What Your Gut Has to Do With Boosting Your Mood and Immunity - Virtua Health, NJ

What Your Gut Has to Do With Boosting Your Mood and Immunity

Clinical Psychologist and Licensed Clinical Alcohol and Drug Counselor
Virtua Medical and Bariatric Weight Loss  

This global pandemic is causing anxiety for a number of reasons. And, one issue that many struggle with is using food as a comfort to ease worry and anxiety.

Eating foods that are high in sugar, fat, salt, and carbs (what most call “junk” food) activates the reward center in the brain. This provides short-term anxiety relief, but it also makes you crave junk food when you need anxiety relief again in the future. In the end, this pattern could make your anxiety worse, making you feel shame or regret about eating these foods. 

Eating highly processed, salty, and sugary foods also affects your gut health and the healthy bacteria that help your body manage inflammation, disease, and your mood.

In fact, the gut often is referred to as your “second brain,” as there are more mood receptors there than anywhere else in the body. Scientists have found that gut bacteria actually produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), all of which affect your mood, stress and anxiety. In addition, there’s evidence that gut bacteria play a significant role in regulating your immune response. 

When the balance of healthy versus unhealthy bacteria is disrupted, it can cause both physical and mental health problems. During this time of sustained stress, the foods you eat can play a key role in maintaining your gut health and protecting you against illness, anxiety, and depression.

Here are some things you can do to protect your gut health: 

  • Minimize your use of packaged and processed foods, as they contain additives and preservatives that disrupt healthy gut bacteria.
  • Try to keep immune-boosting fresh fruits and vegetables on hand, or substitute with frozen, making sure there’s no added sugar in them. Consider prepping the fruits and vegetables for snacking and meals and freezing portions for later use.
  • Stock up on eggs, as well as fresh, lean meats and seafood.
  • Flavor your favorite dishes with herbs and spices like garlic, turmeric, basil, and ginger for an immunity and anti-inflammatory boost.
  • Add plain Greek yogurt to your daily diet for both the protein and the probiotics that balance gut health and boost your immune response. You can sweeten it with stevia, a drizzle of honey, cinnamon or naturally sweet berries.
  • Replace your second cup of coffee with a cup of plain green tea, which is rich in antioxidants and the germ-fighting, calming amino acid called L-theanine.
  • Avoid using artificial sweeteners, as they have some links to depression, irritability and suppressing the immune system. Instead, use a natural sugar substitute like stevia.
  • Snack on small portions of walnuts or dark chocolate for their mood-boosting benefits.
  • Satisfy your craving for salty snacks by seasoning and roasting kale for homemade “kale chips” or cauliflower for “cauliflower popcorn.” These snacks provide healthy carbohydrates and vitamins and are a good substitute for processed, salty snacks that are high in calories and low in nutrition. 

Snacking on foods that promote good gut-brain health and increased immunity can help you feel good about your choices and reduce the shame and regret associated with eating “bad” food. In addition, you’ll likely gain energy from eating healthy foods, instead of feeling full, bloated or lethargic after eating overly processed foods.

Of course, food alone isn’t a substitute for the medical treatment of disease or depression. But, understanding the impact of food on your health can help you better manage these issues. 

Updated May 18, 2020

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