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Food for Your Mood

Most of our body's happy hormones come from our gut. Liam Duke briefly explores the lesser-known link between the digestive system and the mind and what foods could help promote a greater sense of well-being.


Nutrition is a more complex issue than this article could possibly let on. Therefore, bear in mind that despite looking at recent evidence, the intricacies of this article are not exhaustive. Individual idiosyncrasies determine what foods are ideal for you and your brain, so some suggestions may not apply to you or your tastes. In this article I aim to explore the interwoven links between food and mood that are seldom talked about. The last thing I want to do is to attempt to tell you what you can and can’t eat. Everything in moderation after all. Now that’s clear… let’s get started!


(Left) Image of Woman from Unsplash. (Right) Image of a Woman eating Pizza inside a vehicle from Unsplash. Image Credit: @gbarkz.


Gut and the Brain

 

Food and emotions clearly have a bidirectional relationship. This means the food you eat affects your mood and vice-versa. A negative mood can prompt you to eat more low-quality foods, over-eat, or even engage in restrictive eating. Why does this happen? This is because the brain and the gut have a direct communication pathway, known as the Gut-Brain-Axis, which connects the walls of the intestine to the stress and emotional parts of the brain.


(Left) A Purple and green round textile of microbes from Unsplash. (Right) Gut-brain axis from Wikimedia Commons.


The interconnectedness between the intestine and the brain is thought to contribute to the development of certain mental disorders via imbalances of gut bacteria (also known as: microbiomes, microflora, microbiota), a crucial sign of digestive health. However, it is unclear whether the imbalance is due to mental health-caused poor diet choices or if the dysfunctional microbiomes precede the pathogenesis and behavioural manifestation of said disorders.

 

Although, evidence seems to suggest the latter. Studies have found that varying gut flora soon after birth influences the development of neural stress systems for your entire life, long before poor diet choices can even be made. Nevertheless, it makes a lot of sense that these areas are so interlinked, since food has always been a matter of life or death. From our primordial ‘cave-dwelling’ ancestors fighting tooth and nail against beasts for their next meal, to modern times where wars are fought over land to grow more food, we ought to be mindful of what we put in our bodies as our brains will surely notice!


Feeding your little critters - how chocolate can be good for you!

 

How does it work?

 

As mentioned, the balance of these critters (gut bacteria) residing in our guts is crucial - especially considering we have more of them in us than cells! Lucky for us we can actively help foster these healthy bacteria to flourish and promote their positive effects. Prebiotics are foods high in fibre that help to feed our microbiomes and Probiotics are essentially doses of food that contain live cultures of helpful microorganisms that join your beneficial biotic battalion. Probiotic bacteria feed off prebiotics and produce postbiotics, substances that are helpful in digestion and absorption.

 

Besides a swathe of physical health benefits, such as regulating immune responses, reducing chronic inflammation and decreasing the production of cancer and inflammation-causing metabolic byproducts known as free radicals, probiotic supplements can have a range of emotional benefits too!


A study in 2019, found that the consumption of probiotic supplements for six weeks led to a reduction in depressive states, anger, fatigue, and improvements in sleep quality. Another study found supplementing probiotics reduces anxiety. A proposed mechanism for this is that healthy gut bacteria lowers the number of enzymes that transform an amino acid, tryptophan, into kynurenine - instead facilitating the increased production of serotonin (the ‘happy’ hormone!). Serotonin travels to the brain from the gut via the Gut-Brain-Axis and helps to improve your mood, in theory, anyway. It could be suggested that these probiotics have a synergistic relationship with medications, as probiotics help to produce more serotonin and common SSRI antidepressants make serotonin linger in the brain for longer.

 

So, what should you eat for a better mood?

 

Prebiotic foods include asparagus, bananas, barley, garlic, tomatoes and whole grain wheat - really most things that are high in fibre. Common probiotic foods you can add to your meals include Kimchi, Greek yoghurt, Kefir, Pickles, or Kombucha - often fermented foodstuffs.


(Left) Ritter Sport Dark Chocolate. Image Credit Wikimedia Commons. (Right) A table topped with food and pickles. Image Credit: Unsplash.


Dark chocolate is considered a high-fibre prebiotic too - it is made from beans after all. It has been demonstrated in humans and rodents to increase beneficial bacteria and reduce illness-causing germs in the gut. Eating dark chocolate has been associated with lower depressive symptoms and negative mood, through this increased diversity of the gut microbiota. Additionally, chocolate contains the ingredient for serotonin known as tryptophan, further indicating its usefulness as a mood improver.

 

Even though other probiotic sources may be more concentrated, such as kefir or Greek yoghurt, dark chocolate can be a nice treat too. Especially if you’re not a big fan of the other probiotic foods as some are surely better than none! Being overly strict about healthy diets can dampen our moods and diminish our mental well-being, so don’t be afraid to treat yourself! Your brain will thank you! It is important to note that we are NOT urging you to replace any therapeutic medications with probiotics, instead perhaps as a supplement to your normal diet in addition to medication or a treat here and there.

 

So, why not have a gander at Wild Magazine’s very own recipes? We have foods high in prebiotics such as our chocolate chip cookie recipe, Fluffy Chocolate & Blueberry Banana Cake, or Banana bread. Or ones high in probiotics such as Our Vegan Tofu scrambled egg.


Women sharing a meal. Image Credit: Unsplash.


So, as a whole, feel free to experiment with adding different pro and prebiotic ingredients to dishes, as everyone’s gut microbiota and tastes are different. And maybe invite a friend over for a meal, as eating socially also helps your mood! Have fun with it!

 

About the Author: Liam is a 3rd Year Psychology Student at University of York, who likes making art in their free time.

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