We do it every day. At least WE SHOULD DO IT every day!
But what almost no one knew until now is that these two things, unhealthy diet and mental bellweing, are very closely connected. As it turns out, what you eat can have a massive impact on your mood. Read on if you want to know more.
Ever since I started my own healing journey, my interest in food, nutrition and how it affects our mental and physical health has increased dramatically. Today, I want to share some really fascinating research about the connection between our food and our mood. So without any further ado, let’s get right into the astonishing science of our brain, our gut and why your ‘gut-feeling’ is so important for you (mental) health.
First things first: The classic expression of ‘gut feeling’ is not about your literal stomach. It is about that internal instinct or voice that can influence every decision we make – especially difficult ones. Actually, when you are “trusting your gut feeling,” you are actually trusting your brain, which is the source of that gut feeling. But the latest research shows that there may be more behind the phrase than we might think.
Did you know that how you feel emotionally when you eat is super important for sufficient nutrient absorbtion? I was really amazed when I recently stumbled across some research on this topic. According to the contemporary “wellness” diet, all you need to be healthy is a “clean” diet. But this is far away from the truth. Health is so much more than nutrition. Health is holistic, which means that all the aspects of health are interconnected. Nutrition is just one of the ways food promotes health. Food is connection. Food is culture, family, friends, creative expression, community, satiation, comfort and so much more. ⠀⠀
The link between Meal Enjoyment and Nutrient Absorption
A few days ago, I came across some really interesting research. This study confirmed my long-held theory that food is much more than just an accumulation of different nutrients which fuel our bodies.
According to this relatively overlooked study (1), we absorb more nutrients from food we savor than from food we do not enjoy.
The researchers collected nutrient absorption data from two different cultural groups: A group of Thai women and a group of Swedish women. They fed both groups an Asian meal reportedly adored among the Thai women and not so popular among the Swedes. The results of three studies show that Thai women absorbed nearly 50 percent more nutrients than the Swedish women.
Determined to discern whether enjoyment (and not a difference in biology) was the cause behind this nutritional change, the researchers remade the Southeast Asian meal in an unappealing form. That is, they took the same food and pureed it into a mushy paste. Now, the Thai women thought this meal looked gross and did not enjoy it as much as before. Interestingly, the results show that when they now consumed the meal – made of identical ingredients (!) – they actually absorbed 70 percent less iron than they had before. That is, they ate the same food – they just enjoyed it less.
In summary, the research shows that if we are not enjoying the foods we eat, we absorb less nutrition from that food. In other words, there is little use of consuming healthy foods if we are not actually enjoying it.
Let that sink for a moment!
The Gut-Brain Axis – How Food affects your mood
The brain is a powerful tool. It can both support and delute us. Interestingly, it not only shapes the way we think and behave. But also, as we have just learned, how our body absorbs the nutrients in food.
A big part of the mechanism of digestion is in response to signals sent by the brain. When you like the way your food tastes, your brain is much more eager to send those messages to digest. At the same time, the mechanisms in the gut also impact your mental health. This happens as hormons that are produced in the digestive system are send back to the brain. For this reason, the sense of ‘just knowing without a reason’ is often referred to as “gut feeling”.
In recent years, scholars have started to conduct more and more research on the human microbiome in the intestines. Some research is curerntly looking at the connection between the digestive system and the brain. The gut-brain axis refers to the physical and chemical connections between your gut and brain. Recent studies suggest that by altering the types of bacteria in your gut, i.e. the microbiome, it may actually be possible to automatically improve your brain health.
You are what you eat
Despite early studies, the idea that the gut might influence our mental health fell out of favour for much of the 20th Century. Strong evidence for this mysterious link has only emerged again over the last two decades. The current understanding of the gut-brain axis does at least add to the growing evidence that a healthy, balanced diet could be an important preventative measure to reduce the risk of developing an illness like depression in the first place.
