Why is it that we tend to feel our emotions in our gut? That “sinking feeling” when something bad happens, the “knot in your stomach” when you are worried, the “heartburn” associated with stress or anxiety. Is this just a nervous response, or is our gut really sensing our emotions? We spoke with Leah Mandley, vice president of behavioral health at CoreLife Healthcare to find out. 

What is the gut?

The gut is made up of all the organs that play a role in ingesting and digesting foods: esophagus, stomach, intestines, gallbladder, liver, and pancreas. 

“Medical science is just starting to understand the complex brain-gut connection,” says Mandley. “Physically, the vagus nerve controls messaging between major organs and the brain through a chemical network of neurotransmitters and hormones. But, the gut is home to a vast universe of bacteria, viruses, and fungi (known as the gut microbiome) which affect these communications channels, creating a clear link between your gut and your brain.”

The Gut-Brain Connection

What you eat has a direct impact on the health of your gut microbiome. Foods known as prebiotics, such as raw vegetables, feed the good bacteria, viruses, and fungi, helping them grow. Probiotic foods, such as yogurt with live and active cultures or fermented foods like kombucha (fermented black tea), tempeh, or unpasteurized kimchi or sauerkraut, can help populate your gut with good bacteria. 

  • A healthy diet is linked to a 35% reduced risk of depression.
  • Those with diets high in processed foods have a 60% higher risk for depression.
  • Children who experience a poor diet in the womb and in early childhood tend to have more emotional problems in childhood.
  • Young people with healthiest diets are half as likely to have depression.
  • Young people with diets highest in junk food are 80% more likely to have depression.

Brain Health

Multiple studies have proven a link between diets that are high in refined sugar and processed foods and depression.

Mandley explains, “These foods increase oxidative stress and promote inflammation. Without an adequate supply of nutrients and antioxidants, it is hard for your brain to clear out these harmful chemicals. Like gunk in an engine, they eventually clog up the gears and can cause damage.” 

This results in impaired brain function – think of the “brain fog” you may feel after a particularly indulgent weekend – and can worsen symptoms of depression and other mood disorders. But, improving your diet can make a difference – one-third of participants in a study reported symptom improvement with diet change.

Food and Mood

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate emotions, mood, sleep, and appetite. Low serotonin levels are linked to low mood, disrupted sleep, and appetite changes – common symptoms of depression. In fact, many antidepressants are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which work in your brain to keep serotonin circulating in your brain rather than being reabsorbed. 

But what if you could start at the source? 

“95% of serotonin is created not in your brain, but in your intestinal tract, which contains millions of nerve endings directly connected to your brain,” says Mandley. “By eating healthy pre- and probiotic foods, you can positively influence the production of serotonin in your gut.” 

Eating for Mental Health

This idea of the gut-brain connection is gaining traction among researchers and medical and nutritional scientists. Many recent studies have looked at the influence of certain diets and eating patterns on mood and mental health. Not surprisingly, the Mediterranean Diet, which is typically touted and one of the healthiest for weight management and heart health, is also a winner when it comes to mental health. Relying heavily on fresh vegetables, fruits, fish, nuts, and unsaturated fats, this diet also eschews processed foods and is lower in sugar. All good habits for keeping the gut microbiome healthy. 

“While maintaining your mental health is certainly not as simple as changing your diet, it is true that what you eat is the foundation upon which any healthy lifestyle is built,” says Mandley, adding that if you are concerned about your mental health, you should seek the advice of a professional licensed mental health therapist. “If you are looking to improve your overall sense of wellbeing, focus, and mood, it is probably a good idea to start by examining your plate.” 

Patrick Dunn, RD, LDN and vice president of dietetics for CoreLife offers some guidance on eating for mental health. “It really comes down to three main nutrients – omega 3s, vitamin B and vitamin D,” says Dunn. “Fortunately, you can get a power punch of three of these together in a few common foods – fatty fish, nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables.” He recommends:

  • Increase omega-3 fatty acids with at least two weekly servings of oily fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, or walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, and dark leafy vegetables. 
  • Make sure you are getting enough B vitamins from foods like green leafy vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. If you are vegetarian or vegan you may need to supplement vitamin B12 which is found naturally only in fish, meats, eggs, and dairy. 
  • Get some sunlight, which is a great source of vitamin D. Five to 30 minutes of direct sun exposure (with no sunblock) twice per week should be enough. Or find it in foods such as fatty fish, eggs, dairy, and fortified cereals. Low vitamin D levels are linked to seasonal depression. 

Improving your gut health can lead to more than just mood improvements. If you are looking for professional, compassionate, and evidence-based support for your weight loss journey, CoreLife can help. Our team of registered dietitians, medical professionals, mental health clinicians, and exercise specialists work with you on a customized plan to improve weight and overall health. Contact us at 800-905-3261.