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Good gut foods: the new "happy pills"

Many of us experience digestive irritation, did you know science has proven that specific foods can actually help boost our moods and ease digestion?

Antidepressants, particularly selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRI’s), are some of the most widely prescribed type of medication globally. Prescription rates continue to rise exponentially, including in New Zealand. These SRRI’s are often prescribed as the first line of action for depression, anxiety and even irritable bowel syndrome. But how could a pill that works for our brain’s mood messengers also potentially help our digestion?

While mood supporting medication can be a lifesaver for many, a focus on what we put in our stomachs, science shows, may also help boost our moods and ease digestion.

The brain and digestive system ‘talk’ to one another through the vagus nerve that connects them. But it’s not the just the brain that transmits mood messengers (called neurotransmitters), the gut manufactures up to 95 percent of our natural feel-good messenger serotonin, which has an effect on our moods and digestive activity. The gut is actually often referred to as the ‘second brain’ as it contains its own nervous system, with 100 million neurons.

The human intestine or ‘gut’ includes about 8.5 metres of tubing (that’s roughly 10 times longer than the length of the body!). This major organ has many important functions, some of which include absorbing nutrients from the foods we eat and even supporting our immunity. The gut also contains billions of bacteria that contain neurochemicals the brain uses for mental processing, such as moods, memory and learning. Studies have shown that higher levels of gut bacteria may reduce anxiety, depression and even help us to combat the effects of stress. They also keep unfriendly bacteria such as E. coli in check, supporting our immunity.

So, what we put into our guts serves an important role in our whole health and wellbeing. If we experience digestive irritation, this may send signals to our central nervous system that trigger changes in our mood. Other signs that your gut may be out of balance include:

  • Low immunity. Prone to colds, flus, and food poisoning
  • Allergies and food sensitivities
  • Behavioural issues, particularly in children
  • Irritability and constipation or diarrhoea
  • Frequent smelly wind
  • Yeast overgrowth with recurrent yeast infections
  • Leaky Gut Syndrome (microscopic holes in the lining, which make it difficult to absorb nutrients).

You should always check with your GP or other qualified medical professional to rule out any significant digestive health concerns.

Try these gut-friendly foods to perk up your mood:

  • Fermented foods with probiotics (healthy bacteria), such as sauerkraut, miso soup, natural yogurt with active live cultures, gherkins, soy sauce, kombucha (a tasty fermented tea beverage), and tabasco and Worcestershire sauces. All it takes is one tablespoon daily of these gut-boosting foods to give your gut healthy bacteria.
  • Fibre-rich foods: rice, rice cereals, carrots, barley, potatoes, yams, kumara, beetroot, mushrooms, bananas, mangoes, turnips, parsnips, pumpkins, chestnuts, avocados, sourdough bread, papayas (this tropical fruit relieves gas and indigestion). A few servings daily of fibre-rich foods may promote bowel regularity.
  • Gut-soothing herbs such as chamomile or peppermint tea, ginger, cinnamon, mint and fennel help to reduce wind and bloating.
These Gut ‘frenemies’ are tasty but could cause digestive issues, so consider limiting:

  • Sulphur-containing foods (garlic, onions, leeks, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, asparagus, Brussel sprouts)
  • Acidic foods: tomato sauce, citrus fruits, vinegars
  • Fructose: a fruit sugar found in honey and fruit juices.  Consume this in small amounts along with fibre-rich foods
  • Dairy and wheat based products (even for thosenotdiagnosed as Coeliac, gluten may cause sensitivity. Try avoiding these for one month and review your digestion)
  • Caffeine (soft drinks, coffee)
  • Alcohol
  • Fried foods.
One of the best ways to identify ‘frenemy’ foods for your personal wellbeing is to keep a food diary for a week, writing down the items you eat and recording how you feel shortly after (i.e. had spaghetti for dinner, felt sluggish and bloated after). Review it after one week to see if you pick up any patterns in your digestive wellbeing in connection to what you consumed.

Don’t Let Stress Set Your Tummy Off

Stress can also make us moody and cause digestive distress. Try adding into your daily routine some stress reducing activities, such as hot baths, regular exercise, meditation or yoga, and add a drop of lavender oil on your pillow. Treat yourself to a massage for added relaxation.

So, by adding just a few gut-friendly foods to your daily routine (try having a cup of miso soup instead of tea for a break), it may just do the trick to get your brain and gut ‘talking’ nicely. Make that biochemical trip through the vagus nerve a good one.


About Dr. Kathleen

Dr Kathleen is an integrative and holistic medicine doctor. She consults with people from all walks of life, from the very young and the elderly, to housemakers and Hollywood stars. A passionate advocate for whole person health, she regularly speaks at corporate and educational organisations and lends her expertise to wellness retreats around New Zealand. Dr Kathleen was named as one of New Zealand’s sought-after wellbeing experts by New Zealand Herald’s Viva magazine (September 2014).

This does not substitute for any health advice from your medical professional. Dr Kathleen is not a registered GP in New Zealand and as such does not act as your primary health provider. Do not stop taking any medications without first consulting with your qualified medical professional.