The food-mood connect: What’s harmful to our body is also going to have an effect on our mind

Eating right has mostly been associated with physical fitness. But these days, there’s a concerted effort to improve mental health with your dietary intake. Leading experts weigh in on the science behind it — and share user-friendly tips



by

Sushmita Bose

Published: Sun 11 Sep 2022, 9:38 PM

Last updated: Mon 12 Sep 2022, 1:23 PM

LUKE COUTINHO

The quality and type of food we consume on a daily basis play a crucial role in the way we think, feel, and experience emotions. In our bodies, we have neurotransmitters, and they’re assigned an interesting job: to serve as chemical messengers between our nerves, and help these nerves communicate with each other. The right kind — and amount — of these neurotransmitters is critical. We feel happy, sad, loved, intimate, motivated, excited, scared — all because of them.

Many of us could be living with imbalances, resulting in changed behavioural patterns, which could mean mood swings, unusual reactions to usual events, cravings, and so on. Everything we eat serves as the building block for neurotransmitters. The cleaner we eat, the better will be the quality of their building blocks — which is also why fad and crash diets do not work (they eventually strip meals of the very essential nutrients that are required to manufacture these neurotransmitters).

Let’s take an example. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of wellbeing and happiness. A lack of it can make us feel sad without any reason. One may experience loneliness, depression, and even develop an unhealthy habit of attention seeking. Almost 95 per cent of serotonin is produced in the gut, so an unhealthy gut could lead to lack of serotonin… and a lot of people with a gut condition are likely to suffer from emotional imbalances due to this deficiency.

Our physical and mental selves aren’t two separate entities, they are intertwined. What’s harmful for our body is also going to have an effect on our mind — and vice versa. Every single morsel of food that’s entering our system has an effect on trillions of cells in our body.

But healthy eating is not about following extremes. More than depriving yourself of certain foods, it’s the psychological deprivation that causes more harm. This is why fad diets do not work. Their strict and restrictive approach makes them unsustainable to follow. Healthy eating is about how you can maintain health and fitness while also enjoying that cake if you’d like to. It’s not that cake, cookie, or sugar in tea once in a while that causes lifestyle diseases. It’s the consumption of a cup of tea after a cup of tea with sugar, consistent sleep deprivation, endless desserts, under or over-exercising, or staying stuck in negative emotions that can cause sickness in the body.

Also, realise no amount of food can ever heal emotions — if you are trying to justify stress-eating. To avoid this tendency, we must firstly be able to accept that it is okay to feel bad or unhappy, accept the situation, acknowledge those feelings and find a way to work through those challenges. Meditating, stepping out for a walk, deep breathing, sitting in silence are all helpful ways to allow you to process your emotions. Comfort food might make us feel better, but only for that moment. It does nothing to address the challenge or difficulties. Understanding this makes it easier for us to develop emotional intelligence.

(Luke is an India-based holistic lifestyle coach, social media influencer, author, and co-founder of You Care Lifestyle — a digitally-curated marketplace for clean lifestyle products. Visit www.lukecoutinho.com for more details.)


SUZANNE SALEH

Have you ever been so nervous during a speech before a crowd that you feel ‘butterflies’ all over your belly? Ever wondered how your belly found out you were nervous? Now that shows gut-brain interaction. Your gut and brain are connected physically through millions of nerves, most importantly the vagus nerve, which is why whenever you are stressed mentally, your gastrointestinal system reacts badly.

The gut and its microbes also control inflammation and the different compounds they make have a huge effect on brain health and eventually your mood so you need to eat gut-brain-friendly foods.

A few ways you can improve your gut microbiome are:

• Eat a diverse range of foods, which can lead to a diverse microbiome — an indicator of good gut health. Legumes, beans and vegetables in particular contain lots of fibre and can promote the growth of healthy Bifidobacteria.

• Eat fermented foods such as yoghurt, sauerkraut and kefir, which all contain healthy bacteria, mainly Lactobacilli, and can reduce the amount of disease-causing species in the gut.

• Limit your intake of artificial sweeteners, which increase blood sugar by stimulating the growth of unhealthy bacteria in the gut microbiome

• Eat prebiotic-rich foods like artichokes, asparagus, lentils, oats and fruits that stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria.

