How Diet Affects Emotional Health

Maintaining a healthy gut is key to maintaining one’s emotional health and what we eat is extremely important to maintaining a healthy gut environment.

It is often obvious how foods affect our physical health, like when we eat that chili dog and, lo and behold, heartburn happens pretty immediately afterwards.  Or if we eat a food that we are intolerant or allergic to all manner of physical symptoms pop up like headaches, diarrhea or skin rashes.  What is not always so tangible is how diet affects emotional health.  And I can tell you with some certainty – that it really really does.

In traditional Chinese Medicine, food is categorized as nourishment, as medicine, for building qualities of our bodies. Ayurveda knows that foods are more prescriptive for doshas, and also for tastes and energetics. Opposites treat opposites and like increases like. Western/American nutrition really breaks food down into little measurable parts. We focus almost entirely on calories and carbs and fats rather than the actual entirety of the food itself, which makes the whole nutrition and nourishment picture very out of focus. When we talk about a foods affect on our emotional wellbeing, we have to look at two parts: The physiological/hormonal piece, and also the energetic, constitutional balancing aspects of foods (which you can find here).

How Food Affects our Mood Hormones

Remember a time when you might have been upset, stressed out or sad, and food just seemed to make everything (temporarily) better? Emotional eating is one of the most common habits and crutches with how people deal with their emotional ups and downs. It’s not just a menial response – it’s mainly a gut and hormonal one. Your gut contains neurons and other cells that act like a brain to control digestion and metabolism. This “brain” is connected to the brain in your head by nerves, and can also influence the brain by releasing hormones. Signals from the gut influence appetite and reward pathways in the brain as well as regions involved in stress and emotion and sense of self. Neurotransmitters are messenger molecules produced by nerve cells to communicate and control almost every function in the body including our mood. One of the most powerful ways to influence our neurotransmitters is through our food choices. And, of some profound importance, several of your mood hormones are manufactured in your gut (not your brain!).

This makes the importance of maintaining a healthy gut key to maintaining a healthy emotional state, and what we eat is extremely important to maintaining a healthy gut environment. Many of our neurotransmitters are made from amino acids which we can only obtain from food (like tryptophan, lysine, taurine, phenylalanine, leucine etc). Without these amino acids from our food, we would not be able to make our essential mood hormones such as dopamine, nor-epinephrine and serotonin. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter associated with feelings of wellbeing and happiness, while dopamine is the pleasure and reward neurotransmitter. A huge percentage of your serotonin is manufactured in your gut, and foods with a higher ratio of tryptophan to leucine and phenylalanine increase production of serotonin (such as bananas, papayas and dates).

Inflammation is also a major contributing factor to our production of mood hormones, and lifestyle is about 90% of the inflammation problem. I’m sure many of you have heard of the “anti-inflammatory diet” which incorporates foods that balance our systemic inflammatory response. Yes indeed, the foods that we eat can either increase inflammation, or help to balance it. When we have increased inflammation from our life or from the foods that we eat, it increases the production of cortisol (our main stress hormone) which itself is inflammatory to our gut health and increases blood sugar through gluconeogenesis and suppresses immune function. Image how your mood can change when your blood sugar is unbalanced, or when you’re chronically depleted and ill. There are altered patterns of cortisol secretion in many conditions associated with stress including PTSD and Major Depressive Dissorder (MDD).

Foods that can balance inflammation, hormones and support gut health

So what foods can we incorporate on a daily basis that can balance our emotional health and support over all gut function? Foods that are high in anti-inflammatory nutrients such as fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, walnuts, flax and whole grains are a good place to start. Anti-inflammatory spices like ginger, sage, turmeric, chili peppers, black pepper and cumin are also great additions. Omega-3 fatty acids essential for proper hormone health (and essential because your body does not make them – we have to get them from foods). Increasing our fish intake to three times a week (salmon and cod being some of the best), flax, chia, hemp and walnuts are some to start with in your diet.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how diet affects emotional health. The rabbit hole of tracking how foods are broken down to manufacture mood hormones is expansive and extremely complex, however a basic understanding can greatly enhance our chances of maintaining a healthy emotional state.

If you’re still curious about how it all works, or what foods are appropriate for your personal diet, consider making a nutrition appointment to understand how this all ties together for you.  Please contact our office at (804) 977-2634 to book an appointment with Lindsay Kluge.

About the Author:

Lindsay Kluge is a Clinical Herbalist & Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist and received her Masters of Science degree in Herbal Medicine from the Maryland University of Integrative Health in 2012. She has been with Richmond Natural Medicine since 2013, and specializes in therapeutic holistic nutrition, circadian rhythm balance and sleep physiology, digestion, and Ayurvedic nutrition. She offers individualized nutrition and herbal medicine consultations that include meal planning support, custom compounded herbal formulas, nutrition guidance and general wellness support.  Learn more about services that Lindsay offers at Richmond Natural Medicine by clicking HERE.