Food and Mood: The Digestion Connection

Food and mood are in a relationship, and for most of us It’s Complicated when it really shouldn’t be. Food and its proper digestion are critical to the achievement and maintenance of optimal mental wellness of which mood is a part. Yeah, I’m saying mental health is A LOT about nutrition. What we eat doesn’t change the world we live in (well that’s not true) but it does change our biochemical ability to thrive, manage and live in the world.

The concept though not often addressed in the standard “diagnose a disorder” and “prescribe a drug” health model because that model breezes past the fact that in most cases, our bodies are designed to be able to achieve this state of being through eating a proper nutrient dense diet.  Diet, along with movement, sunlight and other positive lifestyle choices like reducing social media scrolling are the moving parts of a healthy mood. This does not mean that drugs are never called for, but it’s beyond disturbing how little the average person knows about the correlation between nutrition and mental health. The limitations caused by nearly non-existent nutrition curriculum in medical schools (a future post,) plus a desire to feel better without sourcing the root cause (a time-consuming but valuable process) are part of what’s wrong so I want to take some time to rap about food and mood. Not literally rap, but keep reading anyway. Food and mood are 100% interconnected, the better and more well-rounded your diet the better your mood should/could be.

But there’s more. The thing that nutritional therapists and other whole-self practitioners know is that eating a properly prepared, nutrient dense diet is KEY, but you need to be able to digest the food you are eating to break down and disseminate the foods into the precursors needed to maintain mental health and mood stability. Yes, I am borderline yelling. Digestion is everything. The Digestion Connection will be a running theme on The Well Spell.

All the turkey, salmon and $13 dollar super food smoothie bowls can be ingested, but if they are not being properly digested the opposite of mental health wellness occurs. A leaky gut full of rancidified fats and putrid proteins (stop and picture that) is not giving you the broken down raw materials needed to create neurotransmitters that are responsible for stabilizing mood, sleep patterns and memory among other things. In fact it’s just breaking YOU down from the inside out.

Raise your hand if you would like to experience better moods, sleep and memory. All the hands are up except the deliriously happy friend you suspect is maybe an alien. So for example: biotin, folic acid and B12 are vitamins critical to neurological balance, so if they are not being derived from foods (and or supplementation) there are likely to be signs and symptoms of depression. In another post I’ll talk about foods that really support mental health, I promise.

So what is involved in digesting food to elevate your mood? First off, you need a proper stomach pH. Though we live in antacid pushing times, most people are actually suffering from inadequate stomach acid and not too much as the never-ending Prilosec and Nexium ads on TV would make you think. Proper stomach acid is essential to digest protein enough to cleave amino acids needed to create neurotransmitters such as glutamine, taurine and tyrosine. Don’t fall asleep on my nutritional nerd-out. These ines may not be familiar to you, but you may have heard about serotonin, GABA and dopamine, which are three of 5 critical neurotransmitters, needed for balanced brain chemistry. We need that stomach acid at the proper levels to get anywhere close to producing these “feel good” vibes in adequate amounts.

Beyond stomach acid, you need to also have proper liver and gallbladder function; itself dependent on eating and digesting balanced quality fats. I’m endlessness surprised that people think not eating fat is an option. Fat is LIFE. One example of this system not working optimally would be in someone following a low-fat diet lacking in essential fatty acids. Without proper, balanced fatty acids or in a case where someone eats them but isn’t properly digesting them because of digestive dysfunction (see low stomach acid problems or eating while talking on the phone in the car,) you CANNOT get the fat-soluble vitamins that are ALSO, you guessed it, precursors to optimal brain health.

Add to the list of things that must be working: Elimination. A body backed up with undigested or even digested toxins is struggling and noy just with icky bloat and discomfort. Poor mood and a whole array of other negative health situations arise when the liver and colon are not pulling their weight in the digestive cascade. I will avoid “shitty mood” jokes here.  “How to eat to improve your shitty mood” could be on my business card.

Lastly, most people don’t know that intestines are the primary production site of serotonin. Serotonin is casually thought of as a happy neurotransmitter that we all want more of at our life party. Unhappy and un-intact intestines are a fast track to depression, energy loss, libido problems, sleep dysregulation, and challenged focus and memory. If we have too little serotonin, the world looks depressing and these days we don’t need extra convincing that these ARE trying times. But if you knew that getting your digestion up to speed was a foundational must to improved mental health and a better chance at dealing with life after watching CNN for 10 minutes, you might pay more attention to those intestines and how they could up their game. Now you know!