Improve Your Mood With Brain Food

Imagine if eating differently could elevate your moods or improve your brain and mental health. It can! Or if reducing stress can also reduce gut symptoms . It does!

The gut and brain are interconnected more than we previously thought—new research is proving it. These discoveries have huge potential to help people with gut issues by improving brain health. At the same time, improving gut health can help people with brain or mood issues.

Sounds interesting? Learn all about the gut-brain axis and how you can leverage this new research to improve your gut and brain.

Your gut is partially controlled by your brain

Gut disorders can cause pain, bloating, or other discomfort. They impact over 35 percent of people at some point in life—affecting women more than men. Many times, these gut issues don’t have an apparent or easily diagnosable physical cause, so they can be difficult to treat and find relief from.

We already knew that our brains control some of our digestive processes. For example, research has found that even thinking about eating can cause the stomach to release juices to get itself ready for food. Your gut is also sensitive to emotions. You may recall a time when you felt anxious and nauseous or felt “knots” or “butterflies” in your stomach. 

Several studies show that stress may be an important—often overlooked—reason for gut issues. According to Harvard Health, “Stress can trigger and worsen gastrointestinal pain and other symptoms, and vice versa.”

This is why it’s so important to look at your stress and emotions if you have gut issues. Many studies have found that stress reduction techniques can lead to greater improvement in gut symptoms compared to conventional medical treatment alone. 

Before I go over how to do this, let’s take a closer look at the biology behind the gut-brain axis.

Your nervous systems

There are two main parts of your “main” nervous system. One is the part that we can consciously control, like when we move our muscles to walk around, chew our food, or play with our kids. This is called the somatic nervous system.

The other part of our nervous system controls all of those things that we can’t control, but need to survive. These include processes that happen automatically in the background: breathing, heart beating, sweating, or shivering. This part of the nervous system is called the autonomic nervous system because it works automatically.

The autonomic system regulates our body’s functions by either speeding things up or slowing them down. When things are sped up, like when our “fight or flight” reactions kick in, this is done by the sympathetic part. We feel this happening when we sense danger – real or not – and get stressed. Our heart beats faster and we breathe heavier. We’re preparing to fight or flee, so our body focuses on ensuring our muscles get enough blood and oxygen to work hard.

Slowing things down, on the other hand, is done by the parasympathetic part. This happens when we’re relaxing or after the danger has passed and we start to calm down. It allows our heart, lungs, muscles and our digestive systems do their jobs much better. In this phase, we’re secreting more digestive juices to break down food, therefore absorbing more nutrients, as well as lowering levels of inflammation in our gut. That’s why this is called the “rest and digest” phase.

Both of these arms of the autonomic nervous system—the sympathetic and parasympathetic—interact with the gut. This means that when our body is stressed we can experience gut symptoms and when we’re relaxed our digestion does what it’s meant to do. 

Your gut is your “second brain”

In addition to your “main” nervous system, your gut has its own nervous system called the enteric nervous system. The enteric nervous system spans your whole digestive tract from your esophagus, along your stomach, intestines, and colon. This nervous system is sometimes referred to as the “second brain” because it works in the same way that the “main” one does. It has 100 million nerve cells (called neurons) that communicate with each other using biochemicals called neurotransmitters.

Your enteric nervous system gets input from both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, so it can speed up or slow down when it has to. It also has a “mind” of its own and can function independently of them.

This complex system is important because of how complex our digestive processes are. For example, after we eat, the neurons in our enteric system tell the muscle cells of the stomach and intestines to contract to move food along to the next part. As our gut does this, our enteric nervous system uses neurotransmitters to communicate with the central nervous system.

Your enteric nervous system is also very closely linked to your immune system. This is because a lot of bacteria can enter the body through the mouth and end up in the gut. You have a large immune presence there to help fight them off before they become a larger problem and infect other parts of the body. The cells of the immune system provide another path for the gut to communicate up to the brain. They relay information like when they detect an infection or when your stomach is bloated, so your brain knows, too.

Even the friendly gut microbes (gut microbiota) that help us digest and make certain nutrients play a role in communicating with the brain. They make neurotransmitters, some of which are known to influence our moods.

The gut-brain axis

This intimate and complex connection between your gut and brain is called the gut-brain axis. And we now know that the signals go in both directions: from your brain down to your gut, and from your gut up to your brain.

This is where we see the link between digestive issues and brain, stress, and mood issues.

When someone is stressed enough that they get into the “fight or flight” reaction, digestion slows right down to allow the muscles to fight or flee. The same physical reaction appears whether the stress is from a real threat or a perceived one. This means that your body reacts the same whether you’re facing a real life-threatening situation or whether you’re super-stressed about a looming deadline. This disruption of the digestive process can cause pain, nausea, or other related issues.

Meanwhile, it’s known that experiencing strong or frequent digestive issues can increase your stress levels and moods. People with depression and anxiety have more GI symptoms, and vice versa.

How stress and emotions affect your gut

Because of these strong connections between the gut and brain, it’s easy to see how stress and other emotions can affect the gut. Things like fear, sadness, anger, or feeling anxious or depressed are often felt in the digestive systems. When they cause our digestive systems to speed up (or slow down) too much, this can influence pain and bloating. It can also allow bacteria to cross the lining of the gut and get into the bloodstream, activating our immune systems. It can increase inflammation in the gut or even change the microbiota.

This is why stress and strong emotions can contribute to or worsen a number of digestive issues such as Crohn’s disease, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or food allergies or sensitivities.

Then, these gut issues are communicated to the brain, increasing the stress response and affecting our moods. This loop of stress and gut issues leads to a vicious cycle.

New research shows that changes to the gut’s inflammation or microbiome can strongly affect many other parts of the body as well—not just the brain and mood. They’re also associated with depression and heart disease.

