I’m a firm believer that one important marker of our health is feeling really good—body and mind. So, as a Certified Integrative Nutritionist, an integral part of my practice is helping people understand what foods make them feel really good, and what foods make them feel not so good. From a physical standpoint, once we learn to listen to our bodies, understanding this is relatively simple. For example, if every time you eat dairy you are running to the bathroom with diarrhea, clearly, this is a food that is not making you feel good. The physical symptoms are obvious and can usually be easily attributed to certain foods that we have recently eaten.
However, when it comes to how food makes us feel mentally and emotionally, that can be a bit trickier. Can the foods that we eat affect our mood? The answer is a clear YES, and here is why.
1. Ninety percent of the serotonin produced by our body is created in our digestive system. This hormone plays many roles in your body including memory, learning and happiness. It also regulates body temperature, sleep, sexual behaviour and hunger. If our body is not producing enough serotonin, mental health conditions can occur and/or get worse including depression and anxiety.
If we want our body to create more serotonin, we must have a healthy digestive system. The foods that we eat greatly contribute to this production. If we continue to eat foods that give us heartburn, constipation, upset stomach, diarrhea and other digestive symptoms, our serotonin may not be produced at adequate levels. On the other hand, if we eat a diet high in probiotic and prebiotic foods, we have a much higher chance of creating adequate levels of it, and in turn, regulating the roles that serotonin plays in our body – sharper memory, more focused learning and increased happiness. Adding pickled and fermented foods are great examples.
2. Eating a diet that includes high-fibre foods has been linked to reduced risk of anxiety, stress and depression. Fibre has an anti-inflammatory effect on our bodies. While inflammation can damage healthy cells and in turn lead to chronic pain and disease. Even mild inflammation of the brain can lead to depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. The best way to reduce this inflammation is by following an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle. Part of this is to include high-fibre foods such as pears, beets, oats, lentils, strawberries and avocados just to name a few.
3. Vitamin D is a key vitamin for both physical and mental health. Sometimes called ‘the sunshine vitamin’, Canadians get zero from the sun between October and April. Supplementing with a high-quality option (link to) is great for your bones, cells and immune system. Low levels of vitamin D have also been linked to people experiencing anxiety and depression. Foods high in vitamin D include salmon, canned tuna, eggs and mushrooms.
What is important to understand is that the foods that we choose to eat DO affect our mood. But what works for me, might not work for you. The foods that energize me, may not have the same effect on you, and vice versa. While science says some foods are better than others to help with our mental health, really listening to your body is important for your own personal mental and physical health.
If you want to learn more about the Food Mood connection, check out the Food Mood Journal here.