Marissa Mekelburg Functional Medicine Dietitian
Mood Food: Cultivating Mental Health Via Gut Health
Have you ever been feeling stressed, sad or bored and found yourself in the kitchen looking for a snack? I think we’re all familiar with how our mood affects our food choices. When we’re feeling down or stressed we may crave highly processed and sugary snacks (12).
Here is what might surprise you: the relationship between food and mood works both ways.
Not only does your mood influence your food choices, but your food choices can also affect how you feel! In this blog post, I’m going to take a closer look at how the nutrients from food influence your gut, brain, and ultimately your mood!
And if you're new here: welcome! My name is Marissa Mekelburg MS, RDN, CLT, HHP and I am a functional nutrition dietitian who specializes in digestive health.
Let’s take a look at how mood, food, and digestive health are all tied together.
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How Can Your Food Choices Affect Your Mood?
Did you know that the nutrients from the food you eat has a big impact on your mood and emotions?
One direct way that our nutrients impact our mental health is through our neurotransmitters; those chemical messengers in your brain.
Serotonin and dopamine are both examples of neurotransmitters that help to regulate your mood and emotions (17). They’ve even been dubbed the “feel-good hormones” because that’s what they do!
Your mood can also be negatively impacted by foods that impair gut health. For example, having a lot of heavily processed foods and too much sugar cause inflammation and can make your mood worse. Processed foods are missing a lot of vitamins and minerals you need and this can impact your mental health.
Let’s take a look at some of the vitamins and minerals deficiencies that can have an impact on how you feel
Nutrient Deficiencies that Worsen Mood
Let’s explore three nutrients that can really make your mood take a dive if you’re too low, starting with the sunshine vitamin, Vitamin D.
Vitamin D helps your body release neurotransmitters including dopamine and serotonin (remember those feel-good hormones?). Several studies have shown that correcting low levels of Vitamin D can help to improve symptoms of depression (16).
Food sources of vitamin D include (18):
● Grass-fed butter
● Fatty fish
● Egg yolks
● Fermented cod liver oil
B vitamins help your body to make and regulate the levels of those feel-good hormones, dopamine, and serotonin (5).
In particular, low levels of folate, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6 have been linked to an increased risk of depression (6,7).
Food sources of B12 include (19):
● Lean meat
● Dairy products
● Fortified nutritional yeast and some fortified cereals
Food sources of folate include (20):
● Dark green leafy vegetables
● Nuts, Beans, and legumes
● Fruits (especially oranges and orange juice)
● Beef liver
Food sources of B6 include (21):
● Beef liver
Like vitamin D, magnesium is involved in regulating the release of dopamine and serotonin. People who are depressed tend to have lower levels of magnesium (8).
Food sources of magnesium include (22):
● Nuts and seeds
● Whole grains
● Fish (salmon, halibut)
Your vitamin and mineral intake is one important part of how food & mood are linked. Did you know that 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract? As a digestive health dietitian, you know I want to talk about how your gut ties into this!
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Why Gut Health Matters
If serotonin is coming from your digestive tract, then it’s not hard to believe that the food you eat will have a direct impact on how you feel and your mood.
Your GI tract and your brain communicate through a system referred to as the Gut-Brain-Axis (GBA). Think of it like a back-and-forth conversation between your brain and your intestine. Have you ever been nervous and felt butterflies and then suddenly had to run to the bathroom? That’s your GBA at work!
Your GBA has a few different communication pathways. One is through hormones and neurotransmitters that are produced by the bacteria living in your gut - amazing! That means having the right type of bacteria ensures that your brain is getting the best messages and your mood is good, too.
On the flip side, having too much of the wrong type of bacteria can increase stress, inflammation, and feelings of grumpiness and sadness (12).
Having the wrong mixture of bacteria in your digestive tract is called dysbiosis.
Your digestive health is changing all of the time. When we feel good, and we eat well, our microbiome sends messages back to our brain that continue to make us feel good.
But it can also become a negative spiral; we feel bad and then we crave processed and high-sugar foods. These foods then lead to dysbiosis and inflammation which leads to depression and anxiety (3).
If you have dysbiosis, you may also be dealing with a leaky gut. A really common question I get from clients is how long it takes to heal leaky gut. It isn’t a short journey, but I explain exactly what to expect here: How Long Does It Take to Heal Leaky Gut?
In my experience helping people to improve their digestive health, we have been able to resolve many different symptoms that will influence how you feel, including:
● Restlessness, nervousness, inability to relax
● Feeling overwhelmed by small things
● Emotional outbursts, anger, or crying frequently
The Gut-Brain-Axis and how it affects your brain and emotions has been the focus of a lot of research. Studies have shown that improving your gut microbiome can improve many symptoms that directly affect your mood including:
Headaches: Treating digestive diseases like IBS, celiac disease, and helicobacter pylori infection can lead to improvements in migraine headaches (1).
Insomnia: Did you know that your gut microbes have a circadian rhythm just like you do? The changes in bacteria and their byproducts throughout the day can affect your sleep-wake cycle. There has even been research completed that shows sleep deprivation and shift work changes your gut bacteria (15).
Sex Drive: Your microbiome can positively and negatively regulate sex hormone levels (2).
Weight gain: Think about the cycle, gut bacteria affect food cravings which leads to inflammation and more food cravings (12).
Depression: Optimizing your microbiome can improve feelings of depression and anxiety (3).
