The Surprising Way Diet Affects Your Mental Health

by Ani Manukian, RDN, LD

Last Updated: January 11, 2021

Many are feeling a little down right now between COVID-19 anxiety and isolation, Seasonal Affective Disorder, and typical holiday stress. Seeking the help of a professional for mental health concerns is highly encouraged if it’s all starting to feel like too much. Fortunately, there are many free mental health boosters right at our fingertips, from stress reduction practices like meditation and journaling, to exercise, to virtual get-togethers, to the food we eat.

An astounding 90% (or more) of neurotransmitters, which are compounds the body makes vital to mental health, including serotonin, dopamine, etc., are made by gut bacteria. These compounds connect to receptors in the brain, affecting our mood and mental health, so having enough should be a top priority. The gut microbiome is considered a vital organ – most of our immune system lives there, so supporting our gut is one of the best things we can do heading into the cold and flu season.

Gut Bug Supporting Food and Lifestyle Factors

Probiotics

A happy, healthy gut is one with a diverse range of gut bugs – the more, the merrier! You can increase your gut bug count by eating more fermented foods, including fermented dairy like yogurt and kefir, as well as raw, fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, and olives. Fermented foods contain live bacteria that take up residence in the gut when we consume them. Probiotic supplements are another way to populate the gut, but their effectiveness varies. Luckily, most can get the probiotics they need from food by eating one serving of a probiotic-rich food daily. Variety is key so get creative – think a fruit smoothie made with kefir, raw pickles on your wrap, yogurt as a snack, or sauerkraut as a side dish.

Our health is the product of our exposures and experiences throughout our whole life. Those with greater bacterial exposure in early life have more diverse, robust gut microbiomes. Nothing can be done about our personal histories, but we can set our children up for healthy guts by breastfeeding, raising children with pets, and even hand-washing dishes instead of using the dishwasher.

Prebiotics

Like us humans, we must feed our gut bugs the right things to keep them happy and healthy. Gut bacteria ferment prebiotic fiber, which fuels probiotics and creates short-chain fatty acids, which fuel and nourish cells in the digestive tract. Prebiotic fibers naturally occur in many common plant foods, including the allium family (onions, garlic, and leeks), asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, tubers (potatoes and Konjac root), bananas, apples, legumes, some grains (oats and barley).

Food is more than just the sum of macro- and micronutrients. It’s also the effect it and its ingredients have on our bodies. Certain foods can be irritating and damaging to the digestive tract, negatively impacting the microbiome and overall gut health. The following foods negatively affect gut health by shifting the amounts of gut bugs, usually by decreasing numbers of healthful gut bugs and increasing numbers of harmful gut bugs: excess sugar, refined carbohydrates, specifically those made from white flour, and some artificial ingredients. Reducing the consumption of processed foods can go a long way to protecting our gut and overall health.

We encourage you to think about what you can add to support your best health. That may mean more fermented foods and prebiotic fiber or more nourishment in general for your body, mind, and soul. Whatever you’re looking to add in the new year, the Kroger Registered Dietitians can help! Schedule your free Telenutrition appointment here, and let us support you in achieving your best health in 2021.

Disclaimer: This information is educational only and not providing healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.


Ani Manukian, RDN, LD

Ani Manukian, RDN, LD

Ani is living her dream as a real food dietitian, helping her patients merge the science of nutrition with the art of creating tasty, balanced meals. She competes in the sport of weightlifting and has personal and professional experience in sports nutrition, flexible dieting, and weight loss.