A woman holds her hands around her navel in the shape of a heart

Our diet, strictly speaking what we eat, not only provides us with energy but also has a remarkable effect on our brain. With all the different types of diets out there, be it keto, Mediterranean or plant-based, it’s hard to know what type of food you should be eating. Which foods are “good foods” and which foods are “bad food’s”. This kind of thinking can be anxiety-inducing for anyone looking to change up their diet for whatever reasons and the abundance of information out there can be both a blessing and a curse in equal measure. Studies made by the National Eating Disorder Association (US), found that 20-25% of habitual dieters will eventually be diagnosed with an eating disorder.

So what’s the best way to approach all this?

The answer could be as simple as listening to your gut.

It’s been well established by scientists, doctors and psychologists that our mental health can affect our gut with links to anxiety and depression causing issues with digestion. However, further studies have shown that it also works the other way round, thanks to the enteric nervous system. The science part of it is that the ENS is two layers of around 100 million nerves that go from your throat to your rectum (hopkinsmedicine.org) mainly responsible for digestion, and is connected to the brain via the central nervous system. Hence this being called the mind-gut connection.

So what does this have to do with diet?

Well, according to Harvard Health Publishing, just as mind-body approaches to mental health, such as mindfulness, meditation and yoga, have been shown to improve GI symptoms, looking after your gut has the same effect on your brain. “[…] a higher-than-normal percentage of people with IBS and functional bowel problems develop depression and anxiety” (Jay Pasricha, M.D., hopkinsmedicine.org). Recent research has shown that heightened inflammation of the gut and changes to the microbiome can have huge effects throughout the body, contributing to fatigue, cardiovascular disease and depression. This can cause a vicious cycle with one constantly triggering the other, which is why decreasing stress in either the gut or the mind, can ease the symptoms in the other.

What can you do?

Reducing our intake of the foods that upset our gut can positively affect our mind and therefore our relationship with food. For instance, low FODMAP foods or less acidic foods can ease the symptoms of IBS and GERD sufferers and a higher intake of plant-based foods can often lead to a healthier microbiome. Fermented foods, such as yoghurt, kimchi and sourdough are great sources of probiotic bacteria that can help the microbiome in your gut.

Certain foods can also directly benefit the brain. Foods high in tryptophan can increase the levels of serotonin, keep our mood stable, help our brain cells communicate and help with sleeping and digestion. Such as:

  • Eggs
  • Chicken
  • Soy
  • Chocolate

Dopamine, the ‘happy-hormone’, can be found in:

  • Dairy Products
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Omega-3 rich fish

The overarching thing here is to listen to your body. Every aspect of your body. Keeping the body healthy keeps the mind healthy and vice versa.

Food for thought.