There's a timeless saying that goes “you are what you eat”. Although eating carrots and tomatoes won't actually turn us into vegetables, there is a tone of truth and importance behind this saying, especially when it comes to mental health and brain performance.
It's no secret that eating healthier makes you feel better. If you need proof of this, just eat a slice of cake and see how you feel a few minutes later versus how you feel after eating fruits. But, this connection between how we feel, our emotions and overall mental health runs much deeper than you may think!
There's been a lot of research lately in the field of nutrition and specifically into the gut biome. You may have heard terms like this before, or maybe things like pro and prebiotics. But what exactly do these things mean and how do they actually affect us?
Defining some key terms
Let's start by defining what the gut microbiome is. The gut microbiome is essentially a community of bacteria and other microorganisms that live in your gut and digestive system. Unlike the bacteria we try to avoid and wash off our hands, these bacteria are good for us and help us with digestion and immunity and even modulate our emotions.
Another term you may commonly hear is pre and probiotic. Although they both have to do with our gut microbiome and are good for us, they’re slightly different. Prebiotics are nutrients we get from food but can't digest, like fiber, amongst others, that help our gut microbiome thrive and flourish. Probiotics however, are live bacteria in food or in supplements that add to our collection of bacteria which give our gut microbiome a little boost.
Now that we know a little more about the bacterial forest that lives within our gut, how exactly does this relate to mental health or brain performance?
To answer that, there's one last bit of information you need to know, and that is about the vagus nerve. Without getting too deep into biology, the vagus nerve essentially regulates the autonomic nervous system which controls involuntary parts of our body like digestion, heart rate and relates to our immune system and mood. This nerve is very closely tied to our gut microbiome so small changes in the amount and types of bacteria and even condition of the bacteria can have a big impact on how it works and makes us feel.
Diet and anxiety
Now that we've gotten all the sciency stuff out of the way, let's dive into how this all connects together with what we eat and how that controls our mental health! The first thing we're gonna look at is anxiety.
Anxiety is a commonly reported mental health disorder. It involves the triggering of peoples flight or fight response and exhibits symptoms of fear, nervousness, accelerated heart rate and overall negative tension. In some circumstances these symptoms may be beneficial. For example, if you were confronted by a dangerous animal, these feelings may help save your life. But, for people with anxiety, these feelings arise when they're not helpful at all. In fact, anxiety makes life much harder for people, making basic everyday tasks like going out into public and communicating with people almost impossible.
What's this have to do with the microbiome?
One of the most common causes of anxiety, as it relates to nutrition, is inflammation of the gut microbiome. Remember how we said the Vagus nerve controls heart rate and involuntary movements? Well that's exactly what it's doing when people have anxiety attacks. Inflammation of the gut microbiome triggers the vagus nerve to increase heart rate and other responses representing the fight or flight response.
Well why are the bugs in my belly inflaming, you may ask. Ironically, a lot of the foods that cause inflammation of the gut biome and anxiety are actually eaten to bring short term comfort and pleasure. Some examples are:
Foods containing processed sugars. These are commonly eaten as desserts and treats and in many cases to cope with bad feelings but actually cause worse mental health in the long term.
Equally as ironic, foods containing artificial sweeteners, which are eaten in hopes of being a healthier alternative to sugar, also cause the same level of gut microbiome inflammation and anxiety.
Some other foods that cause anxiety are those that contain high levels of gluten
And even caffeine has been seen to increase symptoms of anxiety.
Now to be clear, although these foods are shown to worsen and trigger anxiety symptoms, we are not saying these foods are the root cause of your anxiety. Although cutting these foods out may show drastic improvement of symptoms, we are in no way promising these to be a cure to your anxiety and it's best to consult a medical professional if you do suffer from anxiety or any other mental illnesses.
So what can I eat to reduce my symptoms of anxiety?
