Have you ever experienced the sensation of butterflies in your stomach? Many of us are able to correctly interpret this sensation as “feeling nervous;” however, have you ever wondered why that might be? Recent research has uncovered what has been termed the “gut-brain” connection, which actually describes a separate nervous system tract (the enteric nervous system) that connects our brain to our intestines (1). When we experience anxiety emotionally, this signal can travel from our brain through the enteric nervous system to our gut and produce the sensation of pain or discomfort (2), alerting us physically to a psychological need.
This discovery has led to a new question: if the brain and digestive system are connected, is our mood connected to the food we eat? The answer is yes! The types and quantities of certain foods we eat affect our mood, and our mood likewise influences tastes and cravings for food. In this blog post, we are going to explore the connection between our mood and food for 3 different mental health conditions: anxiety, depression, and ADHD.
Food and Mood: Anxiety
There may be a connection between omega-3 fatty acid levels in the body and anxiety; some studies have observed lower anxiety levels with higher circulating levels of omega-3 fats (3). This would make sense intuitively, as omega-3 fatty acids are associated with decreased levels of inflammation in the body, and if we have less inflammation, it follows that the body would be in an elevated state of calm. Find Omega-3’s in foods such as salmon, chia seeds, and flaxseeds.
Sufficient levels of probiotics, or “good” bacteria that support healthy functioning of our digestive tract, decrease anxiety levels and improve overall mental outlook as well (5). While we can get probiotics from dietary supplements, it is also worth noting that we can get probiotics naturally from the diet from foods such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, or kombucha. It’s also worth mentioning the observed connection in the development of eating disorders secondary to developing anxiety (4). Oftentimes in treating eating disorders or disordered eating, it is important to identify any areas of anxiety or areas of life that feel unmanageable that could have initiated disordered eating behaviors. Without dealing with the sources of anxiety, true recovery will not be possible.
Food and Mood: Depression
Individuals with depression are more likely to crave carbohydrates, sugar, and salt (1). One connection to this is that individuals with depression typically have low circulating levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood (1). When serotonin levels are low, our body will often crave carbohydrates to boost these levels. Interestingly, the gut produces about 95% of our body’s serotonin levels, not the brain (1). This is why digestive upset can often accompany symptoms of depression. Additionally, when experiencing depression, many individuals will feel less motivated to cook and are more likely to reach for processed foods over whole foods that offer more nutrition. The good news is this connection is bidirectional! Individuals that consume more whole foods (such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins) are less likely to be depressed and more likely to experience stable moods (6).
Food and Mood: ADHD
Several studies in the past decade have shown a possible connection between micronutrient deficiencies and ADHD symptoms in children. Additionally, consuming foods high in sugar or made with artificial food dyes (especially red 40) has been linked to increases in hyperactivity and impulsivity (7). A good place to start for anyone experiencing ADHD symptoms is to look at their dietary intake. Aim to decrease added sugar and artificial food dyes and increase whole foods to manage symptoms. Requesting micronutrient testing to determine any significant deficiencies of minerals like iron, zinc, or magnesium that may need to be corrected through supplementation. Remember to always ask your doctor or dietitian before starting a new dietary supplement!
The main message here is that what we eat matters! I often teach clients to view food as fuel for their body’s physical activity, but we also want to think about how different food makes us feel and what self-care looks like from a dietary perspective. Exploration of the food and mood connection is new, but it’s clear that physical and mental health are inextricably connected. Take care of your mind and body, and you’ll maximize your health from every angle!
- Naidoo, Uma. (2020). This is Your Brain on Food. Little, Brown Spark.
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America (2018, July 19). How to Calm an Anxious Stomach: The Brain-Gut Connection. https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/how-calm-anxious-stomach-brain-gut-connection
- Harvard Health (2019, January 1). Omega-3’s for Anxiety? https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/omega-3s-for-anxiety
- Behavioral Nutrition (2020, May 29). How Anxiety Can Lead to Disordered Eating. https://behavioralnutrition.org/how-anxiety-can-lead-to-disordered-eating/
- Laguipo, Angela B. (2020, July 7). Research Shows Probiotics can Help Combat Anxiety and Depression. https://www.news-medical.net/news/20200707/Research-shows-probiotics-can-help-combat-anxiety-and-depression.aspx
- Ljungberg, Tina, et. al. (2020, March 2). Evidence of the Importance of Dietary Habits Regarding Depressive Symptoms and Depression. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(5): 1616.
- Lange, Klaus W. (2020, February 26). Micronutrients and Diet in the Treatment of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Chances and Pitfalls. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11: 102.