• Try a plant-based diet, since vegetarian diets may help reduce levels of disease-causing bacteria such as E. coli, as well as inflammation and cholesterol

The hippocampus is a crucial part of the brain that supports memory, learning, mood, attention, mental health and also regulates our appetite. Research shows that eating an unhealthy diet that is high in fat and sugars can lead to chronic inflammation resulting in mental health problems like stress, Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety and depression — which can alter the size of the hippocampus leading to poor brain function.

The good news is that several studies have found signs of new neurons in the adult human hippocampus, leading many researchers to accept that this part of the brain could renew itself throughout life in people. The top foods that renew and boost your brain power — leading to better mood, energy and mental health — include leafy greens, seaweed, nuts and seeds (almonds, pumpkin seeds), oats, berries (red grapes, blueberries) and turmeric.

Remember, your body is all you have to live in. Protect and adore it. Food is the greatest medicine so choose wisely.

Emotional eating for some of us is a coping mechanism to keep our worries at bay. You are not eating because you’re hungry but because your problems seem smaller once you are biting or chewing on something.

(Suzanne is a plant-based health coach in Dubai. For more details, visit www.suzannesaleh.com.)


NEEIL OJHA

While researchers have worked hard to understand the association between food and physical health, a stream of study called ‘food psychiatry’ has only been a fairly recent phenomenon — one that examines the connection between food and mental health.

Your brain is operational 24x7, and it needs the right kind of food to fuel and enhance its efficiency. Eating high-quality foods that contain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects it from oxidative stress. On the other hand, diets high in refined sugars are harmful, they toy with your body’s ability to regulate insulin, while promoting inflammation and oxidative stress… this leads to impaired brain function… and symptoms of depression and other mood disorders emerge.

Additionally, 95 per cent of serotonin — a neuro-transmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibits pain — is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, which is lined with a hundred million nerve cells, so the inner workings of your digestive system don’t just help you digest food, they also guide your emotions!

The chronic stress of dieting can cause your body to go into a fight or flight mode, with the body releasing adrenaline and cortisol, making you feel more irritable and anxious. So, if you don’t want to follow a ‘strict diet’, please don’t…. your diet is not supposed to be a concentration cell, it’s supposed you to keep you fit mentally and physically healthy. And while deciding on a ‘feel’-good diet, always consult a certified nutritionist, dietician, or physician.

If we are stressed, we all have our go-to food, which we call our ‘comfort food’ — mostly high-sugar, fatty, processed food. This might temporarily make you satiated but in the long run it calls for all sorts of trouble. So, try to reduce and replace your comfort food.

Reduce: If you don’t stock them at home, you won’t use them as much

Replace: Make educated choices, replace your regular ice cream by low-sugar or high-protein ice-creams; replace milk chocolate with dark chocolate; replace sugary shakes with fresh fruit juices.

(Neeil is a strength and conditioning coach from the Australian Strength & Conditioning Association. He studied sports nutrition, and has been working with the UAE cricket team on assignment. Currently, he hosts Talk, Sport & Business on Talk 100.3. Follow Neeil on Instagram @SuperNeeil.)


HANNA SILLITOE

When I talk to people about the strong emotional connection between our mental health and our gut, I explain it like this: You know the saying ‘I’ve got butterflies in my tummy’ when you’re feeling anxious? Or the expression ‘I’m getting a bad gut feeling’ when something seems off? These sayings reference the very real connection between what’s going on in our brain and the strong sensations we feel in our digestive tract.

We’ve become rather disjointed in the way that we treat chronic disease with Western medicine. The body is viewed as being made up of many separate parts. If you have a migraine, you target the head very specifically with a headache pill. If you suffer with stomach ache, your doctor might give you something to settle your tummy. On the surface, these seem very sensible. The same goes for skin conditions, patients are usually given a topical cream to apply on the problem area. But compartmentalising our individual body parts invariably ignores the reality that every part of ourselves is connected.

Whilst our brain can impact our gut, the reverse is also true. If we’re not eating the right foods or taking the correct supplements, our gut can lack the strong, diverse microbiota it needs to look after our mental wellbeing, and if we’re not thinking clearly or staying mentally active, our brain can lapse into unhealthy choices around food.

