You may have heard the expression, “Good health starts in the gut,” meaning, the state of your gut has wide-ranging consequences for your overall heath. This saying holds especially true when it comes to mental health, including anxiety and depression.
The lining of your digestive system is covered in nerve cells that send messages to the brain. Nerve cells, called neurons, communicate with each other via chemical substances called neurotransmitters (NTs) to control your movement, thoughts and feelings. When your NTs are out of balance, it can contribute to depression, anxiety, brain fog, fatigue and insomnia.
What’s more, the digestive system is home to both good and bad bacteria, which not only increase or reduce inflammation but are also responsible for controlling mood and anxiety. Researchers are finding that irritations in the gastrointestinal system send messages to the central nervous system that trigger mood changes.
What you eat deeply affects your gut bacteria, NTs, hormone production, energy level and mood. This meal plan features the ultimate balance of colorful fruits and vegetables, clean protein and healthy fats to help your brain manufacture the right balance of NTs to help regulate your mood.
There are numerous neurotransmitters (NTs) sending messages in the body that control mood. Here are the four major NTs and how they affect you.
Serotonin: Calming. Serotonin helps control mood, appetite and sleep. People who suffer from depression often have lower levels of serotonin. Ninety-five percent of your body’s serotonin is produced by your gut bacteria. Serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan, found in chicken, turkey and eggs. To convert tryptophan to serotonin, you need iron (from meat and leafy green vegetables), zinc (from lamb, pumpkin seeds and chickpeas), vitamin B3 (from turkey, chicken, peanuts and tuna), vitamin B6 (from turkey, beef, tuna and sweet potatoes) and vitamin C (from citrus and bell peppers).
Norepinephrine (NE): Alertness, concentration, motivation; helps convert memories to long-term storage. Low levels of norepinephrine are associated with depression. It is made from tyrosine, which gets converted to dopamine and then to NE. Tyrosine is found in dairy, bananas, avocado, almonds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, lima beans and fish. Copper (from beef liver, sunflower seeds, almonds and lentils) and vitamins B6 and C are also important for these conversions to take place.
Dopamine: Stimulating, alerting, pleasure-recognizing. Dopamine is responsible for controlling movement and the flow of information to the part of the brain linked to thought and emotion. It is also connected to the brain’s reward systems. Many foods and drugs, as well as thrilling experiences, stimulate the release of dopamine, which gives you a euphoric feeling. When dopamine levels fall, the urge to seek out more of the same food or behavior spikes in an effort to keep the level of dopamine high. Dopamine is made from the amino acid tyrosine with the help of magnesium (from leafy green vegetables, pumpkin seeds, almonds, yogurt and kefir), folate (from leafy green vegetables, asparagus and avocado), vitamin B6 and zinc. Dopamine is easily oxidized, so eat plenty of antioxidant foods to help protect your dopamine-using neurons.
Gamma-aminobutyric Acid (GABA): Calming, focus. Too little GABA is linked to anxiety disorders. Glutamine is the primary building block of GABA and can be found in halibut, legumes, brown rice and spinach. Vitamins B3, B6 and B12 (from sardines, beef and tuna) help glutamine convert to GABA. Green tea is rich in L-theanine, an amino acid that increases GABA activity.