Here’s a wellness fact: there’s an important conversation happening every day between your gut and your brain.
In my experience, I have seen firsthand the powerful connection between our gut health and our mental wellbeing. You may be surprised to know that approximately 90% of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood and happiness, is produced in the gut*. This reinforces how nurturing our gut health is key to caring for our overall mental health, as well as caring for our emotional wellbeing to support the digestive system.
Understanding the Gut-Brain Connection
Our gut is often referred to as our second brain because it contains millions of neurons that communicate with our central nervous system. This means that the health of our gut can have a direct impact on our brain function, including mood regulation. Have you ever felt “butterflies” in your stomach? That’s because your gut and brain are in constant communication, and emotions like anxiety and stress can actually cause physical symptoms in our gut*.
The gut/brain axis is the terminology that refers to this communication between our digestive system and our brain. It is a complex network of nerves, hormones and chemicals that constantly send signals back and forth. When this communication is disrupted, it can lead to various physical and mental health issues.
How Diet Affects Our Mood
The connection between our diet and our mental state is undeniable. When I was a fad dieter, I ate too many ‘skinny’ foods full of artificial ingredients that are not ideal for the gut microbiome, and had an erratic way of eating that went in a vicious cycle from restriction to bingeing. This contributed to an unbalanced emotional state. It’s a detrimental cycle that, in the long run, greatly impacts our overall health.
So how does what we eat plays a role in maintaining a healthy gut and therefore a balanced mood? Consuming foods that are high in sugar, processed and low in nutrients can disrupt the balance of bacteria in our gut, leading to inflammation and impacting our brain function.
This is why I’m so passionate about nutrition and helping people to eat a balanced, wholefood diet. To optimise your good gut bacteria, you need to include a variety of nourishing foods in your diet. Focus on the essential macronutrients by eating good-quality protein, complex carbohydrates, plenty of fibre and omega-3 fatty acids. These foods are satiating and help to balance blood sugar levels, which promotes stable moods throughout the day.
In my journey towards understanding the connection between mood and food, I want to share with you my favourite feel-good foods that form the basis of my diet and have helped me establish equilibrium throughout my healing journey. These include:
- Healthy fats like avocado, coconut oil and olive oil
- Protein-rich options like organic eggs and quality proteins
- Complex carbohydrates such as brown rice and wholesome breads, such as my signature JSHealth loaf, rye seeded or Ezekiel.
- A handful of nuts and seeds, and homemade granola for a quick energy boost. Nut butters, tahini and hummus make great spreads for bread or dips for fruits and vegetables.
- Fruits, along with other nutritious foods like Greek yoghurt (full fat), organic butter, oats, oily fish, chia seeds and flaxseed.
- Coconut products, including coconut milk, cream and yoghurt
- Dark or raw chocolate, raw treats, healthy acai bowls and muesli (try my favourite Bircher Muesli!)
- Probiotics, like fermented foods and drinks such as kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir and kombucha
- Prebiotics, such as garlic, onions, leeks and Jerusalem artichokes to promote the growth of good gut bacteria
- Plenty of leafy greens and colourful vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, kale, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, carrots and beetroot
- Herbal teas like chamomile or peppermint for relaxation and digestion support
How Stress Impact the Gut
Just as our gut health impacts mood, the same is true in reverse. When we are feeling stressed, our bodies release cortisol, the hormone responsible for the “fight or flight” response. This response diverts resources away from our digestive systems, leading to decreased enzyme production and slower movement of food through the gastrointestinal tract*.
Additionally, stress can also disrupt the balance of bacteria in the gut, leading to an increase in harmful bacteria and a decrease in beneficial strains. This imbalance in the gut microbiome can contribute to symptoms such as bloating, constipation or diarrhoea.
Feel-Good Lifestyle Practices
Counteracting the harmful effects of stress on the gut involves strategic lifestyle changes. Mindfulness meditation can significantly lower cortisol levels, enabling the body to return to a more balanced state.
- Regular movement not only reduces excess cortisol but also stimulates the production of endorphins, the body’s natural mood lifters.
- Adequate sleep is key to regulating the body’s stress response, as is maintaining a healthy diet rich in gut-friendly foods.
- Taking time each day to engage in relaxation activities such as reading, listening to music or taking a warm bath can help to reduce stress and promote a healthier gut.
For those seeking guidance on creating balanced, nutrient-dense meals that support gut health and mood, as well as ways to relieve stress (think yoga and meditation), I invite you to explore the JSHealth App. Packed with over 700+ wholesome, easy-to-prepare recipes, it’s a wonderful tool to aid in your journey towards better health and balanced moods. The app also offers customised meal plans and interactive shopping lists to simplify your overall wellness journey.
- Ridaura, V. and Belkaid, Y. (2015). Gut Microbiota: The Link to Your Second Brain. Cell, [online] 161(2), pp.193–194. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2015.03.033.
- O’Mahony, S.M., Clarke, G., Borre, Y.E., Dinan, T.G. and Cryan, J.F. (2015). Serotonin, tryptophan metabolism and the brain-gut-microbiome axis. Behavioural Brain Research, 277, pp.32–48. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.07.027.