If you have ever dramatically changed your diet for a period of 2 weeks or more, you have undoubtedly noticed that what you eat can change what you crave. But did you know that what you eat can change more than just your cravings, but also your mood and your zest for life?
More surprisingly still – these changes in the foods you crave and how happy and motivated you feel are not thanks to changes in your brain, but instead, to changes in the diversity and composition of the trillions of tiny microorganisms that call your gut home.
To understand this a bit better, let’s take a deeper look at cravings. Have you ever noticed that the more you eat of something, the more you crave it? For example, if you have ever eaten chocolate daily for a week or two, you will start to crave chocolate more in between delightful chocolate encounters.
It was previously thought that this increased craving was due to habit or the wiring of our brains, but we now know that it is primarily thanks to the community of microorganisms inside of our guts that love chocolate (and other sugary sweets).
When you eat more chocolate, these specific chocolate-loving bacteria flourish and multiply. Then, when you don’t eat chocolate, they are hungry and send messages to your brain telling you that they need chocolate. You experience this as a chocolate craving!
On the flip side, if you set a goal to eat unsweetened Greek yogurt every day for a month, you may actually crave yogurt if you skip it one day. Another group of microbes feeds off of yogurt; the more you eat, the more they multiply, and the more of a say they have in what foods you crave, and therefore, what you eat.
Similar things are happening in your gut when you feel happy versus when you feel depressed, anxious, or stressed. Certain bacteria are good for your mood and mental health, while others can wreak havoc, causing inflammation, mood disorders, apathy, and brain fog.
Clearly, we want to eat foods and take actions that increase the number and diversity of the microbes that make us happy, and do what we can to starve out the ones that can cause mood disorders and brain fog.
By understanding how your gut affects mood and what you can do to tip this battle between good and bad microbes in your favor, you can develop new habits that support a diverse and healthy gut microbiome, and with it, a happy and healthy mood.
How What You Eat Influences Your Microbiome, and With it, Your Mood
The trillions of microorganisms in your digestive tract are known as your gut microbiota, flora, or microflora. When you add in their genetic material, it is known as your gut microbiome. The majority of these guys are commensal bacteria, meaning that they benefit you while you benefit them.
Animal studies have found that by changing the gut bacteria, you can make an anxious mouse calm, or a depressed mouse happy. Human studies have found similar results with certain probiotics, known as psychobiotics or psybiotics. By adding in psychobiotic supplements, living strains of beneficial bacteria proven to enhance mood, you may be able to demolish depression.
These studies let us in on a revolutionary understanding of how your gut and brain interact:
Much of how we feel and how well we think depends not on our brains, but on the health of our gut microbes.
When all is going well in your digestive tract, you’ll rarely experience digestive problems or brain fog. You will tend to be healthy, happy, and in an overall positive mood. But when something throws off your gut community homeostasis, a condition known as dysbiosis, all of this can vanish.
Antibiotics, constant stress, sitting at a desk all day, lack of sleep, and more can allow pathogenic bacteria and yeast to take the place of the good microbes in your gut. Over time, this can lead to more than just digestive problems…Weight gain, sugar cravings, difficulties thinking, anxiety, and depression have all been connected to an out-of-balance gut microbiome.
Fortunately, this community of microorganisms is always changing. By taking an active approach to what you let in your body, you can alter the composition of your gut microbiota, and with it, your mood.
How Your Gut Biome Controls Mood: The Gut-Brain Axis
Humans have long known that there was a connection between our brains and our guts, however it was widely believed to be a one way street, from your brain to your gut.
Over the last 15 years, research has found that this communication is in fact a two-way street, your brain talks to your gut…and your gut talks back to your brain! Just as your brain can alter your gut health, your gut can alter your brain health. With most of your gut inhabited by trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms, this means that these creatures can impact how we think, what we feel, and our overall health.
So how does our gut microbiota communicate with our brains?
