Even before COVID-19, self-care was already trending. Putting our mental health first has been the theme over the past couple of years and for good reason–it is estimated that one in four people suffer from some type of mental health condition or issue, so taking care of our mental health, along with self-care is absolutely necessary in today’s world.
However, rather than go through all the self-care tips that can be easily found through a quick scroll on your socials, today we are going to discuss the gut health and mental health connection and how you can increase your mood by the foods you do and don’t eat.
A Balanced Gut = A Balanced Mind
Unfortunately, the current state of affairs in the world has many people searching for coping mechanisms both healthy and not. For some people, this can look like turning to alcohol, comfort foods, excessive online shopping, etc. For others, they may have fallen into a new routine that supports and nourishes their mental and physical health. Regardless of where you fall on the coping spectrum, keeping your gut healthy is of the utmost importance, especially now.
So how does the gut have anything to do with your mental health? We’re glad you asked.
Recent research is redefining our understanding of the brain and the gut’s connection:
The gut or enteric nervous system (ENS), consists of two thin layers of over 100 million nerve cells that line the gastrointestinal tract from the esophagus to rectum and communicate with the brain. A higher-than-normal percentage of people who suffer from gut health conditions such as IBS, diarrhea, chronic bloating, constipation, heartburn, etc, have been found to also suffer from anxiety and depression. And while past research would indicate that anxiety and depression caused the gut issues, recent studies show that it is the other way around. So yes, what you eat directly impacts your mental health.
The bacteria in your gut, your gastrointestinal flora, which is made up of over 400 bacterial species (the microbiome) must be kept balanced to maintain a healthy gut. When the gut becomes unbalanced, for example, if you’ve been eating too many sugary foods or even just one type of food group with little variety, you may notice a shift in your moods. This is because the gut and the brain communicate and the bacteria in our gut “feed” off of the foods we give it. So if you are eating a lot of processed sugar, the “bad” bacteria wants more. It both heightens your sugar cravings and increases bad bacteria in your gut causing feelings of depression or anxiety. Which as many of us have experienced can become a vicious cycle.
Equipped with this knowledge, it would make sense that certain foods can improve our moods, while others can negatively impact our mental health. Let’s take a look at how you can add/remove these foods into your current diet.
*Talk with a functional medicine provider at Vitality Family Health in Oak Brook, IL before making any major diet changes.
Foods Shown To Improve Mood
Eat these foods to nourish your body and mind:
- Fish – Go for fatty fish like salmon, herring, and sardines, which are rich in Omega-3s and have been linked to lower levels of depression. Omega -3 fatty acids are essential for brain health and development and are something the body can’t produce on its own. Try eating fish a few times a week to get more of these fats into your diet.
- Blueberries – Chock full of antioxidants not only do blueberries make you less blue, but they can also help to improve memory and protect the brain from aging, mostly thanks to an antioxidant called flavonoids. Eat blueberries by themselves, in a salad, or mix them up with other fruits and veggies in a refreshing smoothie.
- Spinach & Leafy Greens – Feeling anxious? Chomp on some spinach. Research shows that nearly half of the American population doesn’t get enough magnesium, a mineral that helps to reduce anxiety. Swiss chard and spinach have tons of magnesium and can help to boost brain health. Wilt spinach with your morning omelet or enjoy a fresh spinach and strawberry salad in the afternoon.
- Fermented Foods – Since we are talking about gut health, we have to include fermented foods on the list. Fermented foods; think kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha which are good sources of probiotics, and have been shown to support the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut. Probiotics can help to increase serotonin levels, decrease anxiety and depression, and help to facilitate more balanced moods all around. Not all probiotics are created equal, so be sure to discuss which types of probiotics are best for you and your gut with a gut health specialist in Oak Brook, IL.
Foods To Limit or Avoid:
- Sugar – Reaching for sweet treats may feel comforting at the time, but the rollercoaster ride of emotions and blood sugar levels you’ll ride isn’t worth the “sugar rush”. A diet high in sugar can cause inflammation in the body and brain. Inflammation in the brain may put you at a higher risk of depression. One study found that brain inflammation was 30% higher in depressed patients. Opt for a piece of fruit if you need a sweet pick-me-up rather than candy or sugary treats.
- Refined & Processed Carbohydrates – Opening up a bag of chips or your favorite boxed snack food may serve you at the moment, but after the initial insulin rush, refined and processed carbohydrates will leave you feeling irritated and foggy. A good rule of thumb for avoiding processed foods is if it’s in a box, it’s probably not the best choice. While processed foods are ok in moderation, always strive to get wholesome foods with the least amount of processing.
- Alcohol – Alcohol is a depressant, therefore if you’re already feeling low, have a history of mood disorders or addiction tendencies, avoid consuming alcohol. Instead, try sipping on an herbal tea like green tea or chamomile, journaling, or going for a walk if you need a mood boost.
- Caffeine – Caffeine has been shown to contribute to both depression and anxiety. So just like with alcohol, err on the side of caution when consuming caffeine. Try limiting yourself to just one 8 oz cup of coffee if you are used to “downing” the pot or opt for an afternoon boost with green tea instead of another iced coffee, which still has some caffeine but doesn’t cause the agitation or nervousness that higher doses of caffeine are known for. And, avoid energy drinks at all costs, some of them can contain the caffeine equivalent of 14 cans of soda!
We hope that these foods will help to lighten your mood and bring your gut back into balance during this time of uncertainty and well into the future. If you are experiencing depression, anxiety, or any other mood conditions, or would like to learn more about improving your gut health, speak with a health professional in Oak Brook, IL today.
*These foods should not be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment.