As summer wanes, with shorter days and a hint of cool, are you experiencing a mood shift—perhaps, feeling unexpectedly blue or in need of a “lift”?
If you’ve ever had a “gut feeling” about something, experienced digestive upset, like nausea or diarrhea, when feeling stressed, or felt “butterflies” before giving a work presentation, then you’ve experienced, firsthand, how closely the gut and brain are connected.
In fact, the gut is often referred to as our “second brain”. This gut-brain relationship goes both ways: our thoughts and emotions can affect our digestive system. By the same token, the state of our digestive health also affects mood: approximately 95% of serotonin, a “happy chemical” that promotes balanced mood, is manufactured in the gastrointestinal tract. Your diet greatly affects your hormone production, neurotransmitters (chemical messengers necessary for regulating mood) and energy, influencing overall mood. Undiagnosed food sensitivities and intolerances can contribute to an inflamed gut, raising your risk for depression. The bottom line: poor gut health can be the cause or the result of anxiety, stress or depression.
Unfortunately, quick-fix pick-me-ups, like sugar, caffeine, processed foods or medication prescriptions, cause tears in the gut lining that contribute to intestinal permeability, or “leaky gut”, creating inflammation in the body. Ongoing inflammation and stress negatively affects neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine, which control your mood. Riding a sugar-fueled mood rollercoaster or recovering from a processed food hangover is not so fun.
Eat your way to a better mood
In helping my clients resolve gut health issues, one happy result of eliminating inflammatory foods is improved mood. Stabilizing blood sugar is key. The ideal “happy meal” includes lean protein, enough healthy fat and fiber. By incorporating late summer produce and livestock—at its bountiful peak now—you can enjoy the following edible mood enhancers…
1. 100% grass-fed lamb burgers (no bun)
Fire up your grill—or cast-iron skillet if you’re an urban apartment dweller—and enjoy mood-enhancing 100% grass-fed lamb (or beef) burgers. Just the burger—no bun. (Bun = Sugar). Both lamb and beef are excellent sources of Vitamin B-12, with lamb containing more than beef. Found only in animal foods, B-12 helps maintain the health of your nerves and brain, promoting balanced mood. Quality counts: make sure you’re feeding your “good mood” hormones with 100% grass-fed, pasture-raised meat, as conventionally raised meats contain growth hormones, antibiotics and are typically the product of GMO feed (soy, corn, alfalfa).
Vitamin B-12 deficiency is linked with anxiety, depression and low mood. Vegetarians and vegans are at greatest risk for vitamin B-12 deficiency, as are those with digestive issues, such as leaky gut, and nutrient absorption issues.
2. Basil pesto
This summer, I found myself repeatedly drawn toward the pungent, sweetly aromatic and uplifting scent of basil at my favorite farm stand. As it turns out, basil helps support the neurotransmitters that regulate the hormones that make us feel energized and happy.
Herbs, like basil, are an often overlooked nutrient-dense green food.
Genovese (sweet) basil is the Italian variety that is most familiar and commonly used, but there are 35 different types of basil. Antioxidant-rich Italian basil contains anti-inflammatory and disease-fighting properties and can also help improve digestion, by “growing” more good bacteria and by reducing bloat and water retention. In India, holy basil, also known tulsi, has been used as a medicinal herb in traditional Ayurvedic treatments. Tulsi is commonly used as an adaptogen, an herbal medicine that helps the body adapt to stress, and as a natural remedy for anxiety. In human studies, tulsi has been shown to help reduce stress, anxiety and depression.
I love transforming that heady basil fragrance—whether it’s Genovese (Italian) basil, lemon basil, Thai basil or holy basil—into a delectable pesto that pairs deliciously with sliced tomatoes, zoodles, fish, poultry or meat.
With basil pesto (my version is dairy-free and nut-free), you combine two mood-enhancing foods—basil and olive oil, a healthy fat that contributes to hormonal balance and supports the neurotransmitters that regulate mood.
3. Wild-Caught Salmon, Grilled or Poached
Speaking of healthy fats…the human brain is 60% fat. Our brain cells require that we consume healthy fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids. to maintain nerve cell membrane structure and for mood regulation. Studies on depression, including bipolar disorder, have shown that daily supplementation of omega-3 in the form of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) found in fish—can elevate mood in depressed patients, as well as decrease manic depressive symptoms in bipolar patients.
Fatty fish like wild-caught salmon is a toothsome source of omega-3: four ounces of wild salmon contains 1.45 grams of omega-3. Sardines, mackerel and grass-fed beef are close omega-3 runner-ups.
4. Green smoothies. Kale salad. Or, however you enjoy dark leafy greens—cooked or raw—like kale, spinach and Swiss chard.
There are so many reasons to eat more dark leafy greens—add “better mood” to the list! A rich source of antioxidants, minerals and B vitamins, including folate and magnesium, regular consumption of leafy greens can boost your mood. Leafy greens are an excellent source of magnesium, an anti-stress mineral. Research links magnesium deficiency to depression. And most Americans are magnesium-deficient. Consuming caffeine, alcohol, processed foods and sugar only depletes magnesium stores even more. Medications, from antibiotics and corticosteroids, like Flonase and Prednisone, to antacids and birth control pills, also deplete the body of magnesium.
5. Organic, pastured-raised eggs, raw, poached or soft-boiled
As a whole food, eggs are an excellent source of amino acids and protein. Egg yolk is a rich source of omega-3 fat, vision-protective and heart-healthy antioxidants, as well as zinc, B vitamins and phosphatidylcholine, a phospholipid important in healthy neurotransmitter communication affecting mood. The best eggs for your brain and mood come from hens raised on pasture, where they roam freely and eat a diet of grass, bugs and organic grains. Late summer is a great time to “forage” for pasture-raised eggs at your local farmers market. Eating eggs raw (do this only if the eggs are organic from quality, pasture-raised hens), poached or soft-boiled enables you to get the most nutritional bang for the buck. Incorporate quality eggs into your diet, but avoid eating every single day, as eggs are a common allergenic food.
6. On a non-food note: Soak up some rays!
Our circadian rhythm—the delicate sleep/wake cycle that acts as an internal body clock—is inherently wired to expect sunlight during the day for optimal functioning. Serotonin the “happy hormone” increases with exposure to bright light. Lack of sunlight leads to low levels of serotonin, which can darken your mood.