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You Are What You Eat

Have you ever heard the phrase “you are what you eat”? Or thought why you get butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous? Or how something as simple as swallowing a pill affects your brain and/or mood? Recent research on the gut-brain axis indicates that this phrase is more literal than you think.

The gut-brain axis is a bidirectional pathway that connects the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system, a mesh-like network of neurons in the esophagus, stomach and intestine. The main component, the vagus nerve, oversees and helps control mood, stress, immune responses, digestion and heart rate by being in constant communication with the brain.

Your mood is directly related to the amount of certain neurotransmitters (NTs) being produced and how efficiently they are being transmitted. NTs are thought to be produced in the brain, however 95% of serotonin, the NT that plays a role in mood, memory, sleep, cognition, learning and other physiological processes, is produced in the GI tract.

So, what foods do what?

Carbohydrates are known to increase how much insulin is released which, in return, increases absorption. This leaves tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin, in the blood. Basically, the more carbs you eat, the more serotonin you will produce making you happier and sleepier.

Omega-3 essential fatty acids help balance the amount of NTs produced, as well as play a role in neuroplasticity, anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative processes. Fish and other cold-water, fatty seafood, flaxseeds and walnuts are good sources of essential fatty acids.

When we are stressed, magnesium gets depleted. Magnesium increases the NT GABA, which fosters relaxation and sleep while helping to regulate stress. Magnesium dense foods include whole grains, spinach, quinoa, certain nuts, asparagus, egg yolks, poultry, avocados and dark chocolate.

B vitamins are especially important when it comes to the brain and your mood. B vitamins help break down and use carbohydrates to fuel the brain. This process creates homocysteine, an amino acid that fosters neurotransmitter deficiency. The good thing is that B-12 and folate help eliminate this amino acid while other B vitamins help ensure proper amounts and functioning of several feel-good NTs.

Foods that are rich in vitamin C help combat the stress hormone cortisol.

Probiotics help balance the “good” and “bad” bacteria in the gut. Since a lot of NTs are produced in the gut, having a healthy environment is vital. Gut bacteria also play a role in regulating inflammation throughout the body and brain using cytokine, a chemical messenger involved in mood and perception.

On the other hand, there are foods that will interrupt any good day.

  • While some sugar here and there is okay, too much will not only create insulin resistance but also lead to a sugar spike followed by a crash with accompanying dizziness, headaches and mood swings.
  • Processed foods create inflammation which in turn makes it harder for the brain to function properly.
  • Margarine and other butter-like substances may say “made with olive oil”, but what they don’t say is that there are also fats that increase inflammation and work against good omega-3 fats.
  • Coffee will block certain NTs that make you tired, but too much will produce cortisol affecting NT functioning and signaling.
  • A glass of red wine a couple times a week has been shown to do some positive things for the body however, since alcohol is a depressant, overindulging reduces serotonin.

Whenever you eat, take a mental inventory of how you feel to see what green foods will literally make you happy. If you can’t add these foods to your diet or don’t have that much time to grocery shop with your work schedule, try supplementing. 

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