2019 Nov 24
Ever felt the blues after days of binging on bad food choices? Well, it’s not in your head! There is an actual wave of scientific evidence that suggest that food can affect one’s mental state. The brain-gut relationship is currently emerging as a field of study to be exploited to gain an understanding of mood regulation by the gut, and for the treatment of mental disorders such as hypomania and depression. Let us look at how food could possibly affect one’s mood and how you could take control of this mechanism in order to drive yourself towards better moods.
First things first, what is a “mood” and what controls it?
Fleeting episodes of mental state ranging from elation, happiness to anxiety, anger and irritability are referred to as moods. Moods are regulated by our brains and changes in mood are a biological reflection of the physical body’s response to food and nutrition.
1. Keep your sugar intake low
Yes, this is something we’ve all heard and then re-heard, at some point in our lives. But if you think that your sugar intake affects only your waistline and physical health you could be wrong. It isn’t the sugar in itself that directly affects your mood, but rather the hormone insulin that directly affects our moods. insulin is secreted by our bodies to burn or metabolize the sugar we consume. Insulin plays a vital role in the brain-gut relationship. The normal response of cells towards insulin is disrupted when foods with high sugar are consumed regularly. This disruption called insulin resistance has been shown to lead to depressive moods. The issue is further aggravated when our diets are low in fibre.
Several studies have shown that better mood quality has been observed among people with higher intakes of dietary fibre, especially from fruits and vegetables. Higher intake of fibre increases mood quality and reduces risk of depression despite the relationship between the two not fully understood yet.
Increase your fibre intake with vegetables and fruits. Foods such as Lasia stalk (kohila), red rice, basil seeds (kasa kasa ata), avocado, banana, lentils and sweet potato (bathala) are known to be high in fibre.
Read our article on how to reduce your sugar intake level and prevent insulin resistance.
2. Take care of your gut flora
Gut flora or gut microbiota is a term used to refer to the micro-organisms (mostly bacteria) that live in our digestive systems. Gut microbiota is an area of study that has been gaining interest over the last few decades. Food is a major contributing factor in the maintenance of healthy gut flora. Although this area of study has not been exhaustively studied with respect to its effect on mood, the little scientific evidence available suggests that the diversity and total population of gut flora could be linked with mood disorders.
The mechanism by which gut flora influences mood is not fully understood. Since gut flora is responsible for the production of certain vitamins such as: Vitamin K, and vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, and B12. Water-soluble B vitamins are known as the cornerstones of the central nervous system as they are the building blocks from which neurotransmitters are produced. Therefore, it is possible that an imbalanced or dysfunctional gut microbiota could result in a deficiency of vitamins which could result in mood dysregulation.
Consumption of prebiotics and probiotics are a promising way to replenish your gut flora. Even though both probiotics and prebiotics sound similar and are often used interchangeably, these are two different, distinct groups of food.
Prebiotics are foods high in fibre that can enable the growth of gut microbes. Foods such as onions, garlic, leeks, bananas, avocados and any other high fibre foods mentioned in point 1.
Probiotics are foods that contain live cultures of bacteria. Yoghurt, curd, idly and dosa are touted probiotics by nutritionists. The long-forgotten Sri Lankan Diya bath is also one of the best sources of probiotics. This is a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast food which is prepared by fermenting leftover cooked rice with water overnight, coconut milk, chilli flakes and raw chillies can also be added to suit your palate. While this used to be a Sri Lankan staple back in the day, it is now becoming a less common choice of food due to changing lifestyle.
3. Stimulation of the vagus nerve
Ok, that one was a head-scratcher. But let us explain. The vagus nerve is a pair of nerves that run down from the medulla oblongata in the brain, through the neck, lungs and abdomen. It is also known as the ‘second brain’ due its role in regulation of emotional stability and mood. Studies have shown that the stimulation of the vagus nerve could alleviate symptoms of mood disorder and have an anti-depressant effect.
So how exactly does one go about stimulating a specific nerve? The vagus nerve can be stimulated in two ways; by probiotics and through periods of intermittent fasting.
Load up on probiotics! Read point number 2 above.
Try periods of fasting. However, this does not mean that you need to starve yourself. Listen to your body and fast accordingly. Try having an early dinner around 6.00 p.m. followed by a late breakfast at around 8.00 a.m, that’s a 14 hour fast right there. A typical period of fasting allows consumption of water and other zero-calorie beverages such as tea, coffee with no added sugar or cream. If you suffer from anaemia, diabetes, gastritis, gastric ulcers or are taking any other medication make sure that you discuss with your doctor how or if you can fast.