You’ve likely heard the phrase “you are what you eat.” It was probably when you were a child, said as a warning from your mom as you reached for a second or third helping at dinner, or after asking for an ice cream cone. But have you heard it recently? If you’re one of the many people who suffer from mental health disorders, it could be a useful phrase to keep in mind, and may even change your life.
According to a study by Harvard Psychiatry, your digestive system doesn’t just digest food, but also guides your emotions. This is because 95% of serotonin, the neurotransmitter which helps regulate sleep, appetite, moods, and inhibit pain, is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. An increase in serotonin can also have a calming effect. This tract is lined with a hundred million nerve cells, all of which contribute to the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, and which benefit from eating probiotics, or good bacteria. Eating food rich in probiotics, and a “traditional” diet like the Mediterranean and Japanese diet which are high in probiotics, can help fight against depression. “Traditional” diets tend to be high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, fish and seafood, and only have modest amounts of lean meat and dairy. They don’t contain processed or refined foods and sugars, staples of the “Western” diet.
It may be worth it to test a two week “clean diet”—cutting out all processed food and sugar, and to take it to the next level, cutting out dairy and grain too. You can add fermented food such as kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, pickles, and kombucha, which are naturally full of probiotics. After two weeks, slowly reintroduce the food back into your diet, one by one, and notice how your body and your mind feel. You may be surprised!
Another way food influences mood is by timing; that is, when we eat is just as important as what we eat. The time we eat, and the time between meals and snacks affects the way we feel. If you’re someone who skips meals, the subsequent fluctuations in blood sugar levels can contribute to mood swings. And food restriction can lead to “binge eating, bigger emotional responses, poor concentration, increased stress, and an overall lower sense of well-being.” It’s important to pay attention to what you eat, but also when you’re eating it, and how you feel before and after. If you notice yourself having mood swings, ask yourself when the last time you ate was, and the answer might encourage you to find a healthy snack or meal. The best way to space meals and snacks is 3-4 hours apart, with a healthy protein and carbohydrate at each meal. Protein rich foods help increase alertness, and some healthy fats become part of the membrane of brain cells and control many brain processes. Poor nutrition of lack of variety of healthy foods can contribute to mood disorders by creating an imbalance of nutrients that the body receives.
Eating an assortment of healthy foods brings different chemical and nutritional benefits to our brain. The food we eat affects our bodies and our brain, and the way those feel can have a huge impact on how our mind feels. For example, according to the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD), carbohydrates increase serotonin, which may be why people often crave carbohydrate rich foods when they’re under stress, as serotonin can produce a calming effect. In this way, carbohydrates can be a natural de-stressor, but it’s important to note when your body is craving certain foods, because it may be a sign of an underlying issue, and eating too much of any food can backfire. For example, eating too many carbohydrates may inadvertently make someone consume an increase in sugar due to the foods carbohydrates are found in, which can actually drain your energy in the long run, and put you at risk for depression. While sugar is known to give people short bursts of energy, it’s shown to accentuate the symptoms of mood disorders, and heavy sugar consumption can increase the risk of depression and schizophrenia. Additionally, it appears to worsen anxiety symptoms and impair the body’s ability to cope with stress.
Someone prone to stress eating should note when it happens, so they can turn to more productive ways of coping with the stress instead, such as through exercise or meditation. It’s important to develop mindfulness around our eating habits to create a more mindful brain, body, and life. While good eating habits may not solve all of our mental health and mood issues, it may certainly alleviate symptoms and help create an overall better sense of well-being.