red-haired woman cooking with white wine

March is National Nutrition Month and it has been over a year since this COVID-19 situation. Is anybody not feeling stressed and anxious these days? Whether your stress is mainly pandemic related or something you have always lived with, there is more and more evidence that our diet affects not only our body but also our brain.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 40 million adults in the US struggle with anxiety. Around 15.7 million adults age 18 or older have experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year, and 322 million people worldwide live with depression. Nearly 10% of adults will experience some type of a mood disorder in a given year.  

The Gut–Brain Connection

As the human embryo grows, the neural cells that will make up our central nervous system spread, forming the enteric nervous system in the gut. This system contains hundreds of millions of neurons, more than anywhere else in the body. Even more than in your brain!

This is why the gut is called the “second brain,” the connection between the two is profound and primal. They are linked by the vagus nerve, the communication highway between the digestive system and the brain.

And this connection is also influenced by the universe of healthy bacteria that live within our Gastro-Intestinal (GI) system also known as our gut microbiome, which means that we all need to take care of those beneficial individuals working 24/7 for many aspects of our health including our moods and ability to respond to stress.

And what does your gut microbiome like us to eat? Good news here: Pretty much the tried and true Mediterranean diet. A diet rich in whole grains, colorful vegetables, fruits, fish, nuts, and some lean meat will keep them happy and healthy. When you provide essential nutrients to your gut, then they in turn can provide your brain with what it needs to produce the right neurotransmitters and brain chemicals to keep your moods stable. Could it really be that simple?  Yes!

A good example is serotonin, the neurotransmitter involved with the regulation of mood and social behavior, appetite and digestion, sleep, and memory.  Serotonin is also known as the feel-good neurotransmitter, as it contributes to happy moods and the ability to reduce negative reactivity to stress. It is produced in the brain but amazingly, 90% of our serotonin supply is found in the digestive tract and in blood platelets. The amino acid, L-trytophan, found in many of the foods listed below is the precursor or basis for the production of serotonin.

What is Nutritional Psychiatry?

As more physicians and dietitians have realized how the diet and nutrition affect the brain, the field called nutritional psychiatry has grown. Studies have indicated that inflammation is a problem that is driving many kinds of diseases and conditions. This has led to looking at nutrition and a non-inflammatory diet as a way to avoid illness and improve health. This thinking now includes mental health as well.

Antioxidants reduce Anxiety 

Foods designated as high in antioxidants by the USDA include:

  • Beans: Dried small red, Pinto, black, red kidney
  • Fruits: Apples (Gala, Granny Smith, Red Delicious), prunes, sweet cherries (cherries contain antioxidants like quercetin), plums, black plums
  • Berries: Blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, blueberries
  • Nuts: Walnuts, pecans
  • Vegetables: Artichokes, kale, spinach, beets, broccoli
  • Spices: Turmeric (containing the active ingredient curcumin) and ginger

Foods to Support Serotonin

Brain serotonin levels can be raised by eating foods rich in L-tryptophan such as:

  • Chicken and turkey
  • Eggs 
  • Cheese
  • Salmon and tuna 
  • Tempeh and miso
  • Beans and lentils
  • Spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables 
  • Pumpkin and pumpkin seeds 
  • Chia seeds, and nuts

More foods that can give your brain and nervous system extra help:

  • Asparagus: A folate deficiency can elevate the risk of anxiety and depression, and one cup provides two-thirds of your daily recommended folate.
  • Avocado: The B vitamins, including thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin, have positive effects on the nervous system. Also high in vitamin E, only found in foods like nuts and avocados that have a high-fat content.
  • Yogurt and other Fermented Foods: Those that contain “live and active cultures” are guaranteed to have 100 million probiotic cultures per gram or about 25 billion probiotic cultures in a cup. Other probiotic foods: pickles, sauerkraut, kombucha, and miso
  • Dark Chocolate: Yay! Some researchers have found that women’s serotonin levels are increased as much from eating dark chocolate as from having sex!  
  • Chamomile Tea: A 2016 clinical trial, with results published in the journal Phytomedicine, suggests that those who drank this tea over a long-term period “significantly” reduced severe generalized anxiety disorder symptoms.
  • Milk: Old school! The glass of milk at bedtime recommended by your grandmother provides minerals like calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Magnesium in particular has been studied for its role in anxiety and sleep. Milk is also a great source of tryptophan.
  • Pineapple: Contains 17 micrograms of serotonin per gram, also bromelain, an anti-inflammatory enzyme.

Luckily the diet that is good for your brain and your mood, is also good for disease prevention and overall longevity. You’ve heard me sing this song before; try to incorporate more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables into your daily diet and minimize processed foods, sugar, and salty snacks.

I’d love to hear your recipes for stress reduction. My favorite is chocolate cookies and milk, both increase serotonin and smiles.

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