We know that when we eat well, we feel better. And yet we don’t always appreciate the link between the food we eat and our mood and behavior. Did you know that 95% of our body's supply of the neurotransmitter serotonin is manufactured in the digestive tract? In fact, our digestive system is often referred to as the body’s “second brain.” If we can improve imbalances in our gut, we can clear the way for a healthier, happier frame of mind.
Here are some tips to help improve your mood, starting with an important foundation for health—the food we eat.
1. Eat regularly to stabilize blood sugars
When we go too long without eating, our blood sugar level fluctuate which can translate to mood swings for some people. Try eating 5 small meals at regular intervals throughout the day (instead of 3 large meals) comprised of protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates to help avoid that “hangry” feeling.
2. Limit sugar and refined carbs
Large amounts of added sugar (which can be found in foods like soda, cookies, and cakes) may increase levels of chemicals that can lead to inflammation. High sugar intake may also lead to irritability, brain fog, and fatigue.
The body processes refined carbohydrates similarly to sugars, so the same principles apply. Pay attention to how your mood shifts after a day of eating well versus after a day when you’ve eaten high amounts of sugar and/or refined carbs. As for me, I find that I’m irritable, anxious, and melancholic when I overindulge in these foods.
3. Nourish intestinal flora
A number of studies have demonstrated that there is a close link between intestinal flora and neural development, emotional behavior, and other central nervous system responses. It turns out that a balanced gut may have important influences on brain chemistry, transmitting mood- and behavior-regulating signals to your brain. In animal studies, the consumption of foods high in probiotics (like fermented foods, vegetables, and probiotic supplements) has been shown to strengthen healthy intestinal flora leading to decreases in depression and anxiety.
4. Identify food sensitivities and allergies
The nervous system regulates mood and emotional reactivity, among other functions—but when we have a food sensitivity, our nervous system can become inflamed and over-stimulated. This can result in feeling of being out of control, anxious, cranky, and/or sad. Psychological signs of food sensitivities include erratic behavior (extreme tantrums and agitation, in the case of my toddler), anger, rage, inexplicable sadness, and anxiety.
Work with a health coach, naturopath, or medical doctor familiar with food sensitivities to help you assess potential food sensitivities in your family and develop a plan to heal your intestinal integrity, immune system, and microflora.
5. Get sufficient vitamin D
Research shows that the lower a person’s level of vitamin D, the greater his or her risk for depression. The simplest way to keep your levels in the healthy range is by getting proper sun exposure, but including vitamin D-rich foods like eggs, milk, salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines in your diet is also a good idea. To get adequate vitamin D from sun exposure, a practical strategy is to spend ten to fifteen minutes per day outside before applying sunscreen.
6. Focus on omega-3 fatty acids
Low omega-3 levels have been linked with depression, pessimism, and impulsiveness. We can get essential omega-3 fatty acids in seafood, walnuts, leafy greens, flaxseed, and chia seed, among other foods. Countries with diets rich in fish coincidently (or not) have lower rates of depression, bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, and suicide.
It can be difficult to get enough omega-3 fatty acids in a typical American diet, so many folks choose to take a supplement of the fatty acid. If you or your child is struggling with depression or anxiety it is worth working with a health professional versed in omega-3 supplementation to direct therapeutic dosing.
With the holidays and the new year right around the corner, this is a perfect time of year to nourish your intestinal health, stabilize your mood through holiday stress, and start the New Year off right. Give even one of these strategies a try and see how it impacts your frame of mind!
Sarah Kolman is the mom of three boys, a Registered Nurse, an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, and has a master's degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy. Her private practice as a health coach blends her experience and career as a nurse with her passion for nutrition and holistic wellness. She is the author of Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family's Whole Health in a Busy World.