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Internationally Acclaimed Nutritional Biochemist, Author & Speaker

Food and mood: some ways gut health affect calm and contentment

When we think of our mood, we tend to think of it as being related to our brain. Yet many neurotransmitters are actually made in the gut. Serotonin is a hormone (and neurotransmitter) that leads us to feel happy, calm, and content, and about 80 per cent of the serotonin in the body is made in the gut. There are also particular strains of gut bacteria that contribute to the production of a range of neurotransmitters, including dopamine and gamma-aminobutyric (GABA), which exhibits powerful antianxiety properties. Besides the impact that poor digestion and an unhealthy gut microbiome have on our neurotransmitter production, in more general terms digestive challenges can leave us feeling lousy as we combat uncomfortable symptoms such as bloating, excessive gas, cramps, and indigestion. Supporting good gut health can play a significant role in how we feel each day. Here are some gut-loving foods that can help to improve your mood and keep your microbiome happy.

Fermented foods

Fermented foods are foods that have been through a process of fermentation (usually lacto-fermentation) in which bacteria feed on the sugars and starches in the food, creating lactic acid. This process preserves the food, plus some types of bacteria are able to produce B-vitamins. The fermentation of foods may also assist in making the food easier to digest. There are some suggestions that the bacteria in fermented foods are able to colonise the large intestine, however, stomach acid is supposed to kill any bacteria we swallow. If they are able to reach the colon, the acids in the fermented foods may offer some protection, allowing certain species to survive their journey through the digestive tract.  However, this mechanism is not yet well understood. It may be that the acetic acid present in many fermented foods helps to promote good stomach acid production, crucial for establishing a healthy pH gradient throughout the entire digestive system, and this may explain the link between the consumption of fermented foods and improved digestion. Fermented foods include sauerkraut, kombucha, miso, kefir, and fermented cashew cheese. You can buy fermented products or make your own.

Bananas

Bananas contain an amino acid called tyrosine, essential for the production of dopamine and serotonin. The riper the banana, the more tyrosine it offers. Bananas are also rich in B group vitamins, including vitamin B6, as well as magnesium, both essential for relaxation and a calm nervous system. Other food sources of tyrosine include almonds, eggs, and meats.

Dark chocolate

Dark chocolate is a good source of tryptophan, an amino acid that supports the production of serotonin. Chocolate consumption also drives the brain to produce another chemical called anandamide, which has been shown to temporarily block feelings of pain and those associated with a low mood. Dopamine is also produced when we eat chocolate, and this can have a mood-lifting effect on many people. However, for those with already elevated dopamine levels, excessive amounts of chocolate can lead to tension and aggression. So, like with all things related to mood, there is no one size fits all. Some find chocolate enhances their mood, for others, it gives them a headache and/or fires them up. It also contains caffeine which leads us to produce adrenaline, the hormone behind anxious feelings and a sleep disrupter. So again, for some, it supports mood, while for others it can add to an already heightened state that can be very uncomfortable.

Plant foods

Our gut bugs love plenty of plant foods. Some of the fibres naturally present in plants act as food for our gut bacteria and when the bacteria ferment the fibre, they produce short-chain fatty acids. These nourish the cells that line our gut to keep it happy and functioning optimally.

It is important to remember that the foods which are nourishing for one person may not be nourishing for another. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met who have continued to eat certain foods they have been told are “healthy”, despite their body sending them clear messages (often in the form of gut symptoms) that these foods aren’t right for them.

When we begin to pay more attention to how we feel after we eat, we can learn how to identify our body’s messages and improve our intuition around what’s right for us and what’s not. This includes what we eat and how to take better care of ourselves, but also extends beyond that to having the clarity of mind to make important decisions and the ability to get through our daily tasks without feeling overwhelmed.

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