Food often influences the way we feel about ourselves. As a second tray of Christmas cookies got passed around the party, I thought to myself, “I’m not going to feel good if I eat another one of those suckers”.
It’s true- I wasn’t going to feel good if I shoved another cookie down my throat. I only wear this red sweater once a year and I need it to fit! Snug-sweater-insecurities aside, I started thinking about the fact that food really does impact the way we feel- not just physically, but emotionally.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “you are what you eat”. However deeply this resonates with you, I’d propose a new version- “You feel how you eat”.
I’m not talking about feeling bloated and blah after eating a fifth (or sixth or seventh…) Christmas cookie. This also isn’t just about how tons of refined sugar, processed foods, and junk food is bad for you.
I’m talking about how food literally changes our physiology. The foods we eat affect the way we feel not just physically, but moods and emotions too. The effect of the food we eat stretches far beyond our waistline.
The connection between the food we eat and the quality of emotional well-being is overlooked and unaddressed, commonly leaving people to think their mood swings, depression, fogginess, even anxiety are “all in their head” or “just the way they are.”
But what if it isn’t all in their head?
What if it has more to do with what’s in their gut?
The power of the gut, the gut-brain connection, and how it contributes to overall well being has long been underestimated.
Wellbeing and what we choose to eat goes far beyond physical weight and waistline; it very much is associated with emotional wellness. To dig a little deeper, it would be remiss to not highlight the gut and its role in the connection of how we eat and how we feel.
LET’S TALK ABOUT OUR GUT
I know, I know…we don’t like to talk about our guts. We suck them in on the beach and hide them away behind high-waisted mom jeans. But our gut is important!
While we’re over here trying to hide our external gut away from the world, our internal gut is working hard to keep us healthy and functioning.
Our digestive system holds more bacteria than we have cells in our bodies. There’s a whole complex organ system in our gut!
To put it into a little perspective…the digestive tract (also called the “digestive system”, “gut” ) extends from the mouth through the esophagus and throughout the intestines. Adults have about 6 meters (20 feet) of small intestines and 1.5 meters (5 feet) of the large intestine in their bodies. Our gut is a pretty big deal.
You may already know that the digestive system (aka gut) is responsible for breaking down food and helping us eliminate it (aka poop). However, it contributes to a lot more than that shit (literally).
Aside from effective digestion, a healthy gut contributes to building a strong immune system, improving mood, and a variety of other factors that add to our wellbeing.
The gut has 100 trillion bacteria that make up the “gut microbiome”. These bacteria perform a multitude of tasks like:
– protecting the lining of our intestines and provide a barrier against toxins or “bad” bacteria.
– limiting inflammation
– improving how well we absorb nutrients from the food we eat-
– activating neural pathways that connect the gut and brain
Basically, the gut is important well worth considering, so much so that the gut is also referred to as the second brain.
When our guts are healthy and happy, we are more likely to feel healthy and feel happy.
A LITTLE ON THE GUT BRAIN CONNECTION
I’ll bet you’ve witnessed the gut-brain connection in action without even realizing it.
Have you ever had an upset stomach when nervous or anxious about something?
Maybe you have a big test coming up or a hard conversation to have and you’re belly just doesn’t feel good?
Have you fallen in love or had a crush on someone and gotten those “butterflies”?
These are examples of the gut-brain connection! They talk, yo!
Your brain and central nervous system contain billions of neurons that tell the body how to behave. Your gut also contains A LOT of neurons that are connected to the brain through nerves in the nervous system.
One of the main ways the gut and brain communicate bi-directionally (both ways) is through the vagus nerve. Through this axis nerve, information can be transferred from food to feelings as signals travel to and from one organ to another.
The gut and brain are also connected through neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters influence the way we think, behave, and how we feel. The gut happens to be where the majority of our neurotransmitters are produced.
Take for instance serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, nature’s antidepressant, that helps us regulate important things like appetite, moods, and sleep. It’s estimated that over 90% of our serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract (the gut). The gut also makes more dopamine (the “feel-good hormone” than the brain does! Another notable neurotransmitter that helps control feelings of fear and anxiety called gamma-aminobutyric acid (or GABA) is produced largely in the gut.
When you start to consider the interconnectedness and close relationship of the gut and brain, you start to think about the importance of consuming food that’s going to encourage “healthy dialogue”.
FUELING THE BRAIN
Think about it- our brains are constantly on and we have a lot of things to thank them for. They work around the clock, 24/7, even when we’re asleep. To function properly, our brains need a constant supply of fuel. The type of fuel we provide affects the function and structure of our brain, ultimately contributing to our mood.
The way we get this “fuel” for our brains is through the food we eat. The fuel is processed by our gut and supplied to the brain as they communicate.
When we eat good-quality foods, it serves as the premium fuel our brains need to thrive and influence the way we feel. If we put nothing but poor-quality fuel into our system, the brain isn’t going to function optimally and our moods can reflect it.
We can feel the difference when we eat life-giving foods.
I’m not saying put down the Christmas cookie right now.
Just consider the gut-brain connection and how the things you’re eating on a regular basis might be contributing to the way you feel. Consider what type of fuel you’re giving your body and brain. Recognize that this could very well be contributing to your mood and mental clarity, and not just physically. Processed food is stunting, clouding up your cognitive abilities, draining you of energy, and contributing to a host of other issues that prohibit you from feeling good.
Pay attention to how eating different foods makes you actually feel — not just in the moment, but in the next few hours or even the next day.
BABY STEPS TO START PROMOTING GUT HEALTH
Try crowding out processed foods and refined sugars with cleaner, whole-food, life-giving options. To promote gut-health, you can start to add things like fermented foods (kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, kombucha), quality yogurt, or bone broth to your diet. You can also find a quality probiotic- a supplement containing strains of the good bacteria you want in your gut. Here’s my current favorite probiotic that my family takes.
These options will cheer your gut on to promote good bacteria that encourage proper digestion, nutrient absorption, and strengthen the immune system. And remember neurotransmitters and how the majority of them are produced in the gut? BY supporting and fueling your body and with cleaner options you’ll encourage healthy brain function and start feeling good!
You guys…this is so important! We need to consider the gut-brain connection and how it is very much a part of who we are, how we think, how we feel, how we behave. It’s interwoven into the literal fibers of our being. By considering the relationship between gut and brain, and by paying attention to the foods we eat and how they might be influencing us on a physical, biochemical, and even emotional level, we can learn better ways to play the offense against thinks like crappy moods and anxiety.
The next time you’re feeling blah or extra anxious or even depressed, there are two places to start looking: your heart and your pantry.