As a matter of fact, researchers from Harvard Medical School (2) recommend “fixing the food first” (i.e. what we eat) before trying gut modifying-therapies (probiotics, prebiotics) to improve how we feel. They suggest eating whole foods and avoiding processed and ultra-processed foods that we know cause inflammation and disease. A whole food, plant based diet, composed of a sufficient amount of Omega-3 fatty acids, fermented foods, probiotics and other polyphenol-rich foods will improve your gut health. This, in fact, may in return benefit the gut-brain axis. Moreover, some of the latest research indicates that patients suffering from depression have less gut diversity than healthier people. Another study looking at supplements showed that daily intake of nutritional supplements cannot prevent depression.
Even though the research is still in its infancy, for some people at least, a healthier gut may be an important first step to a healthier and happier mind.
Take care of your gut – it will make you happy
Did you know that 90% of serotonin receptors are located in your digestive system? That is the hormone that contributes to feelings of wellbeing and happiness. The neurotransmitters created in your gut travel along nerves to the brain where they affect mood and behaviour. This strongly suggests that a healthy gut equals a healthy, calm and happy mind.
Nevertheless, we should be careful about using food as the only treatment for mood. A better diet can help, but it’s only one part of the treatment. It’s important to note that just like you cannot exercise out of a bad diet, you cannot eat your way out of feeling depressed or anxious. This is why I am big supporter of a “holistic approach” involving appropriate nutrition AND mental work.
What we can learn from different cultures
Even though research on the gut-brain axis is still scarce, there is increasing evidence supporting the assumption that our behavior in our gut impacts the behavior in our brain – and the other way around.
If we take a look beyond our own plate and into the dining traditions of other cultures, we see that some countries have already implemented this connection. It seems like these nations have intuitively been following their ‘gut-feeling’ for centuries.
The French Paradox
Some of you may have heard of the so-called “French Paradox”. The French paradox is a catchphrase, first used in the late 1980s. It summarizes the apparently paradoxical observation that French people have a relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease (CHD). At the same time, they are following a diet that is relatively rich in saturated fats and alcohol (like wine, butter (croissants) and cheese).
Baffled, scientists struggled to come up with a few hypotheses: Maybe it was something in the red wine, they said. But that was not the case. After the wine argument, scientists ventured that it must be the olive oil that keeps the French healthy. But that was not the cause either. Other researchers, perhaps sponsored by the garlic and onion industry, suggested that the French Paradox effect is due to garlic and onions. But – you guessed it – that could not be the only reason either.
There have been numerous suggestions trying to explain the French paradox ever since. The one that resonates the most with me and mirrors the recent findings is this: The French simply don’t feel bad when consuming (unhealthy) food. On the contrary, they actually ENJOY what is put on their plate. Even if this includes a fatty meal with a glass of wine. Moreover, from my own observations in Paris I can tell you that the French also eat more slowly and thus more mindfully than many Germans do. I witnessed many Parisian women sitting at one of the Patisseries with a warm croissant and a cappuccino – full fat I suppose – enjoying life to its fullest. I always envied them for their seemingly worryless life!
You can find out more about my mindful eating practices here.
Meal enjoyment in Japan
Let’s take another look to the Japanese culture.
Did you know that in Japan, one of the dietary directives is to “enjoy your meals”? This has an entirely different tone compared to the common advice that often tells people to be careful about the food they eat. In most western countries like here in Germany, it’s common to struggle between eating healthily and enjoying foods that are often considered ‘guilty pleasures’. We do not often tell ourselves to eat according to our gut feeling. Quite the contrary. It is kind of hilarious that I write about this topic today, because I conducted some research on “guilty pleasures” as part of my Master thesis. (Title: The guilty pleasure from hedonic consumption: When feeling bad makes chocolate taste so good, 2015)
What should I eat?
There are a number of essential nutrients that you should take into account, if you want to boost your brain function and improve your gut feeling. Here is a list of the 6 most important nutrients and accompanying foods.
