How and why our digestion affects our mood, and vice versa…
- Have you ever felt a pit in your stomach when you’re nervous?
- Nauseous when you’re stressed out?
- Anxious after indulging in too much junky food?
It’s not random coincidence – it’s because our mind and body are so much more connected than we think!
In fact, we have an entire second brain that lives in our digestive system called the Enteric Nervous System, or ENS. The ENS is a complex network of neurons, neurotransmitters, and proteins that lives in the lining of our intestinal organs. It sends messages to our brain and other nervous systems through what is called the gut-brain axis, or the GBA. The ENS holds over 100 million nerve cells that work in this communication process!
Also living in our digestive tract is an ecosystem of trillions (yes, trillions!) of bacteria, called the microbiome. The beneficial bacteria in our microbiome break down and absorb the nutrients we need from the food we eat, leading to optimal physical health. However, that’s just the beginning of the microbiome’s job!
Our gut bacteria also produces serotonin, dopamine, and various other neurotransmitters. These “feel good” chemicals go to the brain to regulate our mood and help us to feel happier and more calm. In fact, 90-95% of our serotonin and 50% of our dopamine are produced in the gut! They produce hormones as well, including insulin (the fat storage hormone). So, our microbiome is also one of the key players in our ability to maintain a healthy weight.
The bacteria not only send information to the brain, they also receive information from the brain – thoughts, feelings, stressors, etc. This is why your tummy reacts when you’re feeling nervous, stressed, or anxious, and why we often describe something as a “gut feeling.” It’s a beautiful cycle! Until it’s not…
When there is an abundance of beneficial bacteria in the gut and digestion is functioning properly, we feel better both physically and mentally. However, when there is dysbiosis in the gut (candida, irritable bowel syndrome, leaky gut, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth – to name a few), we can see a negative affect on our entire well being. These gut issues lead to dysbiosis in the brain (anxiety, depression, insomnia, irritability, panic attacks – again, just to name a few). On top of that, when our digestion is compromised, we can’t absorb nutrients properly. Digestion affects every system in the body. Also, poor digestion allows undigested food particles to build up in your digestive tract (constipation, anyone?!) When this happens, unhealthy gut bacteria ferments the food. From there, bad bacteria continues to grow and outnumber the healthy gut microbes. No good!
There are many factors that can contribute to poor digestion and an overgrowth of bad bacteria. Below, I’ve compiled the top three that I have found to affect most of my clients. I’ve also included some tips for how to mitigate them:
1. FOOD SENSITIVITIES
Eating food that your body is sensitive to, (in other words, food your body has a difficult time digesting), will cause:
- inflammation in the intestinal lining
- leaky gut
- imbalance in your microbiome
All of these issues can have a negative impact on your mental state and mood.
How do you know if you are sensitive to certain foods? Start keeping a food journal to record how every food you eat is making you feel. Gas, bloating, diarrhea, or any digestive upset is a sign that your body is having a tough time digesting that food. If your symptoms are severe and/or it’s difficult to pinpoint which foods are the culprit, it will be helpful to have a nutritionist like myself guide you through an elimination diet. The most common gut-disturbing foods are gluten, dairy, refined sugar, alcohol, and highly processed foods.
2. LACK OF NUTRIENTS
Removing harmful foods from your diet is one part of the mood-boosting equation. However, it is just as important to incorporate a variety of nutrient packed foods into your repertoire, as well.
Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, are also what the body converts into neurotransmitters (those happiness chemicals) that your brain needs. Which is why it’s important to get plenty of protein in your diet. Some good sources are: fish, chicken, beef, legumes, and nuts.
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods like salmon, cod, walnuts, flaxseed, and chia seeds, are crucial for neurological function, mood regulation, and hormone production. Our brains are about 70% fat. Adequate intake of healthy fats can enhance brain cell plasticity and help brain cells communicate with one another.
Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, yogurt, and kefir help to replenish healthy gut bacteria and should be eaten in abundance. A high quality probiotic (Jarrow and Garden of Life are my top choices) can be extremely beneficial. Probiotics are especially if you are in the process of trying to heal your digestion.
The gut-brain connection goes both ways; digestive function affects mood, but mood also affects digestion. The sympathetic nervous system becomes activated when we undergo stress. You may be more familiar with the term “fight or flight” mode. In this state, your body sends less blood flow to your gut. Additionally, your intestinal lining weakens, and you are unable to optimally digest and absorb nutrients. On top of that, your body produces less of that necessary beneficial bacteria.
Stress management strategies and adequate self care time are crucial for healthy digestion and a healthy mind. Some of my favorites are yoga, deep breathing, getting enough sleep, getting out into nature, laughing, and moving my body in some way every day.
Are you in need of guidance around where to start with improving your gut and/or your mood? I can help! Book a free consultation at the link below!
Sara Groton, Holistic Nutrition Consultant + Eating Psychology coach is a cherished member of the Nutritional Services team at Wellspace. When she isn’t experimenting with new, yummy recipes, you can find Sara enjoying the outdoors, or bringing her warm, compassionate energy to clients and Wellspace coworkers alike.
* If you’d like to have an initial consultation with Sara, free of charge, you can book here.