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The Role of Nutrition in Mental Health: Understanding the mind gut connection

Updated: Apr 24

In today's fast-paced lives, where stress and anxiety have become commonplace, taking care of our mental health is more important than ever. When we think of mental health, we associate it with therapy and medication and link physical health with eating properly and regular exercise. Truth be told, nutrition plays a significant role in our mental well-being, and it's connected through the mind gut connection.

Read on to know how…

The mind gut connection
the mind gut connection

The Gut-Brain Connection

The gut-brain connection is a complex and intricate relationship between our brain and the digestive tract — it is called the gut–brain axis, which is essentially a communication network between these organs.

Let's dive a little deeper into the science behind this…

Neurons are cells in your brain and the central nervous system (CNS) that tell your body how to behave. A human brain has close to 100 billion neurons. And this is where it gets interesting — our gut has around 500 million neurons connected to our brain through nerves in the CNS.

Does this explain the whole 'I have a gut feeling' or 'trust your gut' conversations that most of us have had several times? This communication network, built by a robust web of interconnected nerves, triggers this strong intuition.

Scientists call the stomach the 'second brain' for a reason. The staggering number of neurons that line the digestive tract — much higher than neurons in the spinal cord — points to the gut's incredible processing abilities.

How Do Neurotransmitters Affect The Gut-Brain Axis? Let's Find Out…

The gut-brain axis is also affected by neurotransmitters — these are produced in the brain and play a vital role in controlling feelings and emotions. For example, a neurotransmitter called serotonin contributes to feelings of happiness and regulates our body clock. Interestingly, many of these neurotransmitters, including serotonin, are produced in the gut too.

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is another neurotransmitter gut microbes produce that helps control feelings of fear and anxiety. In addition, gut microbes have several other chemicals that affect the brain in several ways, sometimes leading to reduced appetite, increased stress, and social disorders.

Time to understand how the gut-brain axis affects the graph of nutrition and mental health…

Nutrition and Mental Health

To begin with, here's something we all know but conveniently ignore — clean, healthy eating will keep you in a better state of mind, help you focus better on tasks at hand, and be more productive overall.

On the other hand, an inadequate diet or unhealthy dietary habits will cause lethargy, fatigue, apathy, and impaired decision-making.

Now, let's take a step further and understand how this gut-brain network causes nutrition or our daily food intake to affect our mental wellness.

  • Mood Regulation : We mentioned neurotransmitters earlier. Certain foods can influence the production of these chemical messengers responsible for regulating mood. For example, foods rich in tryptophan, such as cheese, eggs, bananas, nuts, and soybeans, can help boost serotonin production, promoting happiness and relaxation.

  • Inflammation : The brain is the boss of the body, and causing it stress can affect the entire system. Thus, gut inflammation can lead to chronic inflammation throughout the body, including the brain. This type of inflammation is linked to conditions like depression and anxiety and a diet high in processed foods, sugar, and unhealthy fats that contribute to gut inflammation.

  • Gut Microbiome Diversity : What is gut microbiome diversity? It refers to the variety and richness of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi, that inhabit the human digestive tract, primarily the colon. So, a diverse and balanced gut microbiome is also closely associated with better mental health. Eating a wholesome diet that includes fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins (chicken, fish, eggs, cottage cheese, lentils) promotes the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, thus promoting mental well-being.

  • Nutrient Deficiencies : One practice where the less is more adage doesn't work is nutrition. Deficiencies in nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and magnesium have been linked to an increased risk of mood disorders. Including fish, leafy greens, and nuts in one's diet can help address these issues.

Mindful eating = A Healthy Gut

Researchers continue to prove that another age-old adage — YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT — still holds, with burgeoning evidence of strong connections between the gut and the brain.

The main link between our gut and brain is the vagus nerve, through which these organs transmit messages to each other. While the gut can influence emotional behavior in the brain, the brain can also alter the type of bacteria in the gut.

According to the American Psychological Association, bacteria in the gut produce several neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate physiological and mental processes, including mood.

95% of the body's supply of serotonin, a mood stabilizer, is produced by gut bacteria

As we already know, our dietary habits play a crucial role in our health journey. While clean eating keeps us more agile and alert, unhealthy eating makes us increasingly sluggish. So, mindful eating is vital to a healthy gut. You can start by avoiding processed foods and sugar-filled or deep-fried snacks. Also, add healthy fats, such as coconut oil, eggs, avocado, nuts, and beans, to your diet.

More importantly, make a healthy shopping list and stick to it, and don't shop for food items when you are hungry — there is a higher chance you'll make unhealthy choices on impulse.

Also, be mindful of where and when you are eating. Do not eat in front of a television because you'll tend to overeat. Eat in a relaxed environment while you focus on chewing; this will promote your gut and mental health.

Top Foods To Elevate Mental Wellness

  1. Complex Carbohydrates: Brown rice and starchy vegetables

  2. Lean Proteins: Chicken, fish, soybean, eggs

  3. Fatty Acids: Chicken, fish, nuts, flaxseeds

The Bottom Line

Your gut health is essential for many aspects of health. Several studies have shown that a disrupted microbiome can lead to numerous chronic diseases. The best way to counter this health threat is to eat a diet that’s a good mix of fruits, veggies, and lean meats for your mental and physical health to thrive.

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