June 1, 2021

Holistic Health: Nourishing the Mind-Gut Connection for Mental Wellbeing

Photo of Justine Friedman, Registered Clinical Dietician and Mindset Mentor
Justine Friedman
Registered Clinical Dietitian and Mindset Mentor

We have all heard the term “You are what you eat,” but is this the case? How does eating one way or another bring us to be defined by the food that we have chosen at that moment?

There is a growing field of research that is exploring the incredible world of the gut-brain axis and how closely the two seemingly different organs in the body function. The brain is known to be our center for thought, creativity, imagination, and learning, and without an optimally functioning brain, the rest of our bodily systems are affected. So how does the gut, which we do not always pay attention to unless we perhaps feel uncomfortable after eating or happen to have disease in that area, impact the brain?

Our gut is an open system that ingests not only food and drink but also air and with that airborne and food borne bacteria and viruses. The body's first line of defense against any of these is the cells and environment that make up a diverse system. The gut is responsible not only for digestion and absorption of food and nutrients, but it acts for producing and secreting neurotransmitters, hormones, and inflammatory markers that protect the body and maintain a balance within the body. The by-products of digestion all play a role in this too.

Within the gut live bacteria that makeup what is called the microbiome. This is part of the body's defence system and when our microbiome or gut bacteria are out of balance (gut dysbiosis) it can impact inflammation and decrease the production of the neurotransmitters, hormones, and by-products of digestion, as well as preventing the absorption of necessary nutrients like vitamins and minerals into the body.

Many factors influence the gut. Stress, antibiotic use, other medicines, as well as food and drink all play a role in how healthy or out of balance our gut is.

These good bacteria or probiotics that live in our gut are supported by prebiotics which is the “food” that they rely on to multiply and function optimally.

Why is this all so important? When it comes to gut health, which connects to brain health, one of the major hormones that is key to our well-being is what we care about the most. In the cells of the gut wall, 5-HTP is produced which is the precursor for the hormone serotonin in the body. 95% of the 5-HTP that the body produces comes from these endothelial (gut) cells. Anyone who has dealt with depression or anxiety in their life knows just how important this hormone is. Serotonin is the hormone in the body that is responsible for us feeling positive and good about our lives. It enables us to approach situations with a more balanced mindset and increases the chances of us succeeding in our daily functioning. Serotonin also aids sleeping and digestion. When serotonin levels are lower in the body it leads to a decrease in function of daily life tasks and depression and anxiety. For this reason, many people are prescribed the SSRI or SSNRI classes of drugs to increase blood levels of serotonin and levels in the brain.

With all this information how can we practically increase the natural production of serotonin in our body, lower inflammation, and increase metabolism? (All the neurotransmitters and hormones responsible for part of these functions are also produced in the gut). The foods that naturally create a more supportive environment for probiotics and gut cell health are those that are less processed and closer to their natural form. This means choosing a baked potato over potato chips, fresh fruit over dried fruit or fruit juice, fresh salad and vegetables, and more complex carbohydrates which are higher in fiber over refined options. 

The foods and additives that increase inflammation in the gut and therefore affect the function of the microbiome and endothelial cells are those high in refined sugars (sweets, chocolates, baked goods, sodas, sugar, anything with high fructose corn syrup), saturated fats (fried and oily foods), trans fats, and a higher intake of omega 6 fatty acids. 

Does this mean you should never touch these products again? Perhaps that is unrealistic and therefore the general advice is to reduce the consumption of these foods and keep them for rare occasions. 

The interesting aspect for any of my clients who start to follow a more gut-friendly eating plan is that they immediately notice a boost in mood and energy. When we nourish our gut and in turn ourselves with better food choices, the knock-on effect is an immediate sense of well-being.

What does this mean then for the so-called comfort foods we turn to when we are feeling low and need a “pick-me-up”? These foods particularly if they are more refined and higher in saturated fats do the opposite of what we are looking for in our body. When we eat these foods wanting to feel better it lowers our mood leading us to crave more of them to try and again elicit the desired response. 

Unfortunately, many people are stuck in this vicious cycle of poor food choices and lower mood. The best way out of it is a well-balanced eating plan (not a diet!) that nourishes the body and in turn mind and emotions.

