Listen to Your Head…But Listen to Your Gut, Too

Did you know that there’s a “second brain” living in your gut? While it might not be responsible for developing thoughts and ideas, it does control the release of enzymes and chemicals that support digestion, control blood flow, and help your body absorb nutrients. In the process, it sends signals to the brain and central nervous system that can trigger mood changes based on our food choices.

“This giant nervous system living inside our digestive system sends a lot of information to the rest of the body and has a huge influence on how we feel physically and mentally,” says Independence Blue Cross (IBX) Wellness Coach Nicole Gonglik, MS, RDN, LDN. “It’s important to be aware of the food that we put into our bodies, as it can have a direct effect on how we act, react, and process the daily ins and outs of life.”

In fact, the brain-gut signals go both ways. While the gut sends signals to the brain, the brain is also sending signals that affect the gut. Who hasn’t experienced a “nervous stomach”? Feelings of anxiety and depression can influence digestion and cause stomach aches or stomach ulcers. However, providing the body with a nutritious, balanced diet can help reduce the negative impacts of our emotions.

Consider That Snack

Someone struggling with anxiety or depression may reach for processed foods and snacks because they satisfy an immediate craving and are easy to eat without planning. However, these “guilty pleasures” are often high in sugar or salt and low in nutrition. They can make us feel good momentarily by releasing chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. But foods high in additives, sugar, and saturated fats can increase inflammation throughout the body and brain, making the symptoms of mood disorders worse.

“While it’s okay to have those foods every once in a while, when someone relies on them to trigger feel-good hormones, it can create a feedback loop,” Gonglik says. “Someone already dealing with behavioral health issues may be limited in their decision-making processes, so being aware of how foods can influence our body and that different choices can be made is important.”

Limiting alcohol is also important to preserving a healthy gut microbiome. Heavy alcohol use can break down the lining of the intestine, causing liver inflammation and damage, and can also contribute to alcohol cravings. In younger adults, heavy alcohol use can have a long-term effect on the bacteria in the gut as well as on social and emotional coping skills.

Have Your Cake, But Eat Carrots Too

While a change in diet might not replace the need to seek out medication or therapy, a diet high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber supports good digestion — and, ultimately, a good mood.

“Adding more nutritious components to a snack or a meal can boost the overall nutritional value, providing fuel to your bodily systems,” Gonglik says. “For example, if a candy bar is an easy go-to for the way you’re feeling, consider also having carrots or an apple for some added fiber, or eating it with yogurt to add a protein element. This way, you’re getting the nutrients your body needs while meeting a mental health need in the moment.”

“While there’s no cure-all diet for your mental health, balancing the right foods and nutrients is crucial for optimal health, including the mind,” says Gonglik. “Try challenging yourself to a more nutritious diet; you might be surprised how good you feel.”

For more information about mental health, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.

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