbalances in the brain. If the neurochemical imbalances identified in the brain are the result of an imbalance in the gut, it follows that we can balance the gut to balance the mind. Early work on probiotic and dietary interventions shows high efficacy and promises effective treatments in the future.

There is no doubt that stress and mood are like closely related cousins. Chronic and acute stress contributes to the onset and severity of mood problems such as anxiety and depression. Yet there are major differences in the way people deal with stress, which makes psychologists wonder “why”? While some people feel overwhelmed and suffer from a negative mood under stressful conditions, others show resilience. One newly discovered reason is the health of the microbiome. Microbiomes that contain a diverse, stable, and resilient ecosystem support the host’s (person’s) ability to cope with stress. When an individual has an unhealthy gut, they are more susceptible to the effects of stress. A person with an unhealthy gut may perceive the same environment as more stressful than a person with a healthy gut.

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A “Gut Happy Lifestyle” is about adding the good and removing the bad. You can start by adding the good and removing the bad from your plate. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is a common diet in the United States characterized by high consumption of ultra-processed foods, foods containing added sugar, high in fat and high in sodium; and a minimum of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and lean protein. This type of diet promotes an unhealthy gut. A diet diverse in plants, healthy fats and nutrients nourishes the “good guys”, supporting a healthy microbiome and overall physical, mental and emotional health.

Healthy eating is only part of the formula for health. It is also important to consider how you eat and live. In traditional Mediterranean countries, the culture around food differs from that of the modern American meal. Instead of rushing from meal to meal, stuffing your throat with food before the next “to do” on your list, make mealtime special. Schedule time to eat with people you love, and pay attention to your eating habits. Share stories and create memories over a meal. Health is mind, body and soul. Mealtime can be an opportunity to support these three dimensions.

Lifestyle choices – such as diet, exposure to toxins, infections, antibiotic use, environmental stressors, alcohol, over-the-counter and prescription drugs (including NSAIDs) and emotional stress – also contribute to gut health.

One of the best diets for gut health is known as the Mediterranean Diet. This diet is based on the traditional eating habits of people living in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, such as Italy, Greece and Spain. It is based on a set of dietary and lifestyle principles, rather than lists of “approved foods” that can be eaten on the diet.

The basis of a Mediterranean-style diet includes an abundance of plants (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes) that are minimally processed, pesticide-free, eaten in season, and grown locally. The diet supports the daily intake of olive oil, as the main source of fat. Cheese and yogurt are also recommended daily, consumed in small to moderate amounts. For animal meats, fish and poultry are recommended a few times a week in low to moderate amounts; and red meats are rarely recommended in small portions. Wine is authorized in moderation, recommended with meals. Water should be the primary fluid intake.

Foods to avoid include all foods with added sugar, sweets (fruits can be eaten as desserts and raw honey as a sweetener in moderation), sugary drinks (including soda, energy drinks, sweet tea, and other sugary drinks), refined grains, trans fats, refined oils, processed meats, and highly processed foods (including anything labeled “low fat” or “diet” or appearing to have been made in a factory ).

Although not part of the Mediterranean diet, I also suggest cutting out gluten to support gut and mental health.

At a glance, a Mediterranean style diet follows the following guidelines:

Daily: Fruits, vegetables, whole grains (choose gluten free for gut health), extra virgin olive oil, beans, nuts, legumes, seeds, herbs and spices.

Moderation: fish and seafood (choose sustainable products that are low in mercury), poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt.

Drink: mainly water. If you drink alcohol, drink wine in moderation.

As a general rule of thumb, if the food was from Earth and was alive at some point in time, consider eating it. If it was made in a factory or has long lists of ingredients that you don’t recognize, consider avoiding it.

Is eating well all it takes?

Science is accumulating that demonstrates the connection between the mind and the gut. This cutting edge information, however, does not replace what we know about mental illness. Chronic stress from current or past trauma also plays a role. Toxic thoughts, past trauma and / or ongoing stress directly and indirectly contribute to mood problems. If you have a mental illness, consider dietary changes as an adjunct to traditional evidence-based talk therapies to address cognitive and physical aspects of mood. Although healthy eating is known to promote mental and physical health, research on diet in the development and treatment of diagnostic mental illnesses remains inconclusive.

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