There are three major systems that are involved in this communication:
1. The Nervous System
Microbes are capable of producing the same neurotransmitters that humans produce, such as serotonin, GABA, and dopamine, which are all known to have antidepressant properties. These neurotransmitters may communicate with the brain through the vagus nerve, which you can think of as a highway that connects the brain and the gut, allowing two-way communication.
2. The Immune System
Your gut microbiome plays an important role in your immune system, producing molecules known as cytokines that alert the body to danger. These immune molecules are transported around your body via your blood stream. An immune response, while critical for fighting off pathogens, can sometimes lead to depression and anxiety.
When you think about it, this makes sense – when you’re sick, you want to hole up in your room, wrapped in blankets, away from the world. Depression can be considered sickness behavior that doesn’t go away easily, and is thought to be your body’s reaction to a prolonged immune response, which causes chronic inflammation.
Pathogenic microbes in your digestive tract can encourage inflammation, while some psychobiotic strains can fight inflammation. Neurotransmitters also play a role in your immune system. Acetylcholine (ACh), for example, is a neurotransmitter that can signal for immune cells to stop reacting as intensely, suppressing the immune system. Some gut bacteria can produce ACh, leading to a calming of the immune response, a decrease in inflammation, and a lift in mood.
3. The Endocrine System
Microorganisms in your gut are also known to produce hormones, which can impact your stress response and much more. Inflammation can queue your HPA axis (hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal gland axis), which is another important communication pathway between your gut and your brain that is central to your stress response.
By encouraging the establishment and growth of healthy bacteria in your gut, you can influence how your gut communicates with your brain. The idea is to help the good bacteria thrive, and to limit the fuel for the bad bacteria. By promoting a proper homeostasis in your gut, you may find the key to reducing apathy and mood disorders, regaining what it feels like to be fully yourself.
Your Gut Flora Composition is Always Changing
From the moment you’re born, your body is surrounded by thousands of different species of microbes that are looking to camp out in or on your body. Your first few years of life are the most important when it comes to establishing a healthy gut flora, with vaginal delivery, breastfeeding, and even hugs and kisses from those around you contributing to the growing microbial population.
By the age of 2 your gut microbiome will be similar in diversity to that of an adult, however this community will continue to change as you age. Your gut microbiome will be different at 16 than it was at 2, and at 80 than it was at 16.
Studies on mice have found that fecal transplants can take the mood from another mouse, or even a human, and give another mouse that mood. Fecal transplants are one way to alter the gut microbiota, but fortunately there are more palatable ways than that.
Your lifestyle from your first day on Earth to your last dictates how healthy and diverse your gut microbiome is. Antibiotics, particularly when administered at a young age or when given successively, can devastate this community. Exercise, a healthy diet, and probiotic supplements can help to boost its health.
By making small changes and embracing new habits, you can support the health of your good gut microbes and remove the fuel for the bad microbes. Every change will get you one step closer to optimal mood and mental health.
5 Things You Can do to Turn Your Gut Health Around Today
The best way to boost your gut health is simple: make small changes towards promoting a healthier gut microbiome. By learning the best practices, you can make little shifts in what you eat and how you live that will have a big positive impact on your gut and overall health.
Today I’ll start with four small changes you can begin today to help expedite your path towards better gut health.
Eat More Fiber, Fermented Foods, and Wild-Caught Fish
Increasing your fiber intake means giving more ‘fuel’ to the good bacteria, who break down indigestible fiber to use as energy. Fermented foods, like kimchi and miso, have live beneficial bacteria in them that can directly support your gut and mental health.
Rather than try to completely reshape everything that you eat, concentrate on adding in three of the following ten foods to your daily or weekly food routine:
Ground flax seeds
Fermented soy products (miso, tempeh, or natto)
Sauerkraut and kimchi
Green, leafy veggies
Use the above list as a guideline, but any nuts, seeds, fruits, veggies, or whole grains can help to boost the health of your gut flora. Many other wild-caught fish are great options, such as sardines and trout, however there are some that you want to be careful of due to toxins that can accumulate in fish.
