Good Mood Foods – The Connection Between Nutrition & Your Mood

Published on: Jan 31, 2023

Let’s unpack some of the exciting (and preliminary) new research about the link between gut health, mood, and stress. In this article, we’re talking about your friendly gut microbes, probiotic foods, and supplements, as well as offering some simple recipes to keep your gut (and taste buds) happy with good mood foods!

GUT MICROBES

There are trillions of microbes that happily live in our gut. You’ll often hear people discussing “good” versus “bad” gut microbes. These “good” microbes are what I call friendly microbes do more than help us digest foods, make vitamins, and protect us from the not-so-friendly microbes – they have mood-boosting and stress-busting functions too!

It’s a hotbed of research right now and we’re finding out more about their awesome health and mood/stress benefits every day. And, while the research is just starting to figure out the many gut microbe-brain connections, it’s such a rad topic that I get super excited to talk about!

“There are more microbes inside our gut than all of the human cells that make us. That’s right, we’re more than half microbe! So, how can they NOT impact our health?”

GUT MICROBES AND PROBIOTICS

The microbes that live in our guts are known as our “gut microbiota”. The gut microbiome is the entire collection of microbes in our gut, not just the microbes themselves. You can eat both probiotics and prebiotics to improve your health including your moods! First, let’s dive into probiotics – the microbes that we can ingest.

Probiotics are live organisms that you can eat, drink, or take as a supplement. They turn milk into yogurt, and cabbage into sauerkraut and are great for both your gut health and mental health. Some microbes may help destroy disease-causing cells, produce vitamins, and even help you digest your food! Special probiotics that have mental health benefits are called “psychobiotics,” (psycho = mental health, and biotics = live). They are live organisms that can benefit our psyche. Overall, different types of probiotics may have different effects depending on the probiotic microbe strain and the host (that’s you!).

PROBIOTIC-RICH FOODS AND SUPPLEMENTS

Probiotics can be found in yogurt, sauerkraut (and other fermented veggies), miso, tempeh, and kimchi. You can drink them in kefir or kombucha. Be sure to choose unpasteurized ones that will be refrigerated in your local grocer. Unpasteurized foods are not recommended if you are pregnant or have a compromised immune system, so please check with your healthcare provider.

Of course, there are a number of probiotic supplements available too. Check with your healthcare provider to identify which one is best for you. If you do choose to supplement, generally, you should look for one that’s refrigerated and has at least 10 billion active cultures. I also suggest you look for one that has been “third-party tested,” which means someone outside the company has tested it and says it’s a quality product.

I recommend consuming your probiotics in the form of foods for most people rather than supplements as my approach to health and wellness is food-first before supplementing (unless medically necessary).

Also, be sure to read the label before taking any supplements. The probiotics with the most research are of the Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus types. But we still don’t know enough about the psychobiotic effects to make specific mood-boosting recommendations yet.

CAN PROBIOTICS BE HARMFUL TO HEALTH?

Probiotics are considered generally safe for healthy people. It is also super important to know that probiotics are NOT a magic bullet or a miracle and they may not be appropriate for everyone to take. I believe that it’s super important to point this out because the media markets probiotics in a way that makes everyone think that they should be taking probiotics for good health. This all-or-nothing mentality can be incredibly harmful.

There can be risks to introducing microbes into your system, too. Not all microbes are safe for all individuals. In certain at-risk populations (like those that are immunocompromised), introducing other microbial species (probiotics) might disrupt your resident gut microbes and pose risks such as pneumonia, endocarditis, and sepsis. So, just like any other health suggestion, you must weigh the risks versus the benefits for YOUR UNIQUE MIND-BODY-SOUL and speak to your healthcare practitioner.

HOW DO PROBIOTICS WORK?

Probiotics truly are good mood foods! These friendly gut bacteria might influence your body’s immune response, produce substances that have desirable effects for your body, and help you maintain a diverse, healthy community of microbes in your gut. Probiotics can be especially helpful for people who have experienced gut infections or who have dysbiosis of the gut because the friendly microbes can help restore balance to the community of microbes.

SIMPLE, PROBIOTIC-RICH RECIPES

Try some of these tasty good mood foods –

Confetti Vegetable Salad with Miso Dressing

Cauliflower Olive Salad with Yogurt

Strawberry Almond Chia Pudding

PREBIOTICS

Above, we talked about the benefits of consuming probiotic-rich food.  Once the friendly gut microbes take up residence in our guts, we need to feed them with good mood foods to help keep them, and us, happy!

