Yes, there are times when we crave a sugar rush, but have you ever noticed how your body reacts afterwards? Here’s how your nutrition affects your mental health – they are more related than you think!
We all know about our gut instinct, and scientific research has documented that our gut is our second brain – which I experienced for the first time when my anxiety skyrocketed. Many times when we’re feeling stomach discomfort, we may think it’s a digestive issue, but it may be due to your mental wellbeing – or vice versa. In fact, our diet and mental health go hand-in-hand and are interlinked. Aside from hitting the gym and switching to a plant-based diet, eating mindfully can also play a part in maintaining a physically and mentally healthy lifestyle. Here’s how your nutrition affects your mental health.
Disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist, seek professional help if needed.
How your nutrition affects your mental health
Talk science to me…
If you have a gut feeling that something’s off about your mental health, chances are that’s true! Our gut comprises over 100 million neurons, with over 30 different neurotransmitters (they send and receive signals to your brain) and 95% of our serotonin (happy hormones) are produced in the gut. Naturally, given the high number of neurotransmitters, there’s a rapid connection between our brain and gut.
Our gut also has 100 times more bacteria and microbes than the number of humans on earth and when the microbes go unbalanced, that’s when you can start to develop symptoms of mental health disorders and mood swings.
Some more science talk…
Basically, you can think of the organisms of your microbiome as the gatekeepers to the mucosal lining of your intestines. They help your body control the absorption of proper nutrients – letting some things in while keeping other things out.
What you eat – and the proportion of what you eat – changes the composition and balance of organisms in your microbiome, which changes your body’s ability to regulate the absorption of proper nutrients. Changes to your body’s nutrition goes on to affect the metabolic pathways, like the synthesis and regulation of hormones, which eventually can affect your mental and physical health.
When I experienced anxiety and depression (at the same time, yes, it was hell), I did multiple tests to detect infectious stomach bacteria, but the tests always came out fine. This only frustrated me even more (so what is wrong with me?) and my digestive health was only getting worse. Slowly, managing my mental health with baby steps is what eased my digestive issues. Bottom line, our mental health manifests in physical symptoms and we may not realise it.
So here’s a basic guide of foods to include in your diet and ones you should reduce for a healthy gut.
What to eat to maintain a healthy gut
- Yoghurt: all that live culture is packed with healthy bacteria that reinforces the good bacteria in your microbiome.
- Fruits like bananas, raspberries, blueberries, and apples also increase healthy bacteria in your microbiome.
- Kombucha: look for one that is low in sugar, but high in probiotics from the fermentation!
- Whole grains: ever noticed the gelatinous consistency of oatmeal after it has cooled and congealed? That’s kind of what the consistency of your intestinal mucosal lining looks like inside your body. The thicker that mucous membrane is, the easier it is for your body to keep the bad stuff out. And the thinner that membrane is, the more susceptible you might be to intestinal inflammation. That’s one of the reasons that eating high-fibre foods can help your body maintain a healthy intestine.
- Dark chocolate, almonds, broccoli, and red wine (moderate amount) all increase healthy bacteria and lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
- Garlic’s antibacterial and anti-fungal properties can help to keep the proportion of bad gut bacteria under control.
- A high-fibre diet with a good variety of fruits and vegetables helps build a healthy mucosal lining of the intestine, while also helping improve your bowel movements (yes, I said it).
Aaaaand what not to indulge in too often
A wee bit of sugar can be a quick energy booster, just keep it in moderation.
- Don’t be a gluten glutton. A western diet often includes too many foods made with processed low-fibre white flour (such as commercially produced bread, pasta, crackers, biscuits, etc.), which contain gluten. Some research has shown that the digestion of excess gluten can change the permeability of the gut wall. Eating too many foods with gluten can change your body’s proper absorption of macro and micronutrients.
- Overconsumption of sugar (another culprit of a western diet high in processed foods) can lead to candida and overgrowth of yeast (the bad guys), which again affects your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and regulate hormones.
- Fried and processed food (especially if it’s made using commercial oils), so no, not fries before guys (you can keep the guys away too if you wish).
- Foods high in unfermented dairy content. Again, increased consumption of unfermented dairy products – like fresh milk and ice cream – is a relatively recent development in the last 100 years due to increased food safety from pasteurisation. In a typical western diet, we are eating proportionally more unfermented dairy, processed white flour, white sugar, and commercial oils, and fewer high-fibre foods, all of which affects the diversity of the microbiome, maintenance of the intestinal lining, and the body’s ability to absorb nutrients.
Yes, this list may be smaller, but we tend to consume more processed food high in salt, sugar, and fat than we think, so it’s always good to read nutrition labels before purchasing. A good rule of thumb is that if there are more than five ingredients on the label – and if your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise most of them (butylated-hydroxytoluene-say-what?) – you probably shouldn’t eat it very often.
How eating mindfully comes to play
Don’t worry, we’re all guilty of scrolling through Netflix to play a show as we’re eating, or grabbing a bite on the go and rushing our meals. But focusing on the plate of food in front of you can reverse the negative effects it has on our gut health. Mindful eating can reduce stress and here’s how to practise it:
- Notice when you’re hungry – don’t reach for the fridge simply because you’re bored – and look at what you’re putting inside your body. Think about how healthy the food is, or not.
- Switch off all distractions.
- Smell the food on your plate and allow yourself to salivate – it releases amylase, an enzyme that aids digestion.
- Chew slowly and thoroughly.
- Focus on how your meal is making you feel.
- Stop when you notice you’re full (this will also help you limit yourself to your usual portions to avoid overeating)
If you think about it, it’s all simple really. We just need discipline 🙂