As much as some of us tend to live in our heads, the fact is that we aren’t disconnected at the neck. What’s good for our bodies is good for our minds, and vice versa. Research shows that what you eat — and whether you’re eating regularly — can affect your mood. And I’m not just talking about when you get “hangry,” that fun combination of hunger and anger or similar emotions.
What we eat — and, again, whether we’re eating enough — can affect not just your body, but your mind, and your moods. Let’s stick with “hanger” for a moment. When your blood sugar drops because you’ve gone too long without eating, your brain responds to these low fuel levels by triggering shifts in your nervous system, your hormones — including the stress-related hormones cortisol and adrenaline — and your emotions. While any overly hungry person can experience hanger, you’re more likely to become hangry when you’re also in a negative situation — like feeling frustrated when you’re at the grocery store after work and the person reaching to grab something in front of you has their face mask pulled down below their chin.
Looking beyond hanger, scientists have known for years about the gut-brain axis, which links the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with intestinal functions. This connection is clear when stress or anger causes your stomach to “be tied up in knots” or you have “a gut feeling.”
Evidence suggests that your gut microbiota interacts with both your gut and your brain to the point where it’s been called the “peacekeeper” between the two. Your gut microbiota is the 100 trillion bacteria and other microbes that live in your intestine, mostly your large intestine. Studies have found that the gut microbiota influences brain chemistry, which can affect whether we struggle with anxiety and depression. One reason is that the microbiota ferments some of the fiber we eat, and the byproducts of that fermentation can trigger production of the natural mood stabilizer serotonin, most of which is stored in the cells in the wall of our intestines.
That’s why a diet rich in whole plant foods, along with probiotic-rich fermented foods, may support body and mood by supporting a diverse gut microbiota. A 2013 study randomized 36 healthy women to one of three groups: probiotic yogurt, nonfermented milk product with no probiotics, or no yogurt or milk products. After four weeks, brain scans indicated that the women who ate the probiotic-rich yogurt twice a day had less of a negative emotional response when shown photos of people who were angry, sad or fearful. A 2015 study found that a diet high in fiber from whole grains, vegetables and whole fruit was associated with a lower risk of depression in postmenopausal women.
Research published in 2017 from the SMILES trial found that a Mediterranean-style diet, which is rich in vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes and seafood, appeared to help ease symptoms of depression. In this small study, 67 people with depression — most of whom were undergoing treatment with medication and therapy — were randomly assigned to receive 12 weeks of either Mediterranean diet coaching or non-food-related social support. The Mediterranean diet group saw a greater improvement in depression symptoms compared with the other group. I mention this study with some caution, because its results may be due to the placebo effect. In other words, if the people who received the Mediterranean diet coaching already believed that food improves mood, their symptom improvement could simply have been a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Research has found that people with depression and anxiety tend to have lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood. Although much more research is needed, it appears that increasing intake of these healthy fats, found in fatty fish like wild Alaskan salmon, Atlantic mackerel and sardines, may help reduce symptoms. So can the essential amino acid tryptophan, found in many protein-rich foods, including eggs, dairy, soy foods, turkey, salmon, nuts and seeds. Tryptophan-containing foods also prompt our gut microbes to stimulate serotonin production.
All that said, there are many factors that influence health, and food is just one of them. While what’s good for the body is often good for the mind — in terms of both mental health and cognitive health — that doesn’t mean food is medicine. If you are struggling with anxiety or depression — and many more of us are due to pandemic-related stress — you may need actual medicine, along with mental health counseling. A nourishing diet with nutrients that support brain health can support formal treatment, but it’s not a stand-alone option.
When served with yogurt, muesli contains fiber, fermented dairy, tryptophan, and plant-based omega-3 fats (if you include walnuts, chia seeds or flaxseeds). You can use a variety of nuts and seeds and dried fruits or simplify and just add one of each. For serving, use fresh fruit (berries, chopped apples or pears, etc.) or defrost some frozen berries.
- 4 cups rolled oats and/or other rolled grains
- 1½ cups nuts and/or seeds
- ½ cups dried fruit
- Plain yogurt and fresh/frozen fruit (for serving)
- Chop nuts (if using) and any larger dried fruits (apricots, dates, figs, etc.).
- In a sealable container, combine the grains, nuts/seeds and dried fruit and mix.
- To use as a cold cereal, combine 1 part muesli with 2 parts plain yogurt (Greek or regular), and stir to combine. Allow to sit for at least 10 minutes, or refrigerate overnight for a quick breakfast in the morning. Add fresh fruit and serve.