Your brain on food

For Mental Health Month 2021, we're publishing a series of articles on simple things you can do at home to help destress and deal with anxiety, plus improve your mood. For for on Mental Health Month, visit the Mental Health America website.

Kelly used to be what she called a “closet eater”. The 47-year-old said she would pass up the donuts and cupcakes at the frequent workplace meetings and celebrations, but later “rewarded” herself with cookies and sugar-laden treats at home. Kelly, who suffered depression at the time, says the treats gave her a “two-minute lift, then hours of hateful regret”.

What Kelly didn’t realize at the time was that reaching for sweet treats wasn’t just bringing her regret – the connection between sugary food and her mood may have been even stronger.

While it’s widely understood that nutrition plays a key role in physical health, it directly affects emotional well-being too.

Your brain is always “on”. As the control center of your body, it keeps your heart beating and your lungs breathing, and allows you to move, feel and think. This means it requires a constant supply of fuel. This fuel comes from the food we eat, so it makes sense that what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.

The burgeoning field of nutritional psychiatry is finding many correlations between not only what you eat, how you feel, and how you ultimately behave, but also the kinds of bacteria that live in your gut.

The neurotransmitter serotonin is considered a natural mood stabilizer, and low levels are often linked to depression. Since about 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, and your gastrointestinal tract is lined with a hundred million nerve cells, or neurons, it makes sense that the inner workings of your digestive system don’t just help you digest food but also guide your emotions.

Eating healthy food like vegetables, fruit and oily fish promotes the growth of “good” bacteria, which in turn positively affects neurotransmitter production. A steady diet of junk food, on the other hand, can cause inflammation that hampers production. When neurotransmitter production is in good shape, your brain receives these positive messages loud and clear, and your emotions reflect it. But when production goes awry, so might your mood.

It may take days or week before you start to feel the mood-boosting effects of a better diet, depending on the changes you implement. But as Kelly discovered, it can happen. Over time, healthy eating, along with regular exercise and medication, helped her overcome depression. "As I repeatedly made healthier food choices, I noted my body responding more favorably," she says. "That gave me the inspiration to continue."


This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other healthcare provider with any questions you have regarding a medical condition or treatment, or before starting a new healthcare regimen and never disregard medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you've read on this website.

Source: 

U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at DietaryGuidelines.gov

https://www.sutterhealth.org/health/nutrition/eating-well-for-mental-health


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