How diet can affect your mental wellbeing, and steps you can take to counter it

How diet can affect your mental wellbeing, and steps you can take to counter it

Trust your gut

Text: Tracy Phillips

Illustrator: Felicia Yap

It's scientifically proven that there are links between the gut, the mind and wellbeing. Does the voice in your head come from your stomach? And if so, how can you manage your diet more effectively to ensure better overall wellness?

Can one eat their way to happiness? Apart from clearing our physical and mental clutter, it's equally important to bear in mind that our diet plays a part in our overall wellbeingWhen we think about the anatomy that relates to mind, stress and addiction, it's typically the brain that gets zeroed in on as the master (and culprit) of our impulses. But if you have a gut feeling that things aren't so simple, you're absolutely right. In fact, as far back as the third century B.C.E, Greek philosopher and father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, had already pronounced that "all diseases begin in the gut".

how diet affects the mind

The gut — a.k.a our enteric nervous system — stretches about nine metres from the oesophagus to the anus. It's concentrated with some 100 million neurons connecting it to the brain — more than any other part of the body. Outnumbering the neurons still, is gut microbiome, the trillions of bacteria and microorganisms that live in our intestinal tract. These miniscule creatures help our bodies digest and absorb nutrients, boost our immune system, fight infections and regulate our metabolism — but more scientists are concluding that they have an important role in supporting our mental health too. In fact, there's a new term and study for some of these good bacteria. Coined 'psychobiotics' by psychiatrist Ted Dinan and neuroscientist, John F. Cryan, it involves ingesting them in adequate amounts to manipulate the brain/gut axis, produce health benefits in psychiatrics, and to alleviate symptoms for sufferers of depression, irritable bowel syndrome and chronic fatigue. 

Your body's happy place
If you find it hard to believe that gut microorganisms can have such an impact on your perception and behaviour, did you know that 90 percent of the body's serotonin is made in the digestive tract? Serotonin is one of the chemicals closely linked to regulating cyclic body processes, maintaining mood balance and contributing to wellbeing — its deficiency can lead to depression. You would have felt the connection between your mind and your gut on another level too. How else can you explain the feeling of butterflies in your stomach when you get nervous or excited? 'Gut instinct', anyone? 

how diet affects the mind

What you can do for better gut health
With all the facts surfacing on the key link between the gut and the brain and their bidirectional communication, it seems logical that managing our diet could be even more effective at combatting the blues, than anti-depressant medication. Dr. David Perlmutter, author of New York Times bestseller, Grain Brain, says in his newest book, Brain Maker, that "just as your brain can send butterflies in your stomach, your gut can relay its state of calm or alarm to our nervous system". Most prescription anti-depressants work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain but since we now know that the gut produces way more of this happiness molecule, it makes it the best place to start.

There are a multitude of diets out there that support good gut health and overall wellbeing, some more challenging to stick to than others. Here are two suggestions to help you on your way, depending on the time and commitment level you have. It's recommended to start with a detox no matter what the nutrition plan you embark on, especially if you're not emptying your bowels daily. Today's processed foods and environmental pollutants can cause poor digestion and a build-up in our colon, so opt for ingesting a colon cleanser from a health food store or consider fasting with guidance since it effects the cellular level.

how diet affects the mind

To put it simply, just cut down
Cut down on refined sugars, gluten, processed foods and high GI refined carbohydrates like bread and white rice. Wheat and other gluten-containing grains contain the protein gliadin, which increases zonulin production and contributes directly to a leaky gut. Instead, eat more low GI, fresh and fibre-rich foods like colourful vegetables. Also, make sure you're drinking an adequate amount of water daily to aid in the digestion process. It's when waste can't pass through easily that the likelihood of bad bacteria develops in the gut.

For a more committed change, try
The Whole 30
If you really want to reset your body and are commited to preparing most of your meals for a whole month, you can consider doing The Whole 30. Established by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, it's a nutritional program designed to help you put an end to unhealthy cravings and habits, restore a healthy metabolism, heal your digestive tract, and balance your immune system. It mainly involves cutting out certain food groups, such as sugar, grains, dairy and legumes that are inflammatory for the body and the cause of many ailments from skin to digestive maladies, allergy and fertility issues. 30 days gives your body the time to reset and learn to function at its optimum. After the month is up, you can slowly re-introduce the food categories you cut out, observing how your body reacts to see which you want to add back to your diet or permanently remove.

I tried this nutrition plan myself and it really worked well for me. I have more consistent energy throughout the day, I don't wake up with the same fogginess, odd aches and pains and I feel a lot less bloated — this has shown up on the weighing scale too. I feel more productive overall, which has contributed to an increased feeling of joy in general - success! Yes, it takes some effort to prep your meals daily since so much of what we buy outside comes laden with sugars and additives, but there's a confidence in knowing exactly what you're putting into your body and knowing that you are fueling it right. 

Stay tuned:
Join us next week for part 3 of The Joy Series — How exercise impacts our wellbeing and the easy ways we can incorporate more fitness into our daily lives.
If you missed last week's installment on making space for happiness, click here