How to eat and de-stress for better gut and brain health

What you eat can have a huge impact on your health. This is particularly true when it comes to the microbiome. Your gut health improves when you eat a higher-fiber, more plant-based diet. That’s because it provides your friendly gut microbes with their preferred foods so they can grow and thrive. Probiotic foods that include health promoting bacteria are also recommended. Reducing the amount of sugar and red meat you eat can also help. These can lead to a healthier microbiome by helping to maintain a diverse community of many species of microbes to maximize your health. They can also lower the level of gut inflammation, as well as reduce the risk of depression and heart disease.

Photo by ANTONI SHKRABA on Pexels.com

For better gut and brain/mental health:

Eat More: Eat Less:
Fruits and VegetablesSugar
Nuts and SeedsRed Meat
Whole grainsProcessed breads and cereals
Fermented foods
e.g. miso, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, yogurt
Artificial sweeteners

What about stress? Evidence suggests that some stress reduction techniques or psychotherapy may help people who experience gut issues. They can lower the sympathetic “fight or flight” response, enhance the parasympathetic “rest and digest” response, and even reduce inflammation. 

Photo by Valeria Ushakova on Pexels.com

Some of the stress-reduction techniques I love and recommend are:

  • Guided meditation
  • Deep breathing
  • Mindfulness
  • Relaxation
  • Hypnosis
  • Yoga

Your gut, brain, and mood will thank you!

Final thoughts

Our bodies are complex and interact with other parts on so many different levels. The gut-brain axis is a prime example. Research shows that what we eat not only improves the gut and overall health, but also brain and mental health. Not to mention that several stress-reduction techniques have been shown to reduce digestive illness and distress as well.

If you want a meal plan to help you eat—and enjoy—more of the foods that help your gut, brain, and moods. Use promo code HG50 to save 50% on my digital meal plans . You can customize your the meal plan with hundreds of our deliciously fresh recipes suitable for the whole family to enjoy.

If you have specific medical conditions requiring dietary changes, be sure to consult a registered dietitian who can provide personalized research-based nutrition advice for your health, lifestyle, and goals.


Chickpea Quinoa Fritters (plant-based)

Plant-based Diet helps to reduce inflammation

Sugar, trans-fats, and alcohol are known to contribute to many diseases. But did you know that red meat, especially processed meat, and dairy foods may be pro-inflammatory and can lead to chronic inflammation? Before we get into how a plant-based diet can help, let’s have a look at how inflammation happens in our body.

Acute Inflammation

Can you remember the last time you cut yourself, were stung by a bee, or injured a joint? Your body reacted in a way to heal itself – to return the injured tissue to a normal state. The reaction that caused the uncomfortable pain, redness, and swelling is the result of a protective response known as inflammation. Inflammation is necessary and is not bad, but it has its place – as in the cases cited above when there is an acute injury. The benefit of an inflammatory reaction can be life-saving, so suppressing inflammation completely is not possible. When inflammation becomes chronic, however, extinguishing some of the fire can have big health benefits.

Chronic Inflammation

Chronic inflammation is harder to identify than acute and is a state of prolonged inflammation. The same cells that help with acute injury healing actually do damage if they hang around too long when the inflammatory switch gets stuck in the “on” position. While chronic inflammation is not known to be the primary cause any one disease, it is now widely accepted that it plays a role in diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases, metabolic disorders, such as overweight and obesity, as well as neurological diseases. Causes of chronic inflammation may include persistent infection, food sensitivities, leaky gut, poor diet, poor sleep hygiene, environment, and exercise without proper recovery. Also, visceral fat, which is the fat tissue stored close to organs in the mid-section, can be a driver of chronic inflammation as it is dynamic and produces a variety of pro-inflammatory hormones.

Anti-Inflammatory Diet

The easiest, low-risk approach to addressing chronic inflammation is with diet. An anti-inflammatory diet is described in research as one that is appropriate in calories, low in processed carbohydrates, high in fiber, high in mono and polyunsaturated fats, higher in omega 3 than omega 6, and high in antioxidants. Translation: High in whole, plant foods with a focus on healthy fats and moderate animal protein intake –at least 75% plant foods and no more than 25% animal proteins.

This type of 75/25 dietary ratio hits all the anti-inflammatory buttons as whole plant foods are almost always less calorie-dense than processed foods, they are high in fiber, and contain a wide variety of disease-fighting antioxidants. Certain plant foods such as chia seed, avocados, walnuts, and olive oil are rich in healthy fats. The other 25% of your plate? High-quality animal proteins. Salmon, sardines, and mackerel are animal proteins of note as they are also excellent sources of omega-3 fats, which are anti-inflammatory.

Transitioning to a Plant-based Diet

By reducing intake of processed foods and replacing them with colorful, whole plant foods you are well on your way to reaping the benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet and reducing risk of many chronic diseases. Curious as how to transition to a plant-based diet with success? I have created an e-book that shows you how to plan, shop, and cook plant foods, including an extensive pantry list to stock up on essential ingredients. This FREE e-book is a great resource to get you started on plant-based eating.


Sheet Pan Butternut Squash Frittata – Fast and Easy

A simple one pan dish is a dream for any busy parent! If you haven’t tried making a sheet pan meal, just be warned that there’s no going back once you do because it’s so fast and easy. Imagine cooking a delicious meal, seemingly gourmet, all on a half-sheet baking pan in the oven with little fuss. However, there are a few simple rules – right type of pan, lining the pan, sequencing cook time, and seasonings – that will ensure a home run! I am sharing a seasonal recipe from my Healthydigs Meal Plan Program that is nutritious and gluten-free. Enjoy it for breakfast, lunch or dinner!