Well we'll start with what you can NOT eat to reduce your symptoms. Cutting out the foods listed above should have a great positive impact on your anxiety levels and overall mental health. Additionally staying hydrated and eating foods that reduce inflammation should also help a lot. Some examples are:
Foods high in antioxidants like berries and fresh fruits.
Spices like turmeric and black pepper are known to reduce inflammation throughout your body but especially in your gut microbiome thus reducing symptoms of anxiety. These spices also have other benefits which we will cover later.
Depression and nutrition
Next, we'll start to discuss depression. A term, although we hear a lot nowadays, still has a big stigma around it. Because of its stigmatization, very few of us actually know how to define the term. Depression is a mental illness characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, loss of interest, loss of motivation and decreased levels of activity. Although depression, like many other mental illnesses, can be caused by a plethora of factors, both neurologically, physiologically and psychologically, the nutrients we ingest and the foods we eat still play a big role in how bad symptoms are.
Some foods that can cause symptoms of depression are:
Foods high in trans fats. Foods like butter, margarine, fried foods and animal fats can not only disrupt the gut microbiome, but also cause hormonal shifts that make you more likely to experience depression along with other diseases.
Another one is, like in anxiety, high in sugar foods. This is another example of an unhealthy positive feedback loop since eating fried and sweet foods is often used as a coping mechanism for a lot of individuals with depression.
Another food, or drink rather, that follows this same positive feedback loop pattern is alcohol. Although some studies suggest wine can actually be good from the heart and microbiome, as it contains probiotics, the key here is moderation. There is also nuance to why wine and other alcoholic drinks can be beneficial. The primary source of probiotics is the fermentation process of the grapes of grains used to make the drink. This can promote healthy growth of the bacteria we need to have healthy digestion and immunity. Alcohol itself however, is still toxic and disruptive to not only the gut microbiome, but also many structures in the brain and other bodily organs. This can cause build up of toxins in the blood, compromised immunity and of course depressive symptoms.
What can I eat to feel better?
Luckily for people feeling stuck in this low energy and mood state, there are some dietary changes you can make to feel better. Some foods that can help include:
Lean chicken. This helps because chicken contains the amino acid tryptophan. This is one of the components needed for the synthesis of serotonin, a neuromodulator which is often depleted in people with depression. Chicken also contains relatively low amounts of fat, thus minimizing negative effects on your gut, mental and physical health.
Some other anti depression food options are carrots
And sweet potatoes, all of which contain beta carotene. Beta carotene acts as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant thus leading to a healthier gut microbiome, better organ health and general feelings of wellness. You really do feel healthier when you eat healthy!
What if my mental health is fine?
Even if your mood is stable and you feel fine, the food you eat can still have a huge effect on your cognitive performance. Although you won't feel many of the effects right away, dietary habits have a big influence over how you age and how your cognitive abilities decline over time. Some cognitive conservative foods include:
Spices like turmeric
And sage. Not only are these spices anti inflammatory, but also slows the degradation of cells and genetic material.
Another slightly contradictory one is coffee. Although coffee has been seen to preserve cognitive abilities and slow down cognitive decline, caffeine has also been seen to disrupt the gut microbiome, leading to anxiety. A solution to this may be getting decaf coffee to get all the benefits without the downside.
Everything tasty is terrible for you… kidding. Although so many foods that you may eat for enjoyment can have negative effects, the name of the game is moderation. Having dessert once a week won't give you depression or diabetes and having coffee once in a while won't give you chronic anxiety. Although it's important to be mindful of the effects of what you eat, just aim for a generally balanced diet while limiting excessive consumption of things that can have bad effects.
Additionally, everything in health and nutrition is on a case to case basis. What affects one person one way may not affect you the same way. It’s important to do your own research, consult a medical professional, then decide for yourself what's good and bad. But, if keeping track of all these details is too much for you, just aim for these 5 key takeaways:
Keep saturated fats low
Keep processed sugars low
Fruits are good
Veggies are good
And spices never hurt
With that being said, stay educated and stay healthy!