PREbiotics are food for gut microbes and, when fermented in the gut, produce specific changes in bacterial composition or activity. They are your friendly gut microbes’ favorite delicacies so they’ll happily grow, and multiply. Prebiotics are basically foods that contain fiber. Things like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Even dark chocolate (preferably with at least 70% cocoa). Foods that are particularly high in prebiotics include jicama, asparagus, avocado, whole grains, and allium vegetables like onions, garlic, leeks, and shallots.

Giving animals prebiotics has been shown to reduce stress hormones, and anxiety-related behaviors. In people, studies show that taking psychobiotics along with prebiotics can improve both the microbes in our gut, as well as our mood.

PREBIOTIC-RICH RECIPES

Try these probiotic-rich good mood foods –

Asparagus with Lemon Thyme Dressing

 Triple Greens Soup with Avocado

Creamy Mediterranean Garlic Chicken

GUT-BRAIN CONNECTION

It may not seem obvious or intuitive, but your body is interconnected in many ways and more research is focusing on the “microbiota-gut-brain axis.” It’s the very complex connection between your gut, its microbes, and your brain. This new field has been called a “paradigm shift in neuroscience” (Dinan, 2017).

In fact, there are a number of ways that we’re beginning to understand how your gut microbes can affect your brain. One is via the “vagus” nerve, which is a nerve that directly connects your gut to your brain. The other ways are through “biochemical messengers.” Biochemicals that are made in your gut and travel throughout the body to communicate with other organs, including your brain. Examples of biochemicals include short-chain fatty acids, cytokines, and even tryptophan (the amino acid that the neurotransmitters melatonin and serotonin are made from).

The exciting thing is that this may help you with not only mood and stress, but the microbiota-gut-brain axis may one day prove to be helpful for other conditions too. 

Our trillions of gut microbes seem to be more closely interconnected with our moods than we used to think.

MOOD, STRESS, AND YOUR MICROBES

Several studies show that stressed rodents not only have increased stress hormones and stressed behaviors; but, they also have different gut microbes! This has also been studied, to a small extent, in people too. One study showed that moms with high levels of stress hormones during pregnancy had infants with more of the “bad” gut microbes.

But, can it work the other way around? Can changing our gut microbes affect our moods and stress responses?

Studies of rodents that grow up without any gut microbes at all (in a “bacteria-free” environment) respond to stress more than mice with normal gut microbes. Then, when they’re given either a probiotic or gut microbes from non-stressed mice, their stress responses often go back to normal.

“Gut microbiota and probiotics alter behavior and brain neurochemistry.” (Ait-Belgnaoui, et. al., 2012) That’s a pretty powerful statement.

Many animal studies show positive effects on behavior when they get probiotic supplements. For example, after a probiotic, stressed rats had lower levels of both stress hormones and an inflammatory molecule associated with depression (“LPS” – lipopolysaccharide). Human studies show that after a few weeks of taking probiotic foods or supplements, healthy people have reduced stress hormones, feelings of stress, negative thoughts, and sad moods.

One fascinating study showed that when people took probiotics, brain MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) tests showed reduced brain activity for negative and aggressive thoughts!

There is some exciting research on the positive effect that probiotics can have on moods and stress. So, what can you do to nurture your own healthy gut microbes?

The Bottom Line

If you’re finally ready to heal your body, mind, and spirit, I’m here to help you navigate your wellness journey. I offer collective and private coaching, nutritional genetic testing, and all the support you need to start nourishing your way to better physical, mental, and emotional health!

Ready to nourish your body, mind, and soul so you can lead your healthiest, most fulfilling life? Start by learning more about holistic mental wellness or applying for DNA-based nutrition & lifestyle coaching.

References:

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Howdy! I’m Haley. A registered dietitian nutritionist, yoga teacher, personal trainer, and holistic mental wellness coach on a mission to help you transcend the struggle, stress, and suffering that life can bring. I’ve lived through it and discovered a path to feeling amazing in my mind, body, and soul. Now, I want to help you to live your most fulfilled life too through evidence-based nutrition and lifestyle practices!

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