Chronic stress sends us into fight-or-flight mode, in which the hormones cortisol and adrenaline flood our body. Heart rate, breath, and blood pressure increase and we get a surge of glucose into the bloodstream to use for energy. Blood flow moves to our extremities (our arms and legs) so that we can flee danger. It flows away from the digestive system, which is not considered necessary for immediate survival and actually takes a lot of energy to run.
This response is great if we need to escape a dangerous situation but not so great if we're simply stressed out about deadlines or finances. Lack of blood flow (and therefore oxygen) to the digestive system slows function, which means poor digestion, nutrient absorption, and elimination (constipation).
Yoga can be a fabulous tool to unwind and detach from stress. In fact, 60 minutes of yoga has been found to significantly increase gamma-aminobutyric acid (or GABA) — aka the "chilled" amino acid — levels in the brain.
GABA is a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) that works directly on the brain to calm the mind and enhance mood. It does this by regulating noradrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin. GABA functions as a brake on the neural circuitry during stress and relaxes the muscles; slows heart rate and breathing; and reduces anxiety, tension, and insomnia.
What we eat influences our mood. To understand how food can enhance feelings of happiness and reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, let's look at the common drivers of poor mental health:
- Inflammation and oxidative stress
- Hormone imbalance
- Insulin resistance
- Gut dysbiosis
- Psychosocial (loneliness, life challenges/stress, lack of meaning and purpose)
- Mitochondrial dysfunction
Generally, foods rich in B vitamins support the nervous system and reduce stress, so the purpose of this article is to introduce you to other foods that nourish the mind that you may not have thought of.
There's a communication system between the gut and brain called the gut-brain axis. The vagus nerve at the center of the axis connects the neurons in the gut with the brain.
A healthy, diverse gut microbiome (gut flora) directly affects this communication and contributes to a happy, healthy mood.
Many disorders of the mind and behavior such as anxiety, depression, autism, and schizophrenia are influenced by the gut microbiome.
Gut bacteria influence mood by:
- Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity
- Improving blood sugar balance
- Making 90 percent of the body's serotonin. Serotonin is responsible for a healthy mood, sense of calm, optimism, sleep, appetite, and healthy gastric motility (bowel movements)
- Producing and responding to other chemicals that the brain uses, which regulate sleep, stress, and relaxation, such as melatonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, and GABA
- Improving the strength and health of intestinal walls, preventing leaky gut, and reducing inflammation by maintaining the tight junctions between the cells in the lining of these walls
Probiotics are living bacteria that restore and renew our gut microbiomes. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium increase GABA in the gastrointestinal system and help decrease anxiety and stress. Lactobacillus rhamnosus helps lower the stress hormone cortisol.
Lactobacillus pentosus from fermented cabbage (kimchee) improves mental function and BDNF production, which is important for behavior, learning, and memory. Avoid pasteurized, store-bought varieties and those made with added sugar.
Good food sources of probiotics are:
- fermented vegetables
- kombucha tea
- apple cider vinegar
Onions contain flavonoids. Flavonoids are phytonutrients that enhance the function of GABA.
Flavonoids are antioxidants that have anti-inflammatory activity, and inflammation and oxidative stress are characteristic traits of mental health disorders.
Other plant-based foods rich in flavonoids are nuts, seeds, fruits (berries, citrus fruits, apples, pears), most vegetables, herbs, spices, black and green tea, cocoa, wine, chamomile flowers, linden flowers, and passionflower.
Green and black tea
Contains theanine, an amino acid that increases GABA levels within the brain and alpha "relaxation" brain waves.
Theanine increases dopamine, serotonin, and glycine in the brain. These neurotransmitters are important for a healthy mood, pleasure, quality sleep, and prevention and reduction of anxiety and depression.
Pu-erh tea is a fermented tea originally from China. It contains GABA, which has an anti-anxiety effect.
Pu-erh protects the nervous system from excitotoxins. Excitotoxins overstimulate neuron receptors. Brain cells communicate with one another with the help of neuron receptors. When overstimulated they become exhausted, which can alter our mood, sleep, and behavior.
