Most of us are well aware that what we eat has an impact on how we feel physically, but too few of us dine with a thought to how the foods on our plate influence the thoughts in our head. Your food and your mood are intrinsically linked. Nutritional psychiatry is a real thing.
This modern medical practice reconfirms some of the more ancient ones. The traditional medical practices of China, Korea, and India—dating back more than three thousand years—recognize the connection between food and mood and prescribe food regimens accordingly. Current research shows similar connections. The correlations between diet and memory, diet and stress, diet and anxiety, diet and behavior are finding more support in the scientific community.
In fact, in the last few years, the enteric nervous system, that bodily system that governs the function of the gastrointestinal tract, has come to be referred to as the body’s second brain. Researchers say nerve cells of the enteric nervous system are bathed and influenced by the same neurotransmitters as those of the brain. They send and receive impulses, record experience and respond to emotions in much the same way as the brain. As it turns out “gut feelings” and “gut reactions” are not just metaphorical. The “gut brain,” supports cells that allow us to learn, remember, and act independently.
Here’s an example: “Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain. 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.” (http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626)
Though research on just how the gastrointestinal tract affects psychological well-being in humans is still a very new field of study, it is becoming clear that the balance of bacteria in the gut (i.e.: the food you eat) is a significant contributor to your mood.
In other words, you really are what you eat. What we eat alters the composition of our intestinal flora. It has been shown that those who eat high-vegetable, fiber-based diets have a different gut composition than those who eat a diet that is high in fat and carbohydrates. (http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/06/20/gut-brain-connection.aspx) Foods high in refined flours and sugars feed the harmful, abnormal bacteria and microbes in the gut. A diet containing too much of these foods allows these abnormal microbes to thrive, thus weakening healthy, beneficial bacteria. Too much fat or sugar over long periods of time may result in permanent consequences for brain function.
But the good news is that you have control over what you eat and dietary changes can cause changes in brain structure (both chemically and physiologically), which can lead to behavioral changes. You can eat for happiness or calm or better test-taking skills.
Here is a list of mood-boosting foods to get your started (adapted from 7 Foods to Boost Your Mood Naturally (www.eatingwell.com/nutrition_health/mind_body_spirit_center/7_foods_to_boost_your_mood_naturally):
Chocolate – Rich in antioxidants, dark chocolate has been shown to reduce stress hormones, including cortisol.
Carbs – High-quality carbs such as whole grains, fruit, and beans promote the production of serotonin.
Fruits & Veggies – The antioxidants in fruits and vegetables are associated with lower risk of depression. And Folate, a B vitamin found in beans, citrus, and dark green vegetables like spinach, affects some of the neurotransmitters that impact mood.
Omega-3 – The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, walnuts, and flaxseed alter dopamine and serotonin in the brain.
Saffron – Some studies show that saffron has antidepressant qualities comparable to those of Prozac.
Tea – The amino acid, theanine, present in black and green tea, works with caffeine to improve focus and attention.