Food for Thought

by Destinee Cushnie-Mason

Welcome to “Food for Thought,” a blog series designed to be exactly that! By delving into the intricate connection between gut health and mental well-being, this blog aims to stimulate your mind and your tastebuds and provoke thoughtful reflection on how nutrition influences mood. We aspire to equip you with valuable insights into taking charge of your gut health and empower you with practical dietary adjustments that can profoundly impact your mental wellness. Follow along weekly and savour the exploration!

2. The Gut-Brain Connection: Superhighway of Communication

The Messenger Molecules: Serotonin and Dopamine

  • Serotonin: Serotonin, often dubbed the “happy hormone” has many important roles in the body. These include mood, appetite, and sleep regulation, memory, learning ability, and sexual function.
  • Dopamine: Dopamine is another key feel-good messenger molecule, with an amazingly important role in the brain’s reward system, affecting motivation, pleasure, and reinforcement.
  • While serotonin creates a long-lasting sense of wellbeing, dopamine’s pleasurable effects are more temporary – it’s the reason you repeat things that made you feel good.

You may have heard of these chemicals before. They’re strongly involved in many mental conditions including major depressive disorder. For example the widely used treatment of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), work by increasing serotonin activity. Serotonin and dopamine dysregulation are also associated with anxiety, schizophrenia, ADHD and substance use disorder.

So you might be surprised to find out that about 90% of our serotonin, and 50% of our dopamine, is produced in the gut, not the brain! And importantly, through improving our gut health and eating feel-good foods, we’re able to influence how much we produce and how well they work.

A Very Powerful Pathway

  • A Nervous Gut: Did you know, the gut is the only organ in the whole of the human body to have its own, dedicated nervous system? The enteric nervous system is a complex network of nerves that control the contraction, digestion, mineral absorption, immunity, and movement that goes on in our gastrointestinal system. So, it makes sense that because of this nervous connection, scientists think that mastering our gut health could be key to protecting our mental health.
  • An Introduction to the Vagus Nerve: The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body, connecting with every single organ. Crucially, it’s fundamental in delivering messages between the enteric nervous system and the brain.
  • Vagus Nerve and Emotional Responses: Often considered the nerve of relaxation, the vagus nerve is deeply intertwined with our emotional responses and stress levels. We can harness its power to help regulate our emotional reactions and mental well-being.

Fun fact: there are many unusual ways to stimulate the vagus nerve to promote well-being including breathing deeply, humming, gargling and getting a massage. My favourite is singing (badly) in the shower! Let me know in the comments below if you do this too!

Nurturing the Gut-Brain Connection:

Nutrition plays a pivotal role in nurturing a healthy gut microbiome and supporting optimal serotonin and dopamine production. By consuming a diet rich in fibre, prebiotics, and other gut-friendly nutrients, we can promote gut health and enhance our mental well-being. Follow this blog series to find out more about these!

Foods for Mood – Practical tips:

There are so many delicious foods rich in nutrients that can be added to your diet to boost serotonin and dopamine production and use in the body, here are some suggestions:

  • Omega-3s are absolute powerhouses for the brain, and yet almost no-one in the UK is getting enough for optimum brain function. Omega-3s are found mostly in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, pilchards, and herring but other fish have some too. Flax seeds are an amazing plant source. These mega molecules increase blood flow to the brain and stimulate the vagus nerve leading to better memory, cognitive wellbeing, learning ability and overall mood. If you hate fish, speak to your GP about the possibility of an Omega-3 supplement.
  • Tryptophan is one of the building blocks of serotonin. Eating foods rich in this nutrient boosts brain health and helps improve sleep, decreases pain, anxiety and risk of neurological diseases. Sources include eggs, salmon, soy products, cheese, pineapple, tofu, nuts and seeds, chicken and turkey. Pairing these with healthy carbohydrates like wholegrains amplify the effects.
  • Tyrosine, like tryptophan, is a building block but this time for dopamine. It helps your nerves talk to each-other and can increase mental sharpness. It is sourced from similar food groups to tryptophan. Sesame seeds are great and can be sprinkled on anything!
  • Drinking green tea boosts the release of both serotonin and dopamine, as well as providing an antioxidant hit and aiding digestion. Try adding a cup to your daily routine!

So now we know a bit about what’s going on inside us and a few ideas on how we can positively alter our gut-brain communication. Did any of these tips surprise you? Will you be adding in any mood foods to your mealtimes? Let us know below.

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