We all know that healthy eating helps our physical condition. But it can help our emotional condition, too. That’s because the brain and digestive system work together to regulate our wellness. “The brain has an effect on the way the gut absorbs food, and the gut has an effect on the way the brain functions,” says Gold’s Gym Wellness Director Connie Cheng. “The gut and brain have a symbiotic relationship.”
Good digestive health helps the body monitor a range of responses, from bolstering the immune system to releasing dopamine, the chemical that can affect our motivation.
“This whole brain–gut connection is why people need to look at their diet to help with how they feel and how they deal with stress,” Cheng says.
Foods that feed the mind
The four categories of nutrients below have been proven to have positive effects on emotional health. Just keep in mind that food isn’t medicine, and eating these foods won’t instantly make you feel better. “The name of the game is regularity and consistency,” Cheng says. “It’s about how often you include a variety of these foods.” She suggests a goal of having two or three of these foods every day. Many of the examples below are also considered extremely beneficial because they are packed with nutrients.
- Vitamin B6: pistachios, garlic, salmon, tuna, chicken, spinach, cabbage, bananas, sweet potatoes, avocados, whole grains (barley, faro, whole wheat, couscous, quinoa)
- DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid that can help prevent heart disease): wild salmon, oysters, anchovies, mackerel, mussels, hemp seeds, flax seeds, walnuts
- Prebiotics (special plant fibers that help good bacteria grow in your digestive system): onions, asparagus, artichokes, garlic, bananas, oats
- Probiotics (good bacteria that help keep your body working smoothly): yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, fermented vegetables
Cheng also suggests looking at the label when buying probiotics. Foods with probiotics are an acquired taste, so many manufacturers will add a lot of sugar to make them taste better. Pick foods with less added sugar.
Changing the mood
Food is just one of many factors that can affect your mood, but it’s a factor you can control. Here’s a list of different negative moods and the nutritional factors that could be playing a role in how you feel.
- Inadequate calories. Your cells could be literally starving. If you’re on a keto diet, for instance, or operating at a calorie deficit, your body is adjusting to fueling itself in different ways.
- Irregular eating intervals. If you’re not eating at regular intervals, your blood sugar might be spiking up and down every time you eat.
- Excessive amounts of highly processed food. Some ingredients in processed foods, such as trans fats, increase the shelf life of products but also create feelings of low energy and sluggishness.
- Insulin imbalance. Certain foods make your blood sugar spike more than others. Soda, for instance, might seem like a pick-me-up but actually spikes your insulin levels.
- Skimping on foods that build dopamine. There are many foods that are essential to increasing dopamine, including fish, poultry, eggs, leafy greens and legumes. When you don’t eat enough of those foods, your focus and feelings of happiness can suffer.
- Lack of omega-3 fatty acids. If you feel stressed frequently, a lack of omega-3s could be making those feelings worse.
- Deficient in magnesium. You don’t need a lot of magnesium, but when you lack it, your sleep might suffer, and sleep is essential for good health. Foods high in magnesium include pumpkin seeds, almonds, sunflower seeds and spinach.