Food & Your Mood: How Your Gut Tells Your Brain What To Feel

February 20, 2024

Food has an incredible long-term effect on your mood and overall health, and we’ve discussed this before in the blog Food & Your Mood: How Eating Makes Us Happy

That blog focused a lot more on the bigger picture and how “good” foods and “unhealthy” food can still have positive outcomes for our health. Ultimately, just having access to food and enough food is the most important thing in anyone’s diet!

This time, we wanted to go a little bit deeper this time and dive into what’s happening in our stomachs that’s making us feel that post-meal high. Spoiler alert, the answer is your gut microbiome. Let’s talk about the power these trillions of organisms have on our health and how the food we fuel ourselves with impacts them. 

Throughout digestion, many of the microbiota are responsible for extracting vitamins and other nutrients like enzymes and amino acids our bodies need to function but otherwise would not be able to break down. Think about the microbiota like miners in a cave. They break down the rocks in the cave (the food in our stomach) and bring the diamonds and rare minerals to the surface. Without them, the extra vitamins and nutrients we get from our food would just remain sealed away and unused. What a waste when produce costs are so high!

Having a robust variety of bacteria, fungi, and viruses from a varied diet is quintessential so these processes of digestion can happen and give us the most benefit possible from the foods we are eating. 

When our gut microbiome is out of balance, called dysbiosis, this leads to both physical and mental health issues ranging in severity. For example, your sleep schedule could be negatively impacted because the gut releases muramyl peptides, which trigger the feeling of sleepiness that pulls you into bed at night. Or, one can experience an increase in anxiety and depression.

A mother selects produce at a Mobile Food Market.

This is because approximately 50% of the body’s dopamine and 95% of serotonin are created within the gut. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that gives your brain the feelings of a reward and satisfaction, and plays a big part in motivation. It’s a lot easier to have the motivation to do something when your brain gets pleasure from doing whatever it is you need to do, like eating, sleeping, or exercising. Serotonin, another neurotransmitter, helps regulate your mood and keep your emotions on an even keel, while also contributing to sleep, memory, concentration, and more.

These two neurotransmitters, out of the many in our bodies, are some of the powerhouses in stabilizing our mood and keeping the brain fit and functioning well. They ebb and flow with food intake, hormones, stress levels, age, exercise and activity level, and more. But with so much of our dopamine and serotonin coming from our stomach, consistent access to healthy food becomes a great way to give ourselves a healthy baseline and stable mood.

Who would’ve thought that these drivers of our brain and our feelings would have come from our gut? It makes you think of the phrase “gut feeling”, doesn’t it?

There’s also preliminary research showing that an imbalance within the microbiome is linked to Alzheimer’s and dementia. This makes sense now, considering what we know about dopamine and serotonin and their ever-present influence on the brain.

You’re probably wondering how the activity of chemicals in our stomach is getting these messages across to our brain. The gut-brain axis is the answer! The biggest player in this connection is our vagus nerve, which runs directly from the brain to our stomach, colon, and intestines (with a few other stops along the way). It is the highway by which signals from within our gastrointestinal tract are interpreted and communicated to the brain, and vice versa. This is why when we experience nervousness, we can feel it in our stomach. It’s not actually butterflies flying around in there, but our brain’s interpretation of the emotional response.

So what can we do to ensure that our microbiome is healthy in order to promote our best overall health possible? It’s actually incredibly simple despite how complex these systems are. The answer is to eat a balance of prebiotic and probiotic rich foods.

Prebiotics are foods that nourish our microbiome. These foods are typically high in fiber, examples of which are oats, barley, garlic, leeks, artichokes, and bananas to name a few.

Probiotics are foods that are filled with the healthy microorganisms that we want in our gut. These are foods that are typically fermented, such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, pickles, and tempeh. The two really work hand in hand so it’s important to consume a combination of the two.

Having too many prebiotics can lead us to experiencing a wide variety of GI distress because there aren’t enough microbiota to break down those nutrients. On the other hand, consuming too much probiotics also leads to GI distress, dehydration and brain fog. If keeping track of these types of food feels too complicated, there are many prebiotic and probiotic supplements that do the balancing act for you! 

Just like our last deep dive into the topic, we’ve found that achieving a healthy diet comes down to having a varied diet consisting of all of the food groups. And the consequences are pretty major! Food is hugely powerful in your overall health and happiness.

Unfortunately, consistent access to food, especially nutritious food, is something that millions of Americans don’t enjoy. As many as 1 in 3 Colorodans are facing food insecurity today. Their first concern is making sure they have another meal today to fill an empty stomach.

You can help us ensure that your neighbors have the right to a healthy and happy life by supporting We Don’t Waste! We believe food should go to people, not landfills. We do this by recovering surplus food from the food industry and distribute it to 100+ nonprofit partners serving families, seniors, the unhoused, and more, and directly to neighborhoods in food deserts through Mobile Food Markets. This diverts good food from the landfill, and creates food access for thousands of Coloradans every year.