The way we feel each day has a lot to do with what we eat. This provides us with nutrients to create the energy to run our bodies. What we choose to eat either supports this energy production or depletes it. This is very much the same your mood. The food we eat quite literally can make us happy through providing the nutrients needed to make our neurotransmitters, the brain hormones that keep up happy, motivated and calm.
It is hard to feel happy if you are eating food that is detracting from your energy, or not providing the body with those nutrients it needs to help you feel good. There is a lot of truth in the saying – you are what you eat.
The way we feel day to day, minute by minute has to do with a lot of factors in both our external and internal environments. Now we can’t always do anything about what is happening externally but we can help our internal environment be at it’s best to not just cope but maybe even thrive when the external gets tough.
Those neurotransmitters have a huge role to play internally. I’m not going to dive too far down the neurotransmitter rabbit hole as that rabbit hole is the Alice in Wonderland style rabbit hole. Whilst I will give you a bit of an overview, what you really need to know is that these neurotransmitters are super important in our mood regulation. The other key is our gut health. The environment in our digestive tract either supports the production of these neurotransmitters or hinders it.
Mood regulating neurotransmitters
Serotonin is our happy hormone. This is the one you may be the most familiar with. In the right amounts serotonin will help improve your mood. Serotonin is used to help us sleep, to regulate our mood and our appetites and has a major role to play in our perception of pain. It is thought that up to 90% of the serotonin in our bodies is made in the gut.
When the microbes in our large intestines do their fermenting thing they produce something called short-chain fatty acids. These have so many benefits but the one to focus on here is their role in making serotonin. These SCFA stimulate the walls of the large intestines to produce the enzymes needed to cause the chemical reactions to turn our food. – well the amino acids, vitamins + minerals from our food – into serotonin. So pretty much our SCFA’s are like little mad scientists and without them serotonin wouldn’t be made. We need to ensure that the environment in our large intestines is right so we can produce these SCFA’s
On the flip side we can have an environment that hinders our ability to make and transport serotonin. For example e.coli, which is naturally occurring in our guts and we want it to be there in the right ratios, can actually inhibit the guts ability to transport and make serotonin if it becomes out of balance. This happens when our beneficial bacteria decreases. So we need to work to keep the ratios between good + bad in the optimal amount.
Dopamine is known as our feel good hormone. It too has many functions. Dopamine plays a role in our movement, what we eat and supports the reward section of our brains known as the pleasure centre. Those feelings of enjoyment and pleasure you experience, that’s from a lovely little rush of dopamine. Dopamine also plays a huge role in attraction and feeling love. When we don’t have enough dopamine the feelings of helplessness, lack of motivation and connection set in. When dopamine is too low depression, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety and general feelings of hopelessness can set in.
At least half of the dopamine receptors in our body reside in our gut. Our brain and what is happening up there has a direct link down to our guts. A couple of researchers from Belgium found that like serotonin, our gut bacteria produces dopamine. There are also bacteria in our guts that can ‘eat up or use’ the active l-dopa that is needed to make it’s way to the brain to convert into dopamine. Again pointing to the need for a well balanced microbiome and ensuring our gut health is robust.
Lastly I want to touch on GABA. GABA tones down the workings of the nervous system. Think of it as the brakes of the brain When we don’t have enough GABA we can experience insomnia or anxious tendencies, have trouble concentrating and experience muscle pain and headaches. Which makes total sense right. If our nervous system is always on how can we bring ourselves back to a calm point or settle down enough to sleep or concentrate. I know we are talking mood here but I thought it’s worth mentioning that GABA is also key in conditions such as PMS and overall inflammation due to its calming effect.
Most of our GABA is produced in our brain from glutamate. However much the same as serotonin, bacteria within the gut have been found to be able to produce GABA through the fermentation process. And there is actually quite a number different bacteria that can help produce GABA. Researchers have also found a strain of bacteria that uses GABA for it’s on purposes and prevents it from being used in the body. This is again showing why its so important to have a diverse and well balanced microbiome
Impact of stress.
Our central nervous system has two main arms, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic.
The sympathetic side is also known as our flight or fight. The hormones adrenaline + cortisol sit in this sympathetic side. Adrenalin is the short term stress hormone and it triggers blood supply to be diverted away from your digestive system and out to your arms and legs. It also signals to your liver and muscles to dump glucose into your blood stream, which if we don’t use our body converts and stores as fat. This is often triggered by psychological stress such as juggling work + family commitments or home schooling, the thought of the amount of emails you have waiting for you or running late for work. Cortisol is the long term stress hormone. Cortisol signals to our body that food is scarce and to slow down our metabolism so we don’t use too much energy. It basically slows down us down. Cortisol can be raised in our bodies through constantly worrying about finances or a relationship or when we are triggered into states where adrenalin is released too often.
The parasympathetic side is also known as our rest and digest system. When we are in this state our body feels safe and this allows it to be working to keep us at our best. As it states, its in side of our nervous system that allows our body to properly digest, extract and use the nutrients from our foods.
The kicker here is that you can’t be in both at the same time. So if you are triggered into that flight or fight state your body cannot be working to keep you well and energised.
Unfortunately in todays world we are spending more and more time in the heightened fight and flight state. And with so many people experiencing unrestful sleep we aren’t even able to move into the rest + digest state overnight.
These stress hormones have a direct impact on the gut microbiome. Like I said when we are triggered by adrenalin or cortisol to move into the sympathetic flight or fight arm of our nervous system then we cannot be properly digesting our food. If our food does not get digested properly our bodies can’t extract the nutrients from it, our bodies don’t have those nutrients to use to keep us energised and functioning well and it also alters the balance in our microbiome.
So what has this got to do with mood?
Well we now know that the digestive system and our microbiome plays a big role both in how we feel and how much energy we have. It also needs nutrients just to keep it running. If we don’t manage this stress then the impact on our mood will be felt.
Our gut, our digestive system, really is the centre to our health. Not just our physical health. Our mood is very much affected by what is happening in our digestive system.
The neurotransmitters that affect our happiness, our motivation, our feelings of love, our concentration, our ability to calm ourselves and our pleasure, need our gut health to be strong and healthy to be able to function at their best. When these neurotransmitters can function at their best, so can we.
When we have a strong + robust digestive system it allows our body to use the nutrients from our foods to make these neurotransmitters. Our large intestines actually produce a hefty majority of these neurotransmitters before sending them up to our brain to work their magic. If there is inflammation along our digestive tract this can stop these wonderful hormones being made.
Need help with your mood or gut health?
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