Choose three healthy foods that you want to add to your daily or weekly routine. Maybe commit to eating wild-caught salmon once each week, eating an apple for a snack every day between lunch and dinner, and having Greek yogurt with fresh berries and local honey for breakfast during the week. Pick what you find the most appealing so that it’s not a chore to stick to, but rather a new mood-boosting habit that you enjoy!
Eat Less Refined Sugar
We know that it is extremely difficult to cut out refined sugar from your diet completely, so don’t worry, we aren’t going to ask you to do it…Instead, by simply making a few small changes, you can reduce how much sugar you consume each day. It isn’t about drastic, unsustainable changes in your diet, it’s about realistic changes you can make a part of your daily life…
One great option is to swap out the type of sweetener that you use at home. Whenever possible, replace white sugar with one of the following:
Monk fruit sweetener
Maybe you swap out sugar for stevia extract in your tea and coffee, or try sweetening your yogurt at home with honey and berries. Or you can try replacing soda with Zevia. Come up with a plan of one or two changes that would be easy to make, and commit to those!
Avoid Antibiotics Unless Absolutely Necessary
Avoiding antibiotics may not always be possible. There are some bacterial infections that are dangerous enough that they are better treated with antibiotics than not. That said, doctors tend to over-prescribe these gut-busting drugs. It is not uncommon for patients to be thrown an antibiotic even when the doctor isn’t sure if the illness is actually caused by bacteria! Keep in mind, if an illness is caused by a virus, taking an antibiotic will do no good, and potentially, plenty of harm to your gut!
Before taking an antibiotic, ask your doctor if it is absolutely necessary, or if you might be better off waiting a week to see if your body can take care of itself. By reducing your use of antibiotics, all of the other actions that you take can have a more profound and lasting effect.
Do More of What Makes You Happy
Just as our gut can impact our brain health, our mental state can impact our gut health. Rather than trying to figure out how to feel less stressed, see if you can add one or two activities to your week that you really love.
Maybe that is going to a yoga class, visiting your grandchildren, taking your dogs to the dog park, or going on a hike at sunset. Whatever it is that makes you happy, find a way to do it more often. This can help to reduce your stress and boost your feelings of happiness and well-being, supporting your gut health while also enhancing your quality of life.
Take a Daily Psybiotic Supplement
We know that diet and lifestyle changes aren’t the easiest to make, and thankfully there’s a new way to get more of the good, mood-boosting bacteria, even if you aren’t ready to give up sugar just yet: psybiotic supplements.
Psybiotic supplements are formulated with the types of beneficial bacteria that have been proven to improve your mood and cognition.
You can think of them kind of like probiotics for your gut and your brain…
Psybiotic supplements are the easiest way to ensure that you are optimizing your gut health daily. Plus, unlike food sources of probiotics or traditional probiotic supplements, you know that the types of bacteria that you’re consuming are those that have shown efficacy at enhancing mood and fighting depression, stress, and anxiety.
What’s more, research suggests that benefits with probiotics are not seen right away, but after days, weeks, or even months of exposure to the same bacteria. Rather than making sure to eat the same fermented food daily, you can take the same psybiotic supplement with the hopes of achieving noticable results.
When looking for a new psybiotic supplement, look for one that has both probiotics and prebiotics to ensure that you have everything you need in one easy package. The probiotic bacteria need the prebiotics as food to help them survive the trip down your digestive tract to their new homes.
If you’d like to learn more about what Psybiotics are and how they work, check out our other article here.
With this new understanding of how gut health can influence clarity of mind and mood, it gives each of us more power over our overall health and mental wellbeing. If you suffer from brain fog, depression, anxiety, or constant stress, finding relief may be as simple as making a few small, lasting changes to boost the health of your gut microbiome.
By taking a daily psybiotic supplement and making modest changes in what you eat and how you live, you can take a step towards a happier, healthier version of you!