We all know certain foods make us feel good (looking at you, chocolate), and others zap our energy (yucky greasy fast food).
But did you know that the food you consume determines how positive you feel, your level of focus, and how much work you get done in a day?
Our physical and mental health are intertwined, so what harms or nourishes our bodies typically does the same to our minds.
Let's take a closer look at the link between our gut and brain and explore the science behind how food affects your mood.
The Second Brain
The gut is often referred to as our "second brain" because the brain and the gastrointestinal tract are closely connected.
Here's a simple example to demonstrate how.
We've all experienced the sensation of "butterflies" before. That strange feeling in your stomach when thinking about an event or situation you're anxious about.
This occurs because millions of nerves and neurons run between your brain and stomach via your nervous system, signaling to each other what is happening in both organs.
So how does what we eat determine our mood?
Well, the GI tract contains billions of bacteria that influence the production of chemical substances, such as dopamine and Serotonin, which alter our emotions.
Dopamine spikes can make us feel happy, satisfied, and motivated. Meanwhile, Serotonin helps to stabilize our mood and keep depression and anxiety at bay.
The Link Between Sugar And Food
Now here's the interesting part…
When we consume sugary foods, we get a temporary dopamine increase, which makes us feel good initially.
But this temporary spike is actually very damaging. Dopamine levels shoot up and then drop right back down, which causes our bodies to go awry and out of balance.
This is because sugar feeds the "bad" bacteria in the GI tract, which causes major inflammation.
Thus, sugar initially makes us feel happy and gives us an energy boost. However, as the impact of the inflammation takes hold, we experience mood swings, brain fog, and fatigue, among other things.
Long-Term Effects Of Unhealthy Diets
High-inflammatory foods like refined grains, processed meats, fried foods, and all other types of ultra-processed food don't just impact how we feel today.
Studies have shown that consuming an unhealthy diet over the long term can lead to various severe mental health issues, such as depression and dementia.
In addition, other studies have found that eating more natural, whole foods, like those in the Mediterranean diet, significantly lowers your risk of mental health issues in the future.
Eating For Good Mental Health
While sugar and processed foods feed the harmful bacteria in the gut, nutritionally dense food increases the production of the good bacteria.
Ironically, we don't feel an immediate high when we eat a salad, but there is a reason behind this.
Nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods don't cause any major spike in our body's neurotransmitters. Instead, they optimize the production of these chemicals and balance them out.
Your gut then sends positive messages to your brain, letting it know everything is under control. This results in a healthy, positive mental state and sustained energy levels.
What To Eat And What To Avoid
So let's finish by summarizing the foods that positively affect our mood and those responsible for our mood swings and fatigue.
- Whole foods - These are foods that have not been processed and thus are close to their original form. Think fresh fruit and vegetables, legumes, and whole grains like brown rice.
- Foods rich in fiber like broccoli, beans, and berries - Fiber-rich foods release sugars slowly to keep our energy and mood stable.
- Food high in antioxidants like Acai, dark chocolate, leafy green vegetables, and certain spices - These foods help fight inflammation in the body.
- Ultra-processed foods - These are highly manipulated foods that have undergone multiple processes like extrusion, molding, and milling to achieve the natural process. Think chocolate, candy, chips, ice cream, etc. When processed, fat, sugar, and salt are added, and essential nutrients like fiber are removed.
- Heavily fried foods like french fries, fried chicken, and donuts.
- Sugary foods like cakes, cookies, and sodas.
- Flour-based foods like bread, pizza, and pastries.
Final Thoughts On How Food Affects Your Mood
Our diets don't just affect our physical health; they also determine how we feel on a daily basis. Thus, if you're lacking energy, having difficulty focusing, or regularly feeling irritable, try including more mood-boosting foods in your diet.