Eating to support your digestive system has benefits for both body and mind.
The fact that your brain and your digestive system — or gut — talk to each other isn’t news to scientists, nor is the fact that diet plays a role in depression, anxiety and resilience to stress. But as researchers learn more about the population of bacteria and other microbes in our guts — the gut microbiota — it appears the health of the microbiota affects mood. This could mean that eating to support gut health has benefits for both body and mind.
Communication between your gut and your brain is a two-way street, which is why the expressions, “I had a gut feeling” and “my stomach was tied up in knots” aren’t just expressions. Your gut microbes can influence what messages get sent to your brain, potentially affecting sleep, anxiety levels and well-being. When you are in a good mood after a healthful meal, and cranky after a heavy, greasy meal, your microbes are probably to thank — or blame.
So far, most of the research about how the gut microbiota affects mood has been done in animals. But one 2013 study randomized 36 healthy women to one of three groups. One group ate yogurt rich in probiotic bacteria twice a day. A second group ate a nonfermented milk product that contained no probiotics. A third group received no yogurt or milk products.
After four weeks, brain scans indicated that the women who ate the probiotic-rich yogurt remained calmer when shown pictures of people who were angry, sad or fearful.
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Another study, published last year in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that a diet high in refined carbohydrates (added sugars and white flour) increases the risk of depression in postmenopausal women, while a diet high in fiber from whole grains, vegetables and whole fruit was associated with a lower risk of depression.
Want to tweak your food for better moods? Here are six tips:
1. Reduce highly processed foods. Most highly processed foods contain ingredients that may not be gut-friendly. If a food comes in a package, ask yourself if the ingredients resemble things you would use in your own kitchen. If not, then you might want to pass on it.
2. Make plant foods the majority of your plate. Plant foods like vegetables, fruit, whole grains and pulses (beans and lentils) contain prebiotic fiber, aka good food for your gut microbiota. This can help make your good gut ecosystem more robust and diverse — and that’s exactly what you want.
3. Reduce animal fat. Research suggests that diets high in animal fats have unfavorable effects on the gut microbiota. Opt for fish, skinless poultry and lean meats. When eating full-fat dairy, go for fermented forms like yogurt, kefir or quality cheese.
4. Eat more fermented foods. This includes foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh and kombucha, provided that they still contain live, active cultures (aka probiotic bacteria). If a fermented food is shelf-stable, then it’s been pasteurized, which kills off the probiotics. Many fermented foods also contain prebiotic fiber, so you get extra benefit.
5.Avoid eating when you are angry, stressed or sad. When your head is under stress, so is your gut, so eating under these conditions can make the situation worse — especially if you tend to turn to less-healthy comfort foods.
6.Give your gut a rest. Go at least 12 hours without eating overnight to give your gut a chance to clean house.