Our emotions can dictate our food choices (and cravings), but what goes in our mouths can also have a profound effect on the former. Why is that? New evidence is starting to reveal that there is a large connection between the gut and the brain, also known as the “Gut-Brain Axis.” Food contains nutrients and compounds that can directly affect our mood, impulse control and cravings, particularly if we are deficient in them! Yet our mental state can impact how well these nutrients are assimilated.
Stress, particularly psychological stress, sends a cascade of signals down our bodies to decrease stomach acid and increase adrenaline. This is better known as “fight or flight.” Stomach acid is needed for digestive enzymes to properly break down the food we eat into smaller molecules to be absorbed in the intestines and used by the body. Lack of that can cause deficiencies. Lowered stomach acid also changes the pH of the gut, potentially creating an imbalance of harmful microorganisms to beneficial ones. It’s a vicious cycle! One way to improve both mood and gut function is by increasing consumption of plant material in our diets.
How can they help? Eating more plants in the diet has been touted in several traditions such as Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic. It is theorized that eating more of these foods can create more of a sense of well-being. Why is this? Direct contact with anything in nature is better known as grounding or earthing. Grounding/earthing may be responsible for improving a sense of well-being and decreasing inflammation. Plants are also an excellent source of fiber and phytonutrients such as antioxidants, and several vitamins and minerals important for our brain health and mental well-being.
With these two concepts in mind, here are some ways to use the power of plants to help boost mood levels and improve gut health.
Mood Boosting Nutrients
Chemical compounds in our brain, known as neurotransmitters, are responsible for our emotions and creating a sense of well-being. Two particularly important ones for mood are serotonin and dopamine. The latter, when too high, can cause addictive behaviors, but when low can have a profound impact on our disposition. Therefore, it is important to take these factors into account when including specific plant material in our diets to enhance mood.
Nutrients important for the production of these neurotransmitters are tryptophan, the amino acid precursor to serotonin; phenylalanine, the precursor to dopamine; and vitamin B6, a cofactor in the pathway to serotonin and melatonin production. Another important mineral is magnesium, as it has a calming effect on the nervous system. Magnesium is in any food that is green, as it is in the middle of the chlorophyll molecule. There are plenty of ways to enjoy more plant-based sources of each! Try including some of these foods each day to boost mood levels.
Magnesium: Pumpkin seeds, organic green leafy vegetables, avocados, broccoli, asparagus, nuts (cashews, almonds), seeds, legumes, whole grains, chocolate, organic tofu, quinoa
Tryptophan: Pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, almonds, organic peanuts, organic tofu and whole soy
Phenylalanine/Tyrosine oats, oregano oil, seaweed, almonds, chocolate, organic coffee, bananas, organic berries, apples, papaya, avocado
B6: Organic sweet potatoes, organic potatoes, bananas, brown rice, organic peanuts, organic carrots, organic spinach, green peas, bananas, chickpeas, avocados
Gut Healthy Foods
Typically, eating more of a plant-based diet increases our intake of fiber, an important nutrient for the health of our gut. There are two forms of fiber: insoluble and soluble. The former helps with regularity by helping to push bulk along while the latter helps to decrease blood cholesterol and sugar levels. Fiber is found in foods such as beans, fruits, veggies, organic whole grains, nuts and seeds.
One subset of soluble fiber that is particularly beneficial for gut function is prebiotic fiber, as it acts as a direct fuel source for probiotics in our gut, microorganisms, or “cultures,” responsible for proper digestive function, generation of important metabolites and 80% of our immune system. Including foods that contain these microorganisms, better known as probiotics, are important for repopulating these beneficial bacteria in our guts and crowding out harmful organisms.
Both prebiotics and probiotics work in tandem creating a symbiotic environment to keep the gut healthy.Here are some plant-based foods each can be found in.
Probiotics: fermented foods (sauerkraut, non-dairy yogurt, kimchi, tofu, tempeh, kombucha, etc.)
Prebiotics: bananas, asparagus, berries, garlic, onions, Jerusalem artichokes, organic apples, gluten-free oats, leeks, dark chocolate
Need some ideas for incorporating both? Give these combinations a shot. Top non-dairy yogurt with bananas, top oats with non-dairy yogurt, make a tempeh stir-fry with leeks and asparagus, or have a treat with a decadent piece of chocolate paired with kombucha.
Based on a system known as food energetics in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the preparation of the food can have a profound effect on our mood, particularly the qi. This is better known as our life force and warmth. Deficiency in qi can manifest as fatigue, weakness, physical and mental apathy, poor digestion, and coldness. Being undernourished spiritually and mentally can also contribute to an imbalance of our qi. Therefore, specific foods and plants can have a means of bringing this back into equilibrium.
Foods that are “warming” thermally and nourishing are typically recommended to improve these parameters, particularly a sense of calm and warmth. These include grains such as well-cooked brown rice, oats, millet and spelt (unless celiac);starchy vegetables such as winter squash, organic carrot, rutabaga, parsnip, turnip, garbanzo beans, black beans, peas, organic sweet potato, yam and pumpkin; spices such as turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and black pepper; veggies such as onions, leeks and fennel; and small amounts of fruits and sweeteners such as molasses, organic cherries and dates. Foods should also be enjoyed sauteed, steamed, stewed or cooked in soups.
This one needed its own recognition. Why? Chocolate contains mood-enhancing compounds such as serotonin (the feel-good neurotransmitter) and phenylethylamine (a natural antidepressant). This can also be found in legumes such as peas and beans (chickpea brownies anyone?). Chocolate is also an excellent source of magnesium and can boost dopamine levels. For the health benefits, enjoy chocolate >70% cocoa. Feeling a little down? Grab a square of dark chocolate.