I was invited to write an article for The National Citizen Service as part of their mental health series about food and mental health. Below is the content and a link to the original article: https://wearencs.com/connect/mental-health-and-food
You may be familiar with the phrases ‘gut feeling’ or ‘butterflies in your stomach’, these expressions were around long before we knew there was a proven link between mental and gut health. Research now confirms that not only does this relationship exist, but the gut and brain are actually connected by millions of nerves. The most significant being the vagus nerve, which acts like a ‘communication highway’ between the two...This is why the gut is referred to as ‘the second brain’!
The gut and brain are also connected by chemicals called neurotransmitters which control feelings and emotions e.g., serotonin ‘the happy hormone’ and GABA, which controls fear and anxiety. And, of the trillions of bacteria that we are made of, the majority is in our gut, and can influence our health both positively and negatively. Our lifestyle and what we eat plays a huge part in the health of the gut and ultimately our overall health and happiness.
So, what do these incredible gut bacteria need? Well, fibre is very important; it’s broken down by the gut bacteria and transformed into metabolites called short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs help gut cells to produce serotonin so it’s worthwhile upping your fibre intake! Foods that contain fibre are fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts, whole grains (wholewheat, brown rice, wild rice, oats, quinoa, millet), legumes and beans (not just baked beans! Red kidney beans, borlotti, black eyed or pinto beans, bean chilli or bean salad would provide a few).
The more diverse your diet, the more balanced and diverse the gut bacteria will be. Having a greater array of different foods, especially plant-based ones will support more species of bacteria which will then be able to provide a larger amount of health benefits. Think ‘eating the rainbow’, consuming as many different coloured vegetables and fruits as possible! It is easy to get stuck in a pattern of eating the same few foods but make a conscious effort to have a handful of nuts/seeds instead of crisps or a fruit you don’t usually eat – be adventurous. Try mixing up your breakfasts - one morning have nut butter and banana on toast and another have porridge with fruit and nuts.
Probiotics are bacteria which can provide health benefits to the body, especially if your gut health is imbalanced. They live in the gut, but can also be found in fermented food, things like plain yoghurt, kefir, kimchi and kombucha. Studies have shown that probiotics help reduce levels of anxiety, stress and depression, so try incorporating some more into your daily food intake - but start slow and small as they can have a powerful effect on the gut! Studies have also shown that changes in the gut bacteria can reduce cortisol - the stress hormone - in your blood and produce the calming neurotransmitter GABA!
To summarise, when it comes to mental health and food, diversity is key. Try your best to eat a balanced diet; five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, foods that are rich in Omega-3 fats like oily fish, nuts, olive oil and flax seeds, and foods that contain Tryptophan, which boost serotonin like turkey, eggs and cheese. And remember, to enable good digestion and absorption of all this good stuff from these gut friendly foods, eat in a relaxed state, not rushing or ‘on the go’, chew well and you will make your ‘second brain’ very happy!