Ever had that feeling like your stomach was full of angry butterflies? Usually you’d get it right before a big exam, a job interview, or perhaps during an argument?
What about that sudden lurch in your gut when someone gives you a fright, or when you think you heard a strange noise as you drifted off to sleep
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You may even get an upset bowel or stomach right before doing something which makes you anxious, such as flying, or speaking in front of a lot of people.
We accept all these physical sensations as part and parcel of our body’s response to emotions. But have you ever stopped to wonder why you should feel something in your gut due to a thought in your brain?
Part of the reason for this is a massive information highway between our brain and our gut called our Vagal nerve. This nerve is the pathway for the messages sent between our brain and our gut.
And, most importantly, it works in both directions. This means that not only does the brain send our gut signals that we are stressed, anxious, sad, happy, excited, or scared, but our gut also sends signals to our brain.
You see the human gut, in many ways, acts as a second brain. It has over 100 million nerve cells, which is more than the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system. And these nerve cells help to collect information on the health of our body, and send that information to the brain.
Our gut is also responsible for the production of up to 90% of the serotonin in our body. Serotonin is key in us feeling happy, energised, and motivated. Our gut may also be involved in the production of other neurotransmitters (the body’s chemical messengers) such as dopamine, adrenaline, and GABA. All of which are major players in our mood.
So how does our gut produce these mood altering natural chemicals? Until very recently we were a little perplexed about the digestive system’s ability to do this. However now scientists are confident they have the answer…
That’s right, the little micro bugs which we have been told for decades to be cautious of, may actually be the key to our physical and mental wellbeing.
You see bacteria isn’t all bad. In fact we have many helpful bacteria which love to live in our digestive system. The problem is we have many harmful bacteria too. They fight for space, and we help or hinder this battle by consuming foods which either feed our helpful or our harmful bacteria.
Whichever ones we feed, those are the ones that are the strongest and win the most space for survival.
So, it goes without saying, that we really want to be feeding the helpful bacteria. These are the bacteria which produce those chemical messengers, our neurotransmitters, which run up the highway of the Vagal nerve into the brain – influencing our mood!
The question now is – what nutrients are going to help improve mood?
Let’s explore 4 ways you can heal your gut to improve your mood!
Eat probiotic rich foods
Probiotics are substances which contain healthy helpful bacteria. You can get them in capsule form, and you can also take them from food. Although, the capsule form can be slightly more appealing taste-wise!
Foods which contain probiotics include;
– Yoghurt (must contain active or live cultures and be natural with little to no added sugar)
– Sauerkraut (will have to be raw / unpasteurised)
– Pickled vegetables (in salt solution, not vinegar)
– Kombucha (note that it is not as well researched so we are not entirely sure if any helpful bacteria actually makes it to the gut from drinking Kombucha)
Remember how the gut has all those nerve cells? Well nerve cells are particularly sensitive to inflammation. Really inflammation is just our body trying to protect itself from harm. We all can see inflammation when we get injured, such as bruising, swelling, redness, or your skin being hot to the touch.
These are all example of our immune system trying to fix our injury. And we don’t just get hurt on the outside of our body. Our immune system also responds to disease and infections within the body. Often times we don’t see the inflammation from that, however we will feel its effects such as fever, runny nose, cough, joint or muscle pain etc.
What we were just talking about is acute inflammation. It happens over a short period of time, and usually resolves itself just as quickly – possibly with the aid of medications, such as antibiotics, as well as getting some rest.
However, we also have a potentially more dangerous type of inflammation called chronic inflammation. When we put substances into our body which damage it, such as unhealthy foods, cigarette toxins, alcohol, etc, our immune system sends an army out to fix the problem. This army spreads inflammation throughout the body upsetting the nerve cells in our gut, and also making the gut more permeable to harmful substances including not so good bacteria.
Okay so you need to reduce inflammation – but how do we do this through our diet?
A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies found that the Mediterranean diet, due to its high amounts of fiber, healthy fats, and plant protein, was the best eating plan for reducing inflammation. Essentially this means including the five beneficial components of a Mediterranean diet in your day;
And avoiding the pro-inflammatory components of;
People with the highest adherence to a Mediterranean style diet were shown to have the best mood scores.
Reduce ultra-processed foods
These foods might be extra tasty, and convenient, but all that flavour and ease of use come at a cost. Whilst these foods generally are cheap on the bank balance, the real cost comes to your health. Ultra-processed foods include sugary drinks, packaged or pre-made foods, fast foods, dried fruits, some canned foods, and deli meats.
These foods are high in saturated fats, simple sugars, salt, and artificial flavourings, all which feed our harmful bacteria, rather than the healthy helpful ones. This causes an imbalance that can affect your mood.
Take a look at the foods in your pantry and on your shopping list. Try to buy as many whole or fresh foods as possible, and where you need to get ‘packaged’ foods make them 1 ingredient foods where practical. Examples of this would be;
– Brown or Basmati Rice
– Raw nuts and seeds
– Canned beans
– Frozen fruit or vegetables
– Chia seeds
Increase mood boosting nutrients
Yes, there are specific nutrients which help our gut and brain function optimally to boost mood. A review of 213 research studies looking into nutrients and brain health found that the following 12 nutrients met the evidence criteria to be considered ‘antidepressant nutrients’.
– EPA and DHA
– Vitamin A
– Vitamin B6
– Vitamin B12
– Vitamin C
So which foods rated high in these nutrients and won the scientific award as ‘antidepressant’ mood boosting foods?
We have ranked these foods in order of lowest availability of mood enhancing nutrients to highest. However, keep in mind that these are still the top foods, so any of them will be beneficial.
- Coming in at the bottom of the best foods list is Salmon. Although don’t leave Salmon off the menu because it isn’t number one! It still contains around 10 – 16% happy nutrients.
43-39. Here we have a five-way tie between snapper, emu, herring, spot fish, and snails. Now not many people have access to emu, spot fish, and snails, but you still have snapper and herring to choose from.
- Rainbow trout
- Tuna, an all round fan favourite!
- For those with a bit of cash to spend – Lobster
34-32. A three-way tie between Wolffish, Bluefish, and Roe.
- Smelt (fish)
25 – 22. Another tie between Poultry giblets and the first of our plant based foods, Papaya, Lemon, and Strawberries (yum).
- Liver and organ meats…if you dare.
20-19. We start off our top 20 with Butternut Squash and Acerola (similar to a cherry).
- Like them or not, Brussel Sprouts still make an appearance in the top 20 mood boosting foods.
17-15. Broccoli, Red Cabbage, and Kohlrabi (a type of turnip)
- The battle between broccoli and cauliflower is put to rest in this list, with Cauliflower providing more antidepressant nutrients, appearing on the list here at number 14.
- Dandelion greens – those Rhinos in Ice Age the movie, were probably extra cranky because they hadn’t had a chance to eat the dandelion salad and get its mood enhancing benefits yet.
- Capsicum (or bell peppers depending on your country of origin!)
- Sneaking into the 10th spot we have one final animal protein source, Oysters.
- Chicory greens
- Fresh herbs
- Swiss charge
- Lettuces, any type
- Mustard, turnip, or beet greens
- and finally…Watercress
Take a look through all the foods we just mentioned, beneficial….and not so much.
How many do you have in your diet?
This is a good exercise to figure out which foods you can add, or take away, to improve your mood and overall wellbeing.