The most important thing is finding balance. Let’s face it, nobody really fancies living off limp lettuce leaves forever! Intentionally depriving ourselves is not going to generate feelings of emotional contentment any time soon. Rather than strictly grouping foods into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, or listing the things we must never ever eat, it can feel much less daunting to take a more grayscale approach. Noting anti-inflammatory vs inflammatory foods, for example, can be really helpful. There are lots of charts available for free online.

Stressful events in our lives can lead to cravings for a supposed ‘quick fix’. These sneaky, short-term mood boosters don’t do us any good in the long run, and the initial highs we may experience are often followed by low energy dips.

I can’t imagine a scenario where foods that harm us would simultaneously improve parts of our mental health. The only example I can think of would be the happiness we experience through enjoying something as simple as a takeaway. Whilst kebab and chips might be high in calories, and far from the healthiest choice on the menu, the pleasure we derive from enjoying it with friends can contribute to our positive mental wellness — simply because it makes us happy. This is where balance comes in, making the right dietary decisions for our own individual needs to combine both health and happiness.

(Hanna is a best-selling author and lifestyle expert based in the UK. She has her own range of skincare products and supplements. Visit www.HannaSillitoe.com for more details.)


DR MARIA ALONSO

The vagus nerve connects your brain with your entire intestine. You can imagine it as a two-way street where information is exchanged in both directions, meaning if you are stressed, this will be signalled down to your gut and can result in symptoms. And if what you eat makes your gut unhappy (inflammed), this will be signalled up and you might feel tired or down.

If you have gut issues, serotonin (your feel-good hormone) production can be altered, resulting even in depressive moods. Also, the balance of your good and bad bacteria (called microbiome) influences what happens in the gut, and can impact your digestion (make you feel bloated or constipation or prone to diarrhea), affecting your serotonin production and, therefore, how you feel.

You need to be aware of what you eat and how you feel as a result of it. How you want to feel. And to acknowledge that we all are different. So, research says coffee is healthy, but if it gives me palpitations, then it doesn’t work for me. And always take into consideration that the dosage makes the poison… it is no problem having and enjoying something occasionally, but it can be if you’re having it every day. For example, if you enjoy having a pizza once in a while with your friends, that is an important aspect of socialising and meaningful connections — which are important for mental health. It’s about the balance.

When you are stressed, your cortisol levels increase, and it’s is a signal to your body to get into ‘fight or flight’ mode, that requires energy which the body tries to get in the easiest way possible: through sugar or carbs… that is why we crave sweets and pasta — not a salad.

(Dr Maria is co-founder and medical director of Maison Santé, Dubai — a holistic wellness centre. She holds dual licences in preventive and traditional Chinese medicine, specialising in lifestyle medicine, mental wellbeing, women’s health, fertility and gut health. Visit www.maisonsante.ae for more details.)


The cup (of coffee) that cheers

Caffeine is the most commonly consumed mood enhancer worldwide. And your daily coffee habit could be associated with a reduced risk of several chronic diseases, including issues related to mental health (one Harvard study from 2011, for instance, found that coffee-drinkers had a 20 per cent lower risk of becoming depressed).

A National Institutes of Health study indicated that those who drink between two and five cups of coffee per day have higher activity and happiness levels over an entire day compared to those who don’t drink any coffee. It energises us, and when we feel energised, we naturally burn off more calories through physical activity... and being physically active improves mental health by releasing endorphins that trigger those happy, positive feelings in the body and mind.

The caffeine in the coffee increases serotonin levels and stimulates brain functions, while being packed with antioxidants which protect brain blood vessels, and polyphenol micronutrients known for protecting tissue damage.

To get the most out of your cup of coffee, experts recommend drinking it mid-morning or early afternoon. This is when your body is running low on cortisol, which can leave you a little less alert. You can add flavours and spices to your coffee to create a different dimension in terms of taste and health benefits. Cardamom, some studies have shown, helps reduce anxiety… then there’s saffron, which is known to improve your mood.

But there’s more to coffee than its antioxidants and energy-inducing properties: it allows us to connect socially, which will always be good for our physical and mental health.

(Mike Butler, CEO of Kava & Chai, the UAE homegrown coffee and tea house.)


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