Believe It or Not, Your Food and Mood are Linked
There is no denying that our brains work hard. I mean hard. Even while we sleep peacefully through the night, our brains are awake, ensuring that we stay alive and functioning. Thus, it is critical we supply our brains with the fuel it needs to keep working hard. Of course, the food we eat is what fuels our bodies and brains. We’ve all heard that “you are what you eat,” but maybe the saying should say, “you feel what you eat,” because, believe it or not, your food and mood are linked.
Think of your brain like that BMW or Ferrari you’ve always dreamed of. It’s safe to say that nicer cars require nicer fuel, and putting lower-grade fuel into a pricey car can ultimately damage it. Unfortunately, the same goes for your brain. Our brains require vitamins and minerals to function, and loading up on processed and refined foods can lead to inflammation and oxidative stress throughout the body, directly affecting how you feel: both physically and mentally.
- Nutritional psychiatry focuses on the way food affects our moods. Nutritional psychiatrists focus on the addition of nutrient-dense foods into the diet while eliminating processed foods.
- 95% of serotonin production and 50% of dopamine production happen in your gut.
- Nutrient-dense foods support gut health, and gut health supports neurotransmitter production, which supports our moods.
Let's begin with: what is nutritional psychiatry? For starters, it’s incredibly tasty. But really, nutritional psychiatrists work from the thought that what we eat impacts our mood. Unlike regular psychiatrists, they include food in their treatment plans for patients. Ultimately, they focus on nutrient-dense foods (those that are high in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and prebiotics, among other good-for-you components) and aim to reduce the intake of processed and refined foods. The addition of the good stuff and subtraction of the bad stuff has an end goal of reducing inflammation and boosting dopamine and serotonin levels.
Multiple studies have found a large correlation between diets that are high in refined foods and damaged brain function, leading to worsening symptoms of mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. Aside from having an impact on mental health, these “empty” diets (that have no nutritional value) also have a physical impact on the body, as chronic, low-grade inflammation can contribute to cardiovascular disease, cancers, diabetes, and other potentially fatal conditions.
All in all, if your brain is deprived of good-quality nutrition, there are consequences. It sounds a little scary, but realistically, healthy food encourages the growth of good bacteria, which encourages the production of neurotransmitters. It’s like one big support system! When your brain is producing neurotransmitters well, your brain receives those messages and it is mirrored in your emotions. On the other hand, a steady diet of junk food encourages inflammation, which causes neurotransmitter production to go astray, reflecting in your mental health as well. This is like those friends that constantly bring you down all the time; it is exhausting.
How are food and mood linked?
This connection between food and mood has its roots in our gastrointestinal tracts (which is so important to healthy functioning that it is often called your second brain!) Your GI tract houses billions upon billions of bacteria that assist in the production of neurotransmitters. It also is home to nerve cells and neurons. The function of these neurons and the making of neurotransmitters are incredibly influenced by the bacteria that constitute your microbiome and gut health.
These bacteria are absolutely essential to a healthy functioning body. Not only do they help digest our food, but they protect us against harmful bacteria and toxins, keep inflammation to a minimum, and control how nutrients absorb into our bodies. Additionally, they control communication from our “second brain” to our real brain; they regulate the neural pathways that travel directly between the two.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that has the important job of regulating our moods, controlling our sleep and appetite, and hampering pain. Dopamine regulates feelings of motivation, pleasure, and contentment. Up to 95% of serotonin production happens in our gastrointestinal tract, and up to 50% of dopamine production happens there too. (You see where this is going right?) The entire process is a chain reaction: nutrient-dense food leads to good bacteria, good bacteria leads to neurotransmitter production such as serotonin, and higher serotonin levels lead to better moods. The gut is where all the magic happens!
Additional studies reveal that, when comparing traditional diets (such as the Mediterranean diet) to a typical diet in “western culture,” there is a 25-35% lower risk of depression in those who consume a traditional diet. The difference in the diets lies in that traditional diets are high in veggies, fruits, fish, and unprocessed grains and lack the processed, sugar-laden foods that are essentially staples in a western diet.
This all goes to show that those meals and snacks we crave the most when we’re stressed or depressed can actually be causing us more harm than good! Although who doesn’t love a good comfort meal?
To prioritize your mental wellness, consider turning your attention to how the foods you eat make you feel, not only focusing on how you feel directly after you eat but for the hours and days after. Slowly but surely try cutting out processed and refined foods as staples in your diet. Remember that attempting to do so all at once can be entirely overwhelming; start with simple swaps!
Making these changes to your diet can have a direct impact on how you feel physically and mentally. The best fuel for your body and brain is a meal that contains a complex carbohydrate (such as sweet potatoes, quinoa, oats, or beans,) lean protein, and some vibrant veggies! A good way to ensure you’re giving your body all the nutrients it needs is to start eating the rainbow at each meal. After all, colorful moods are mood-supporting foods. Foods such as bread, crackers, and baked goods are all considered refined and processed, and sugar-sweetened beverages are best consumed in small amounts.
Just like anything good, this takes time. It may take weeks to notice any changes in your body after making intentional and productive changes in your diet. But be patient, and trust that your body is doing its thing! There is nothing better for you than loving foods that love you back.
Written by Morgan Taylor