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How Food Can Affect Your Brain

Every aspect of our lives is controlled by our brain—our thoughts, movements, breathing, heartbeat, senses and more. And like everything else in our bodies, the brain requires energy—in the form of the foods we eat. By paying close attention to the foods we eat, we’re able to control how well our brains perform—physically, intellectually, and emotionally. 

Research has shown that there is a correlation between mood and food. Today, the rapidly growing field of nutritional psychiatry is finding there are many connections between what we eat and the types of bacteria that live in our guts which affect how we feel and even, how we behave.

How Food Affects Your Mood

The inner workings of our digestive systems don’t just help us digest food, they also guide our emotions. Our bodies produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods and inhibit pain. Ninety-five percent of serotonin is produced in our gastrointestinal tract, which is lined with millions of nerve cells, or neurons.

The function of these neurons and the production of serotonin is highly influenced by the billions of “good” bacteria that make up our intestinal microbiome. These bacteria play an essential role in our health. They protect the lining of our intestines and provide a strong barrier against toxins and “bad” bacteria. They also limit inflammation, improve how well we absorb nutrients from food and activate neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and brain.

Recent research shows that when people take probiotics, which contain “good” bacteria their anxiety levels, perception of stress and mental outlook improve, compared with those who do not take probiotics. Other studies have compared traditional diets, like the Mediterranean diet and the traditional Japanese diet, to a typical Western diet and have shown the risk of depression is 25-35% lower in those who eat a traditional Japanese or Mediterranean diet.

READ MORE: The Conversation You Need to Have With Yourself When You Are More Than a Little Sad

Scientists account for this difference because these traditional diets tend to be high in fruits, vegetables, unprocessed grains, fish and contain only modest amounts of lean meats and dairy. These diets are also free from processed and refined foods and sugars, which are staples of Western dietary patterns. In addition, many of these unprocessed foods are fermented, and therefore act as natural probiotics. The good bacteria in the fermented foods influence how we digest food, absorb nutrients, and can even affect the level of inflammation throughout our bodies; leading to improved mood and energy levels.

How to Eat to Improve Your Mood

Our brains function best when we eat a nutritious and balanced diet. High-quality foods that contain fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals nourish the brain and protect it from oxidative stress—the waste produced when the body uses oxygen, which can damage brain cells. Salmon, kale, garlic, blueberries and olive oil are great brain foods.

Low-quality foods, often processed and refined, are not the best choice for our brains and bodies. Because they are low in fiber and digested quickly, processed and refined foods can cause swings in blood sugar levels. These fluctuations in blood sugar can be harmful to overall brain health and affect mood. In addition to inhibiting our bodies’ regulation of insulin, refined sugars also promote inflammation and oxidative stress.

It’s never too late to recognize how foods impact how we feel —not just in the moment, but the next day. To identify specific foods that make use feel bad, we can begin a “clean” diet for two to three weeks—that means no processed foods or sugar. Some people also go dairy-free and/or grain-free to identify food sensitivities.

Then, slowly introduce foods back into your diet, one by one, taking note of any changes in how you feel. Using a food journal will help make this process easier. When introducing more nutritious options, people often notice a change in mood, and cannot believe how much better they feel both physically and emotionally.

Food is one of many things influencing our wellness. Our genes can impact how our bodies absorb and process nutrients, how we respond to stress, how we sleep, and even the number of good bacteria we have in our guts.

READ MORE: Why Sleep Is Important for Your Mental Health

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