The link between nutrition and mental health.
There are countless ways in which our nutrition affects us and the lives we live. One of these, and perhaps the most important, is how our food choices affect our mental health. There is a clear link between how we fuel ourselves and how we think, feel, and function. Two of our body’s systems are particularly important in this process and directly affect one another: The brain and the gut.
Since the brain is responsible for our thoughts, movement, breathing, heartbeat, senses, and so much more, it works hard and constantly to keep us functioning. Since it never stops, our brain requires an adequate amount of high-quality fuel in order to function fully and properly.
High-quality fuel, in this case, includes foods that contain high levels of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that nourish it and protect it. Not only is our brain’s function dependent on our fuel intake, but its literal structure and makeup are affected by what we take in, as these physical building blocks are made up of the food we eat. I
n other words- You truly are what you eat. For this reason, it makes sense that if we fuel our brains with things that do not provide the right materials it needs to sustain and perform like it was created to, we begin to feel the effects of a brain that is functioning at a less than optimal rate. Not to mention the rest of our body systems that are affected in the same way.
More and more research has been done to observe the connection between the brain and the system we know as the gut. The gut, sometimes known as the “second brain,” includes all organs involved in digesting food and creating waste- the esophagus and stomach, small and large intestines, gallbladder, liver, and pancreas.
This gastrointestinal tract is home to a hundred million nerve cells and is believed to house 95% of our serotonin receptor sites- a neurotransmitter that helps keep our sleep, appetite, moods, and pain regulation in balance. The function of these neurons and production of chemicals like serotonin is significantly influenced by the billions of good bacteria contained in our intestinal microbiome.
These play a vital role in our physical, emotional, and- you guessed it- mental health. This is done by protecting against bad bacteria, limiting inflammation, improving food absorption, and activating neural pathways that travel from the brain to the gut.
Because there is such a direct link between our gut and mental health, it is vital that we look out for potential warning signs of an unhealthy gut and ensure we are doing all we can to keep it happy and healthy, and to therefore help keep our mood regulated. Some signs of an unhealthy gut might be:
Stomach discomfort: Gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and heartburn can be signs of an unhealthy gut. A balanced gut will have less difficulty processing food and eliminating waste.
Fatigue: An unhealthy gut may contribute to sleep disturbances such as insomnia or poor sleep, leading to chronic fatigue. As mentioned above, most of the body’s serotonin, which affects mood and sleep, is produced in the gut. So gut damage can impair your ability to sleep well.
Food cravings: A diet high in processed foods and added sugars can decrease the number of good bacteria in your gut. This imbalance can cause increased sugar cravings, which can damage your gut still further. High amounts of refined sugars, particularly high-fructose corn syrup, have been linked to increased inflammation in the body.
Unintentional Weight Changes: Gaining or losing weight without changing your diet or exercise habits may be a sign of an unhealthy gut. An imbalanced gut can impair your body’s ability to absorb nutrients, regulate blood sugar, and store fat.
Allergies: Research has found that an unhealthy gut can play a complex role in allergic conditions, including allergies, food allergies, and skin allergies. The gut microbiome may influence nutrition, skin, and even the lungs! Food intolerances result from difficulty digesting certain foods (this is different from a food allergy, which is caused by an immune system reaction to certain foods). It’s thought that the poor quality of bacteria may cause food intolerances in the gut.
Mood Issues: There is a well-documented link between the gut and the brain and the influence the gut can extend on your mood. A study found that gut disturbances and inflammation in the central nervous system may be potential causes of anxiety and depression.
If you’d like to experiment with nutritional habits on your own, you can start by paying attention to how eating different foods makes you feel. Try eating a “clean” diet for a few weeks that only consists of whole, unprocessed foods and see how you feel. Then, slowly introduce foods back into your diet and see what changes you notice in your mood, processing, and mental clarity!
Below you will find some additional resources for understanding the Gut-Brain Connection:
Be sure to reach out to us today if you feel like your nutrition and gut health may be some of the cause of other underlying issues you may be having. Sometimes when we take care of a very practical physiological issue, it allows our mind the capacity to catch up and process life’s big stressors in a much easier way.
The Made Well Team