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Digestive Health

Mind Your Gut: Does Your Gut Affect Your Mood?

Do you have ‘comfort foods’? Foods that physically make you feel as good as they do mentally? It’s connected to how gut health affects mental health.

Feb 27, 2024

5 min read

Written by Aakansha Mehta
Medically Reviewed by 

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infographics representing how the brain and gut health are connected

Have you ever found yourself experiencing butterflies in your stomach when you’re excited or nervous? Felt nauseous during stressful moments or uneasy situations? Sensed a physical gut-wrench when anxious and scared? This is because the effects of gut health on mental health are real.

There is a strong connection between our gut and brain. Our moods and physical feelings are often a result of what we eat, and stomach problems are one of the most common symptoms of stress and anxiety. The gut is intrinsically connected to the brain in the way we process the outside world and its triggers. Our gut, or the collection of organs that comprise the mouth, oesophagus, stomach and intestines, processes all stimuli just as much as the brain, and just like we use our brain to regulate our nervous system, our gut is capable of doing the same. Our brain experiences and processes emotions, and so does the gut. We feel anxiety in our ‘heads’ and also in our ‘stomachs’. Both stress and anxiety might start off as being related to mental health, but they also manifest as physical symptoms. Chronic anxiety is usually associated with a tensing or tightening of our physical body—often a subconscious act—and this affects our digestive system i.e. our gut. And the highway where all this information is constantly going back and forth from the gut to the brain and vice versa is the vagus nerve, which essentially connects the brain to the gut and other vital organs. It’s also called the gut translator, impacting the parasympathetic nervous system and is associated with mood regulation. The vagus nerve is also what enables the gut to influence mood, cognition and mental health.

Our body has a second brain—and yes, it’s the gut 

Let's understand a few basics—Both our brain and gut have a lot of nerves. The gut is regulated by the Enteric Nervous System (ENS) and is often called the body’s second brain. The nerves in the ENS have the same type of neurons and neurotransmitters as the central nervous system in the brain. According to Harvard Health the brain has a direct effect on the stomach and intestines and vice versa. As the report explains, the mere thought of eating can release the stomach juices needed for digestion, even before the food gets there. In a similar way, if the intestines are ‘troubled’, they send signals to the brain. As a study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (USA) cites, "The gut-brain axis consists of bidirectional communication between the central and enteric nervous system, linking emotional and cognitive centres of the brain with peripheral intestinal functions." Does this mean we can change our moods with food? Maybe. There are serotonin receptors in the gut—the hormone that affects mood and wellbeing. Eating a balanced diet can contribute towards better mental health. This list in fact, lists foods that can work as antidepressants, like mussels, salmon, watercress, spinach, romaine lettuce, cauliflower, oysters and strawberries. However, do remember, mental health and ‘feeling good or bad’ is a wide spectrum. There are many elements that go into the wellbeing of a human being. Depending on just one aspect might not be a comprehensive enough treatment for particular mental health challenges.

Now that we know how gut health affects mental health here’s what to eat for feeling like you’re on the top of the world

  1. Try something fishy
    A recent study in New Zealand found that fish consumption was linked to better mental health. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids may be mood stabilisers, and promote mental wellbeing according to some researchers.
  2. Go on a Mediterranean diet
    This is often considered as a primary example of a diet strategy that can help improve mood. It consists of mostly vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, legumes, olive oil, beans and wholegrains prepared in traditional Mediterranean flavours. The Mediterranean diet also helps to keep fatty liver ailment in check.
  3. Eat Selenium-rich food
    Brazil nuts, oysters, whole wheat and regular pasta, sunflower seeds, brown rice, oatmeal, soy nuts, tofu etc. are all rich in selenium, a mineral. According to WebMD, five studies have reported that low intake of selenium is linked to poorer moods. 

Gain some, lose some — what to avoid for better mental health

  1. Coffee
    Coffee culture might seem to be trendy now, but caffeine can make some jittery and nervous. It also hinders a natural circadian rhythm and might exacerbate anxiety. 
  2. Frosting
    We love bingeing on cake, but all that refined sugar is not doing any favours. Frosting is often loaded with 2 grams of trans fat per serving or partially hydrogenated oil that can mess with your mental well-being.
  3. Soy Sauce
    For people who are sensitive to gluten, this can induce anxiety and depression, and for others, this can make you feel sluggish and lethargic at times.

Understanding the relationship between the mind and gut can truly help you make the most of your day. Balanced meals that make the most of naturally available local produce will promote gut health and in turn your mental health, and more. Studies have found higher rates of depression and anxiety in patients with GI disorders like irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis. The next time you feel ‘off’, don’t just reach for chocolate in the fridge. Maybe the ticket to a mood change lies in the cauliflower right next to it. 

Medically reviewed by:

Dr Amey Sonavane, Gastroenterologist and Hepatologist

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