- Vitamin C – is essential to your body’s ability to produce neurotransmitters, including dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin. These provide mood stability and prevent depression. Very good sources are oranges, lemons, bell peppers, and broccoli.
- Vitamin B6 – The goal of many antidepressants is to increase serotonin uptake. As it turns out, B-vitamins can have a similar effect. Good sources include carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, green peas, lentils, and bananas.
- Omega-3 Fats – Your brain is 60% fat. And it needs healthy fats to function well. People with plenty of EPA and DHA, have been found to experience less depression. Top plant-based food sources include chia seeds, flax seeds, and algae-sourced EPA and DHA supplements. For non-vegeterian, fatty fish as wild salmon is one of the best sources.
- Zinc – Research shows that people with the worst depression often have the lowest levels. Foods high in zinc include legumes (especially when sprouted), seeds, nuts, and whole grains.
- Magnesium – is a cofactor in more than 300 reactions in your body. Magnesium-rich foods include legumes, tofu, whole grains, and leafy greens.
- Folate – is a form of vitamin B9. Folate fulfils many important functions in your body. For example, it helps your body create new cells and supports the formation of DNA. It also contributes to serotonin regulation. Foods such as avocado, oranges, spinach, and asparagus are high in folate.
- Vitamin D – increases production of the neurotransmitters related to mental health. The best source is the kind your body makes in response to a healthy dose of sunshine. But if that’s not viable for you, you may want to consider supplementation.
For more on vitamin D and other supplements that could be helpful even for healthy eaters, check out this blog post.
Is it rational to follow your ‘gut feeling’?
As we now know, the activity in our brain has a direct effect on our stomach. What is more surprising is that this relationship is bi-directional. This means that what’s happening in our stomachs can also have an effect on our brain.
Unfortunately, relying on your intuition generally has a bad reputation. Especially in the Western part of the world where analytic thinking has been steadily promoted throughout the last century. Please keep in mind that the majority of studies looking at the gut-brain axis and the use of specific probiotics to reduce symptoms and occurrence of mental health disorders are preliminary, preclinical studies. They support the theory that what we eat plays an important role in how we feel and behave. But they have yet to demonstrate an absolute effect in humans with mental health issues.
Nevertheless, accumulating research suggests that you should indeed listen to your gut and take it’s feelings into account. So the next time you get ready for a meeting, presentation or a first date, be sure to nourish your gut with brain-boosting ingredients that you actually ENJOY!
What I know for sure
Speaking from my own experience, I know that the time spent eating can often be a stressful and anxious time for some people, specifically those who suffer from disordered eating. So during this time, of anxiety or stress our bodies may go into fight or flight mode. During this time, one of the first mechanisms to temporarily shut down is the digestive system. Our gut is in survival mode. This can even be caused by eating foods that we feel we should or shouldn’t be eating.
As I have outlined above, research on the impact of diet on mental functioning is relatively new, and food studies can be difficult to perform and hard to interpret, since so many factors go into what we eat and our general well-being.
But here is my advice: On those days you’re craving sugar, don’t panic and try to satisfy that craving with something “healthy” you actually do not enjoy. You may be doing more harm than good. In fact, you may be better off just eating something that you actually want – even if this is (slightly) “unhealthy”. At the end of the day it’s not just what we eat but the attitudes that we bring to our food that contribute to our mental well-being. It’s about slowing down and becoming more mindful, noticing your body, noticing how you feel when you eat certain foods.
My final advice: ENJOY your food! It might actually be good for your health!
Do you follow your ‘gut feeling’?
- My own research: https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/bitstream/handle/1887/34157/Conzen%2C%20Nila-s1560476-MA%20Thesis-ECP-2015.pdf?sequence=1
- Check out the amazing The MooDFOOD organization They are a multidisciplinary consortium involving 13 organizations in 9 European countries. Using an integrative approach, MooDFOOD has combined expertise in nutrition, preventive psychology, consumer behaviour and psychiatry to investigate the potential of food in the prevention of depression.