Best Holistic Life Magazine Fall 2021

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HOW FOOD AFFECTS YOUR MOOD BY JUDITH FINLAYSON

Feeling down? Science confirms that taking a walk in nature, enjoying a robust workout, and even sharing a laugh with a friend will boost your spirits. But here’s one therapy you may not have consid- ered --- connecting with the microbial settlers populating your gut. More and more research is linking the quality of your microbiome (the bacte- ria residing in your esophagus, stomach, and intes- tines) with the state of your mental health. Thanks to personal experience, I caught a glimmer of these new frontier years ago when a friend was dealing with an especially bitter divorce. To survive the relentless stress, she was indulging in a daily fix of dark chocolate. Her therapist supported this treatment, comparing it to a hand-holding friend. The good news is it helped --- and now we know why. Research shows that eating about half an ounce of dark (70%) chocolate every day can help to keep depression at bay. Basically, chocolate connects with your brain in ways that raise your spirits. For instance, choco- late is high in antioxidants phytochemicals, which go to war against inflammation, a known precur- sor to depression. But dark chocolate (consumed in moderation) is the real deal as a mood enhancer for another reason: It is one of the best food sources of polyphenols. These substances, which are preva- lent in numerous plant foods, are building a repu- tation as “superfoods” for the friendly bacteria in your gut. Eating Healthy Supports Psychological Balance Polyphenols encourage the growth of bacteria that benefit your emotional health. By crowding out “bad guys”, they work to build a healthy microbi- ome. A healthy gut is populated by diverse species

of bacteria, with “good guys” in control. Physiologically, the gut is your “second brain.” It’s connected to its elevated partner by a biological superhighway known as the gut-brain axis. Your gut bacteria are traffic cops on this two-way route, managing the production and flow of chemical messengers like hormones and neurotransmitters. Whole Foods Are the Bedrock of Emotional Health Diet provides the footing for your “psycho-bi- ome.” When beneficial bacteria digest compo- nents of whole foods like polyphenols and dietary fiber, they produce valuable substances. Among them are neurotransmitters that help to regulate mood. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, “the happy hormone”. Some anti-depressant medi- cations work their magic by boosting serotonin in your brain. Tap Into Your Pharmacist Within Fortunately, you don’t need to pop a pill to gener- ate serotonin. Your pharmacist within creates it for you. Beneficial gut bacteria produce about 90 percent of your body’s supply of this mood-ele- vating substance. When your microbial ecosystem is humming along (with friendly bacteria in control), it’s producing the neurotransmitters you need to stay on an even keel. It’s also helping to suppress stress hormones like cortisol. But when your microbial equilibrium is thrown off --- when “bad guys” gain the upper hand --- you are more vulnerable to losing a battle with the blues. Turn Your Back on Processed Food Sadly, the stability of your psycho-biome is easily disrupted. Scientists have been surprised by how quickly a fast-food diet upsets the microbial

balance. After eating only processed food for 10 days, one subject lost nearly half of the bacterial species residing in his gut. Research shows that fast food quickly triggers an inflammatory response. One Spanish study specifi- cally connected higher intakes of fast food with the likelihood of being depressed. A Healthy Lifestyle Trumps Medication The connections between food and mood have been solidifying for many years. Today, a new specialty, “nutritional psychiatry”, is springing up at medi- cal institutions around the world. We’re not there yet, but scientists are discussing the possibility of using “psycho-biotic diets” to treat mood disor- ders. Some clinicians are already recommending dietary and other lifestyle changes before prescrib- ing medications or psychowtherapy. A Nutritious Diet Keeps Depression at Bay When it comes to food and mental health, the Mediterranean dietary approach (primarily plant- based, gut-friendly foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts, plus healthy fats obtained from fish and olive oil) is the most stud- ied. It has been found to increase psychologi- cal resilience in older people and to significantly improve mental health when used as a treatment for people medically diagnosed with depression. Current research shows that a nutritious diet built around plant foods is far and away from the best strategy for ramping up your microbial troops. Knowing that your gut pushes many buttons in the continuous feedback loop regulating your mental health gives newmeaning to the old proverb, “The belly rules the mind.”

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