Food is a big deal. It affects everything. We all know that what we eat becomes literally what we are physically, but did you know that food is a major player in who we are mentally? Ninety percent of our serotonin is made in the gut. If the gut is damaged, inflamed, or compromised anxiety and depression can result. Changes in the populations of our gut microbes also have the effect of changing not only our mood but our behaviors as well. (1)
Within the lining of your gut is a web of sensors called the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). This system has been called the “second brain” because it works independently of and communicates constantly with your actual brain. (2) Ever been told to “listen to your gut”? This system is insanely smart. The ENS’s main job is to tell your brain about the state of your gut. Because of this pathway, if your gut is in poor health not only do you experience the physical signs of bloating, gas, and diarrhea, you may also experience fatigue, brain fog, poor memory (what did I come into this room for?), even depression.
We also have this amazing population of bacteria, yeast, and even viruses living in our gut. These things are supposed to be there and when they are in balance the ENS is a happy camper. It is when the microbiome colony living within us is out of balance that things start to go wrong. When these bugs aren’t happy or have been wiped out by antibiotics, levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters responsible for mood decrease. (1) Unfortunately, common practices in modern day life are pretty upsetting to this balance of “good” and “bad” bugs. Antibiotics, antacids, and sugar are three of the major contributors to dysbiosis or an unbalanced microbiome. (3) Also, think about the role of preservatives in food. Preservatives make a food shelf-stable by inhibiting microbes. What is to stop the preservatives from inhibiting the microbes in your gut? This is a big deal.
If the gut lining is damaged or inflamed, which can be caused by dysbiosis or directly by certain foods (gluten, sugar, industrial fats), the ENS sends emergency signals out. If the damage to the gut is bad enough, the immune system is activated and inflammation starts systemically (2). This means that damage to the gut might show up as inflammation anywhere. Inflamed joints are called arthritis. Inflammation of the major vessels near the heart is called cardiovascular disease. Inflammation of the brain is depression (4), or even dementia or Alsheimer’s disease. Most of the “diseases of modern civilization” can be attributed to this pathway.
Gluten can damage the gut lining all by itself by widening spaces between the spaces between cells along the gut lining. This allows particles through that are large enough to set off an immune response. Not only does this cause wide-spread inflammation, whatever type of particle that got through is recognized by your immune system the next time you eat it and you have a food sensitivity or outright allergy. This is especially significant in people with Celiac’s disease where the villi that line the small intestine and absorb nutrients are severely damaged by gluten.
In addition to the state of the gut, what you eat also affects your brain directly. Most of your brain is fat. More than 60% of it to be exact (5). We are literally fat-heads! Your body makes every part of itself, down to the cellular level, out of the foods you eat. The quality of fats consumed in your diet determines the quality of the structures in your brain. This is one of the reasons why trans fats and rancid industrial oils are a bad idea. I mean, do you want your brain constructed of fake fat? Since mood is affected by the physical health of your brain, (4) the quality of the fats you consume determines the quality of your mood. If you eat low-quality fats, like the type of oil in the fry vat at your favorite fast food joint, that is what your brain is made of. Makes that french fry a little less appealing, right?
The good news is that the opposite is also true. You can help your gut heal, correct the dysbiosis, and restore your good mood (2). When you set up the right conditions, your body will heal itself and symptoms will gradually subside.
Right, how can we do that?
First and foremost–and this is a biggie–get rid of processed food. I mean it. Right now. This includes pretty much anything that comes in a package, box, bag, or that you get handed to you through a window. Doing this one thing, albeit a serious challenge, will do more for your gut than anything else. Think about how you feel after you eat a bowl of macaroni and cheese versus a bowl of steamed broccoli. One gives you brain fog while the other gives you sustainable focus (especially if you add a pat of grass-fed butter).
Did I lose you? Okay, let me break it down. Focus on whole, single ingredient foods. Stick to mostly fresh or frozen vegetables, moderate amounts of quality protein, and good fats. You know you should get more veggies in, right? Yes, do that. Most of your plate should be veggies at every meal (I aim for 50-75% of the plate, piled high). Experiment with trying a new vegetable each week. Try preparing them in different ways. Find out what you like and what you don’t like. Eat what you like. Try to find a variety of colors and textures. Variety not only adds interest, but each color has a different range of phytonutrients and vitamins.
Quality counts with protein. Choose grass-fed, pastured, or wild animal protein or organic sources of plant protein. Yes, these are more expensive and may be hard to find (try Butcher Box or Wild Idea Buffalo Company). Protein should only take up about a third of your plate. More specifically, start with 0.4 g/lb body weight to maintain lean muscle mass and go from there. (6) Increasing protein intake may help with weight loss, but too much will work against you, so find your happy medium. While grass-fed (and finished) is more expensive, you buy less. My experience is that it evens out.
Nix the sugar. Yes, this is a popular movement you have likely heard quite a bit about lately. For good reason. Sugar is addictive, which is in itself detrimental to mental focus. Additionally, removing sugar from your diet can relieve depression and anxiety. (7) Some people are more sensitive to this than others. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is packed with sugar. Every box or package of commercially processed food has added sugar. Even the boxes that say “Now with no added sugar!” may have high levels of sugar due to labeling loopholes. Sherlock the label. Cane sugar is still sugar. Natural sweetener could possibly be high fructose corn syrup. Spices could mean anything. Again, sticking to single ingredient foods is going to serve you well.
Unfortunately, your gut cannot be repopulated by taking probiotics. Even high-quality probiotics don’t survive very long in your body. These bugs have been cultured in super bio-available medium their whole lives and being dropped into a human body is a shock. Probiotics do protect your existing culture and can help them grow in number on their own. What you can do to increase the diversity of your gut microbes, and get a dose of a natural anti-depressant, is eat lacto-fermented veggies (8), drink unpasteurized freshly microbrewed beer, make your own kefir or yogurt (which is easy and fun), and eat prebiotics such as cruciferous vegetables and resistant starch.
Of course, certain vitamins and minerals can affect your mental state as well. Fish oil is great brain food, for example. Eating a diet balanced with lots of vegetables, moderate protein, and healthy fats is going to serve you better than obsessing over individual vitamins. Gut health is vitally important in absorbing nutrients, so taking care of your gut might actually be more important than the nutrients themselves.
On one hand, it is gratifying to learn that depression, and other forms of inflammation, is a symptom that can be remedied by attention to diet. On the other, I understand that watching your diet can be extremely difficult and restricting at first. Let me assure you that the difficulty level decreases over time. It doesn’t take much time to feel the benefits of a healthy diet and you will see that the benefits outweigh the inconvenience. During the difficult period, however, it is helpful to have support from someone who has been there.
This is where hiring a health coach with experience in gut health, elimination diets, and food sensitivities can be the difference between success and failure. I have experienced these things personally and have significantly improved my depression, IBS, and food sensitivities with simple changes in my diet. A knowledgeable health coach can be your guide and your first call when you feel like you aren’t doing something right or if you are feeling poorly during your detox period. It is also important to have someone on your side to supervise your progress and recognize problems. A health coach keeps you safe.
If you find this useful, there’s a good chance your friends will, too. Share this with your friends right away while you are thinking of it. Thanks for reading!