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The surprising impact of food on your mood

By Vivian Demille

We at Chrysalis Health are extremely passionate about educating clients about the connection between nutrition and emotional health. By now it is well known and accepted that food does have an impact on various chemicals in the gut and brain. By taking good care of your body, you also take good care of your mind.

Vivian Demille, esq. Vivian Demille, esq.

The first thing you need to know about the food-mood connection is that there are five brain signaling chemicals which are most closely linked to what you eat and drink. These chemicals, called neurotransmitters, are (1) serotonin, (2) dopamine, (3) norepinephrine, (4) histamine, and (5) acetylcholine. Of those, most is known about how serotonin directly affects emotional health.

So how does food affect your mood? Amino acids, which we obtain from foods or supplements, are the building blocks of neurotransmitters. The right vitamins, minerals and supplements can aid in the production and enhancement of the activity of the brain’s signaling chemicals, and can protect them from injury. But our standard American diet typically doesn’t give us all that we need. As our diets have declined, so has our mental health. In fact, depression has doubled in the United States in the last decade — as has obesity. Many studies have demonstrated the link between diet and mood. One shows that people who follow the Mediterranean or Japanese diet compared to the American diet have a 25-35% lower risk of depression. That is a significant difference!

Gut health is also directly linked to emotions. You may have heard of serotonin. Many types of antidepressant medications help your body hold on longer to the serotonin it makes, because the right amount of serotonin can increase a sense of well-being and lower anxiety. Did you know that about 95% of our serotonin is produced in our gastrointestinal tract? Neurons aren’t just in our brain. Our gut is actually lined with 100 million neurons. Our gut is connected to our brains and major organs by an extensive neural superhighway called the Vagus nerve, so the serotonin made in our gut can travel throughout our body.

In addition to the food and drink we consume, our gut neurons are highly influenced by billions of bacteria that live in our intestines. The good bacteria can help us digest our food and draw more nutrition from what we eat. Unfortunately, these good bacteria don’t thrive in the highly processed, high-sugar standard American diet. Instead, bad, disease-causing bacteria are promoted.

How to restore the right bacteria? Probiotics like Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, and Lactococcus are often found in yogurts with live cultures, drinks like kefir, and fermented foods like sauerkraut, some pickles and kimchi. They can also be bought as supplements. Studies have shown that taking certain probiotics like on a regular basis improves anxiety levels, perception of stress, and mental outlook. There’s also a growing body of research on prebiotics, or encouraging the good bacteria to grow by feeding them precisely what they need to thrive. Soluble fiber like that found in bananas, berries, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, garlic, leeks, beans and leafy greens are known prebiotics.

Good nutrition has a huge impact on overall health, not just mental health. Consider these statistics on Americans’ health: 37% of us will experience cardiovascular disease; 35% of us will experience hypertension and another 36% prehypertension; 11% will have diabetes; 47% will have cancer; and 50% of women and 25% of men will have osteoporosis. All of these diseases have a direct connection to diet.

2011 Amanda Mills/CDC 2011
Amanda Mills/CDC

So what does a healthy diet look like? It’s colorful! It’s fresh! It’s minimally processed or cooked. An optimal diet includes lots of whole fruits and vegetables, with an abundance of greens and sea greens; whole grains; beans; nuts; seafood; fermented foods, and a small amount of grass-fed meats. The ideal diet is limited in animal proteins, gluten, refined sugars, diary, caffeine and processed foods. Good mood foods and supplements are rich in iron, antioxidants, calcium, the B vitamins, vitamin D, magnesium, folate/folic acids, omegas, fiber, prebiotics and probiotics.

The field of nutritional psychiatry is new but growing rapidly. We now know that proper diet, in conjunction with traditional therapies, can help improve the management of and recovery from behavioral health conditions.

There are many great resources available to learn more. A few good books and sites out there on healthy diets that I am personally familiar with include The Happiness Diet by Dr. Drew Ramsey, The Blue Zone Diet by National Geographic’s Dan Buettner, and www.choosemyplate.com. There are many additional resources available on the internet, including access to nutritionists, articles, books, and research studies.


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