Memory, cognitive function, and attention have all been linked to the gut microbiome. (15, 14)
With all of those benefits of having a healthy gut, let’s talk about how to cultivate your gut health with a few specific habits. We’ll call these good-mood foods.
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All of the nutrients discussed in this section can improve your gut health and your mood.
Let’s start with the heavy-weight star: Omega-3 fatty acids!
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are an integral part of your central nervous system. Did you know that 60% of your brain is fat (23)? Omega 3 fatty acids make up an important part of the cells in your brain and they affect how your brain sends information with the neurotransmitters we keep talking about.
Important to note, anyone who has a low intake of omega-3 fatty acids has a higher risk of anxiety and depression (24).
Several studies have shown that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids may improve depression, anxiety, and inflammation (4).
Practice pearl: ideally, we prefer omega-3s from fish, not plants like walnuts or chia seeds. The specific omega-3 fat that boosts your brain is called DHA (or docosahexaenoic acid). In food, DHA comes from fatty fish. Aim to have 2-3 servings of fatty fish every week.
Although you can get omega 3’s from vegetarian sources like walnuts, your body is not very good at converting those other omega-3s into the DHA form that is most useful.
Tryptophan is an amino acid and a precursor to serotonin. Tryptophan can help with mild to moderate depression, and feelings of irritability (9).
And while I’m a “food first” dietitian, tryptophan may be a case for considering a supplement; more of the research here has linked supplemental tryptophan to the benefits in mood than the food sources. However, the foods that have tryptophan are certainly healthy and worth incorporating on a regular basis.
Food sources of tryptophan include:
● Whole milk
● Canned tuna
● Nuts and seeds
There are 2 ways that dietary fiber can help to improve your mood. Fiber helps improve your gut microbiome by feeding the good bacteria that make serotonin. Fiber also helps to control your blood sugar.
When you eat foods that are high in fiber, food travels more slowly through your digestive tract. This helps to prevent large swings in blood sugar that can leave us feeling tired and grumpy.
Foods high in fiber include:
● Vegetables and Fruit
● Beans and legumes
● Whole grains
● Nuts and Seeds
Probiotic foods naturally contain the mood-boosting bacteria we want. Probiotics can lower your risk of depression and anxiety (27).
You can find probiotics in fermented foods including:
● Unsweetened yogurt
What about supplements?
I know what you’re thinking - with all these nutrients that can affect my mood - why don’t I just take supplements? If you have an identified nutrient deficiency, then yes, supplements may be an important part of correcting the problem.
If you rely on supplements alone to meet all your micronutrient requirements - then what are you eating? We know that eating a whole foods diet that is high in fiber will help the good bacteria in your gut to thrive AND it will provide the key nutrients discussed.
If you take supplements but rely on highly processed foods, you will still be fueling the wrong type of bacteria in your gut. Think of it like being on a sinking boat. You could use a bucket to start bailing the water in the beginning, but eventually, if you don’t fix the root cause - the boat is still going to sink.
Even More Gut Health & Mood Boosters
Food isn’t the only thing to consider if you’re looking at lifestyle options to improve your mood.
Bright light increases serotonin production and helps to reduce feelings of depression (9).
Exercise (particularly aerobic exercise) improves mood (9). I’m sure you’ve heard of the runner’s high. Don’t worry! You don’t have to run a marathon to get the mood-boosting effects of exercise.
Choose something you enjoy and build on what you can already do. Examples of aerobic exercise include walking, hiking, biking, and swimming. Added bonus if you can get a bit of exercise outside in the bright light!
Hydration: I’m sure you’re not surprised to see this one on the list! There isn’t a cell in your body that doesn’t depend on water and your brain is no exception.
Aim for half your bodyweight in ounces of water daily. If you find it difficult to drink water in the colder weather, a warm cup of caffeine-free herbal tea will also give your body the fluid it needs.
Mindfulness, meditation, prayer, yoga and even spending time with family and friends are all ways to reduce stress. Remember how stress affects your gut microbiome?
Sleep: Who doesn’t feel great after a good night’s sleep? Studies have shown that even small amounts of sleep deprivation increase feelings of irritability, sadness, and stress. (26)
To get the rest you need, practice good sleep hygiene by:
● Going to bed by 10:00 pm
● Avoiding electronic devices 2 hrs before bed (or use blue-light-blocking glasses)
● Keep your bedroom cool and dark with minimal electronics
● Don’t eat too close to going to bed
If you want more information on improving sleep, be sure to check out my blog post on sleep here: Do Pistachios Help You Sleep? Yes!
Wow! That was a lot of information! The good news is that following general guidelines for eating healthy will provide all the nutrients we discussed above. To ensure you are getting everything you need to feel good AND to help promote a healthy gut microbiome:
● Choose whole grains
● Eat a variety of vegetables and fruit including green leafy vegetables
● Include nuts and seeds
● Choose lean protein
● Have fatty fish 2-3 times per week
● Try adding fermented foods daily
● Limit highly processed foods and added sugar
The relationship between food and your mood is complicated! If your gut health has been compromised by your lifestyle, it can be a long road to recovery…and a good mood!
If you are ready for a personalized plan to improve your mood, I am here to help.
As a functional nutrition dietitian, I can order the specialized lab testing to identify the root causes of your symptoms and with a clear understanding of your health, I can create a personalized anti-inflammatory diet to restore your gut microbiome to balance. If you want to break the cycle of feeling down, schedule a discovery session with me and let’s talk!