Chamomile has been shown to have antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects. It contains volatile oils and flavonoids, which have anti-inflammatory properties.
Chamomile has a sedating effect due to the flavonoid apigenin and other compounds that bind to GABA receptors in the brain.
Lemon balm increases GABA activity and decreases cortisol. When cortisol is raised it can contribute to stress, anxiety, depression, and poor sleep.
4. Wild-caught oily fish
Omega-3 fatty acids have an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effect on brain tissue. Inflammation in the brain affects serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, and GABA levels and contributes to oxidative stress.
Omega-3 fish oil supplementation has been shown to reduce depression in as little as 21 days. EPA and DHA play a role in serotonin production, release, and function in the brain. Low levels of EPA/DHA contribute to depression and brain dysfunction.
EPA protects against nerve-cell death and promotes nerve-tissue growth in the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for happiness, decision making, learning, and memory.
Omega-3s are found in oily fish (herring, mackerel, sardines, salmon, anchovies), salmon fish oil, and cod liver oil. You can also find omega-3 in walnuts, flaxseeds, and hemp seeds.
5. Pumpkin seeds
Pumpkin seeds are a rich source of magnesium, and stress — whether it's emotional, physical, environmental, or biochemical — can deplete magnesium levels in the body. Deficiency of magnesium can lead to inflammation, insomnia, anxiety, poor memory, and concentration.
Low magnesium levels can negatively affect blood sugar balance and our ability to use insulin effectively, which leads to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance can affect mental health and contributes to depression.
Magnesium can be found in spinach, almonds, kefir, avocado, dark chocolate, banana, artichokes, seaweed, basil, and coriander. Alcohol depletes magnesium levels in the brain, so avoid regular alcohol intake when stressed.
6. Grass-fed lamb
Lamb contains zinc, an essential micronutrient with many roles involved in the development of depression, such as cell growth, cell death, and metabolism. The highest levels of zinc are found in the brain, especially the hippocampus.
Zinc plays a critical role in the brain and body's response to stress. Low levels are seen in those who suffer depression, and deficiency can also lead to poor learning and memory.
Brain inflammation can cause brain fog and may show up as depression and/or poor concentration, memory, and learning. Zinc is an antioxidant effective in reducing inflammation and protects the brain cells against damage caused by free radicals.
Zinc is also found in grass-fed beef, kefir, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, cashews, mushroom, and spinach.
7. Organic eggs
Eggs are a good source of tryptophan, an essential amino acid required for serotonin production. Diets lacking tryptophan and low levels of serotonin in the brain contribute to anxiety and depression.
Tryptophan is processed properly in the brain when consumed with a small amount of low glycemic index (GI) carbohydrates such as vegetables and nuts and foods rich in vitamin B6 such as eggplant, sunflower seeds, pistachio nuts, kangaroo, pasture-raised chicken, turkey, and wild salmon.
Tryptophan is also found in avocado, nuts, seeds (sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, cashews), grass-fed beef and lamb, bananas, turkey, pasture-raised poultry, spirulina, green peas, and wild-caught fish (salmon and cod).
8. Curries with saffron and turmeric
Saffron could be as effective as some antidepressants in the treatment of mild to moderate depression.
Curcumin, a natural anti-inflammatory compound found in turmeric, has antidepressant-like activity, protects neurons, and improves neuroplasticity (or the ability to create new neural pathways in the brain).
It also protects against oxidative stress, mitochondrial damage, and leaky gut, all of which are compromised in depression.
As a supplement, curcumin (BCM-95) is found to be more effective than some conventional formulas.
What we eat has the power to send positive information from the gut to the brain, which goes on to affect our mood and behavior. Knowing this, wouldn't it make sense to fuel the body with ingredients that stoke the fire of happiness?
I encourage you to send glorious information to that brain of yours and flood the body with those natural chemicals that you're designed to produce.
But don't forget, what we eat is only ONE part of happiness creation. Happiness is a collaboration of information you gather from movement, mindfulness, social interaction, and connection to self.
Learn more about GABA benefits and side effects here.