Here are some ideas for gut-friendly foods that will boost your mood and help you to feel more positive. (These will also decrease inflammation in the body which lowers levels of pain that so many people live with daily)

  • Include 3-5 servings of both fruits and vegetables a day (try and include a variety of colors of vegetables to get a maximum intake of nutrients)
  • Include 6-8 glasses of water a day (preferably not sparkling/soda)
  • Keep caffeinated beverages to a maximum of 3 cups a day and reduce or remove added sugars from them. Use lower-fat milk if adding.
  • Include complex carbohydrates in the form of oats, quinoa, sweet potato, regular potato, high-fiber grains, legumes, rye (including sourdough), or seeded bread (low GI options if available). If you have a gluten sensitivity (celiac disease or autoimmune condition that is better on low gluten then choose gluten-free options), wholewheat pasta, wild and brown rice.
  • Choose healthy fats in moderation e.g., olive oil, olives, walnuts, almonds, chia seeds, flaxseeds, avocado, unsweetened nut butters (other nuts and seeds may be included and ensure that they are raw or dry roasted)
  • Eat less saturated fats like butter, fat on meat, skin on the chicken, cream, and full-fat dairy products. Choose to grill and bake foods over frying (unless using an air fryer).
  • Eat fish 3x/week, Chicken and turkey (preferably the white part) 3-4x/week and red meat 2x/week. When choosing red meat, aim for the leanest cuts and remove all visible fat before cooking. Lamb is a higher fat choice as are ribs.
  • Eggs are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids but are also high in cholesterol. Follow the guidance for your specific needs based on either 4-8 eggs a week.
  • When choosing dairy products aim for a low-fat percentage of milk, and choose plain yogurt options to reduce the added sugar that comes with sweetened and fruity options. Hard cheeses have on average 33% fat so prefer lower-fat mozzarella options and cottage cheese.
  • Keep alcohol intake to 3-4 units a week and prefer spirits or wine. Mixers, ales, and beer are higher in sugars and will affect gut health.
  • Natural foods that have probiotics in them are yogurt, kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut, and miso.

(These recommendations are very general and should not be applied if you have specific dietary requirements or conditions that require a different approach. For this, you should seek the assistance of a registered dietitian nutritionist.)

The food choices we make are part of an overall approach to nourishing ourselves. Many other factors can either enhance or detract from our well-being. There is no doubt that when we eat better, we feel better, however, our thought patterns and choices that we make in life are also tied to this. 

You may ask how the foods we eat can affect our choices and mindset. If we are producing higher levels of serotonin in our body and any inflammation is reduced, then we are naturally feeling more positive and less irritable. When situations happen that may usually trigger us and cause us to react in anger, frustration, and despair these feelings are more likely to be less heightened if we are in a balanced mood. 

Many of my clients report being able to handle life’s stresses more calmly and can make clearer choices that are more beneficial overall after following a gut health-friendly program. We will inevitably have daily challenges. Doesn’t it make sense to be able to choose better foods to support ourselves when faced with them?

There is so much we can still learn and discover about this exciting field of research and there is so much more depth to this topic that is beyond the scope of this blog. I encourage you all to find an area in your daily choices that you can improve on and pay attention to how much better you start to feel. There is such a positive knock-on effect that is derived from constantly choosing your health.

The cycle looks something like this: When you make food choices aligned with wellness and optimal gut health, you, in turn, feel better as your serotonin levels rise and inflammation decreases, this leads to a better mood, which helps your decision-making ability to be enhanced.

 When we make better and more mindful choices based on this more positive mindset then we impact our lives and feel more fulfilled which encourages the same affirming cycle to begin over again. How amazing that merely by making better food choices our body, mind, and in turn our soul and nourished. The result is that you are what you eat!

For more information on how I work and to start improving your health through a gut-focused approach set up a free 15-minute clarity call here.

References and Further Reading

Holistic Health Care Facts and Statistics | Disabled World

The top wellness trends in 2024 | McKinsey

Diets for Women Over 40: Stay Healthy and Lose Weight | The Healthy

Charting Women’s Health Trends In 2024 | GWI

Photo of Justine Friedman, Registered Clinical Dietician and Mindset Mentor
Justine Friedman
Registered Clinical Dietitian and Mindset Mentor
Justine is a seasoned Clinical Dietician with over two decades of experience in private practice. Holding a Bachelor of Science from WITS and an Honorary Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics from UCT, she is both South African qualified and Israeli licensed. Justine's journey into nutrition was deeply personal, stemming from her own battles with weight management, emotional eating, and adapting her diet post-40 to meet the changing needs of her body. This personal connection to her field fuels her mission to empower clients to forge a harmonious relationship with food and their bodies. Understanding the complexity of diet, hormones, gut health, and eating habits, Justine brings empathy and expertise to her practice. She is dedicated to helping individuals overcome the cycle of dieting and self-sabotage by fostering a profound understanding of their own bodies. Justine's approach is grounded in the belief that knowledge is power—by understanding your body, you can work with it, not against it, to achieve lasting health and wellness.