Nutrition for the mind and body
The body and mind are connected in more ways than one, especially through the gut. The food we eat directly impacts our hormones, mood, and more. Here's what you need to know about how nutrition can impact not just your gut health, but your mental and emotional state as well.
May 17, 2022 | Koren Bradshaw, MS, CDN, CLC
Ever had butterflies in your stomach or a strong gut feeling? Maybe your digestion gets disrupted, or you have some heartburn when you’re stressed. These are just a few of the outward physical signs we have that our body and mind are truly connected. Today, so many people are searching for “balance” — we’d like to be healthy, feel calm and not stressed, have plenty of time to enjoy families and friends, and accomplish the days’ tasks while fulfilling ourselves with work. This is a tall order that can sometimes lead to more stress!
Physically, our minds and bodies are literally connected — one of our most major nerve bundles, the vagus nerve, runs directly from our brain to our gut (specifically the digestive tract and intestines). The vagus nerves are the main nerves of our parasympathetic nervous system and act as a highway of information between our brain, gut and gut microbiome. It was once thought that information primarily ran from the brain to the gut, but recent research is showing that information more often stems from our gut and brings information to the brain. The food we eat provides information to our bodies about our surroundings, our nutrient status, health, local bacteria, and more.
Often called “the second brain,” the gut is where over 90% of your serotonin is produced as well as about 50% of your dopamine — not in the brain as one might think. Serotonin is sometimes referred to as your “happiness hormone” and has many jobs: it helps to regulate your mood, anxiety, memory, sleep, sexual function, bone health, even blood clotting. Dopamine controls things like concentration, focus, gut motility and feelings of contentment, among others. Additionally — and hugely important these days — the gut is where our immune system largely resides and is where we absorb most of the vitamins and minerals from our food. When the gut lining is disrupted, so too, then, is your production of these neurotransmitters; a chronically disrupted gut can lead to disrupted mood and life and leave you susceptible to illness. It’s easy to see why it’s so important to be mindful of gut health.
Other factors impact both our emotions and our bodies. When we are stressed, our adrenal glands produce cortisol, which is our main stress hormone that acts as a sort of natural alarm in our bodies. Our adrenal glands also produce adrenaline, otherwise known as the “fight or flight” hormone (most of us have experienced this feeling at some point!). Cortisol is a powerful inhibitor of insulin: when cortisol rises — due to stress, illness, or lack of sleep — our body changes how it uses insulin, encouraging our blood levels of glucose to rise and be available for quick energy (to fight that bear it thinks you’re facing down). If and when you don’t use that glucose, what happens to it? You guessed it: it gets stored…as fat, particularly in and around our belly and organs. Cortisol also narrows our blood vessels, causing our blood to pump harder and increasing our blood pressure. Consumption of alcohol has been shown to both increase cortisol levels and disrupt the gut microbiome; it’s best to keep alcoholic beverages to a minimum and find other ways of relieving stress.
How can we best support our mind-body connection? Start with healthy eating!
Being sure to include foods in your diet that support your brain and gut health are an easy place to begin. The brain alone is almost 65% fat! Choose foods that are rich in Omega-3 and other healthy fats, like wild salmon, sardines, organic avocado, cold-pressed olive oil, nuts such as walnuts and Brazil nuts (just two per day will help support your thyroid) and seeds such as chia, pumpkin and flax (grind these fresh to maximize benefits). Fats are also an important part of our cell walls and have the added benefit to helping our skin stay youthful.
Our guts also thrive on fresh vegetables and fruits: the fiber contained in fresh produce acts as a prebiotic, or food for the healthy bacteria that lives in our guts and supports so many of our body’s crucial functions. Whenever possible, include lots of organic, seasonal produce, legumes, unprocessed whole grains; your plate should ideally be at least half-full of veggies at each meal.
Antioxidants are an amazing way to keep inflammation in our bodies low, help fight cancer-causing cells and support brain and gut alike! Berries are especially high in antioxidants (hello blueberries!) and fiber (blackberries), along with vitamin C containing foods like citrus. Look for deeply-colored produce for highest antioxidant levels. And in good news, coffee is actually a very potent antioxidant! Just be sure to keep it to a cup or two per day, as excess caffeine has been shown in some studies to increase cortisol levels.
Most of all, try not to worry too much at first about specific diet plans or what not to eat, and instead focus on what you can include to boost your wellness. Focus on simple, unpackaged foods that are either homemade or have minimal ingredients. And don’t forget to drink plenty of water: aim for at least half of your body weight in ounces of water to support digestion, gut health, alertness, memory and focus.
Finally, small changes in lifestyle can have a huge impact on both body and mind. Adequate sleep helps to clear debris in the mind, lower stress (and cortisol) levels and promote healing and a healthy immune system. Incorporating other stress-reducing techniques such as regular exercise, deep breathing, meditation, yoga or stretching, reading, or even a simple walk after meals can lower stress, help with digestion, and focus and help you on your way to balanced body and mind.
Koren Bradshaw, MS, CDN, CLC, is a nutritionist with a functional, whole-body approach. She works with a wide range of concerns, specializing in women's health, new/expecting mothers, autoimmune and thyroid issues, food allergies and sensitivities, celiac disease and anti-aging.