Food and Mood

Warning: This post is about a million paragraphs long and filled with science-y things. Read on at your own discretion. Something that is often overlooked is just how powerful of an impact our food has over every aspect of our lives. We generally recognize that food can make us healthier or stronger, but we often miss the fact that food can do the opposite, too. The pendulum swings both ways- choosing to not eat healthily doesn’t just mean you won’t get healthier, it means you’ll get sicker.

We currently live in a world of reaction when it comes to our health. Instead of focusing on prevention or long term healing, we’ve shifted to a reliance on intervention and clean up through medication or other measures that come with a multitude of side affects and downsides. Here’s where I need to get very clear: there is a place and time for medical intervention and medication. However, I believe that in our society, we’ve accepted medication with serious consequences as everyday tools, regardless of the fact that they are serious undertakings, and should be used with much more caution and judiciousness than they currently are.

Many of us wouldn’t think twice about giving a sick child OTC Tylenol, despite the fact that over 150 Americans die each year on average after accidentally taking too much. Or we dedicate large portions of our income to expensive medications for high blood pressure or hypertension: preventable and treatable conditions without medication. In fact, dietary changes have a 99.5% success rate of reversing heart disease. It’s a pay now or pay later situation: pay for good food, or pay for the complications later down the line. I recommend going to The Domestic Man, Russ Crandall’s site, and reading his story about experiencing a stroke at age 26, being sent home with a lifetime of medications, and being able to narrow that list down to one only a few years later after changing the food he ate.

But I want to shift the focus to a less-discussed facet of the food-health discussion: mental health. Here’s a passage from Whole 9 that’s a good intro:

Where food enters the picture is how the brain works. Our brains are enormously complicated, energy-gobbling masses of cells made mostly of fat and with the consistency of a fine custard. Brains make up 2-5% of our body’s mass, but the process of thinking and all the unconscious tasks the brain does, like managing appetite, coordinating breathing, digestion, etc. takes up 20% of the energy we use every day. This high energy usage and the way the brain works means it needs a ton of raw materials all the time. Certain amino acids, minerals, vitamins, cholesterol, and, in particular, long chain omega 3 fatty acids are vital to the structure and function of the brain. Without all the right components, the ability of the brain to keep up its high energy output and clean up metabolic byproducts breaks down, leading to inflammation and toxins that can build up and even destroy neurons. The brain is hungry, and needs just the right sort of nutrient-rich fuel.

The article goes on to explore the concept of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to adapt to new requirements, tasks, and stressors. In order to keep neuroplasticity, you need to keep inflammation low, and the only way to do that is through dietary choices. The more you stress your body’s ability to adapt to life’s stresses with poor nutrition, the more vulnerable you become to mood disorders such as anxiety or depression, especially if you are already pre-disposed to such conditions.

The biggest danger to your neural health is processed foods: they tend to have a lot of energy, but not a lot of fuel. What this means is that while you can get an insulin spike of sugar (a stressor), you won’t get any beneficial nutrients to aid repair and growth of your neurons, leading to inflammation and damage. Whole 9 compares it to “putting purified alcohol in the car in lieu of the gasoline the spark plugs are designed to work with”. Processed foods also introduce a wide variety of unfamiliar and novel chemicals to your body, such as food dyes, that result in even more inflammation.

The average diet today is extremely heavy in nutrient-poor foods, such as processed grains, that lack the nutrients vital for good mental health: zinc, vitamin B12, long chain omega3 fatty acids, etc. In even a relatively short period, an absence of these nutrients will cause literal neuron death and have serious mental and physical repercussions. And these issues can’t be solved with a vitamin supplement: these are fat-soluble vitamins that require interaction with other macro and micro nutrients to be properly absorbed and utilized by the body, meaning the focus needs to be shifted on consuming real, nutrient dense whole foods.

It’s not enough,however, to simply add nutrient dense foods (although it is a huge step in the right direction). It’s important to limit or eliminate foods that affect the absorption of nutrients. For example, processed grains contain anti-nutrients (called “phytates“) that actually latch on to the calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium in the grain and other foods in your diet and create an insoluble and undigestible complex. This means the nutrients are no longer in a form usable by your body, and you don’t get the benefits. In fact, you get rather ill affects.

Certain protein structures commonly found in processed foods are even more concerning: they contribute to gut permeability. This is the “leaky gut” that some are familiar with, where your gut is literal more permeable and foods can cross the gut barrier, allowing incompletely-digested food, particles, and bacteria to roam free in the body and cause an immune-response and promote systemic inflammation. A highly discussed aspect of gut permeability is the consumption of grains (particularly processed grains, which make up the bulk of the SAD). I can’t explain the science in a more easily digestible form than this scientist did on her blog:

Grains have a particularly high concentration of two types of lectin. Lectins are a class of proteins (of which gluten is one) that are present in all plant life to some degree. Two sub-classes of lectins, prolamins (like gluten) and agglutinins (like wheat germ agglutinin) are of particular concern for human health. These lectins are part of a plant’s natural protective mechanism (from predators and pests) and are usually concentrated in the seeds of the plant (which is why grains and legumes have so much). So what happens when we eat these proteins? Similar to what occurs in individuals with celiac disease (basically, a super exaggerated form of the sensitivity we all have to gluten and other lectins), these lectins can either damage and kill the cells that line your intestines or directly causes spaces to open up between your gut cells. This causes little holes in your intestines; so, things that are not supposed to get into your blood stream leak out. This “leak” is made worse by the fact that lectins bind to sugars and other molecules in the gut and then “help” these random other molecule leak into the blood stream. There are many things in your gut (like E. coli) that are supposed to stay there; and, when they leak into the blood stream, they cause a low level of systemic inflammation. This can set the stage for many health conditions, including cardiovascular and auto-immune diseases.


Not only do they contain lectins (like gluten) that damage the cells that line your gut, but they are also very high in omega-6 fatty acids. Grains (including corn) and legumes are high in linoleic acid, the omega-6 fatty acid that seems to be at the root of many modern diseases. Remember that omega-6 fatty acids contribute to pro-inflammatory pathways in your body and that the huge increase in the proportion of our dietary fat that now comes from omega-6s (instead of omega-3s) is a major player in a wide range of diseases.

But it gets worse. These omega-6 fatty acids are concentrated in modern vegetable oils. Oils derived from grains and legumes (soy, canola, safflower, sunflower, peanut, corn, etc) didn’t exist until the process of mechanical extraction was invented. So, not only are you consuming omega-6 fatty acids directly from grain-containing foods, but also from the vegetable oils that they are cooked in.

Another insidious way that grains have negatively impacted human health is with farmed meat. Cows, pigs, sheep, chickens and even some farmed fish are fed grains. The meat from these animals no longer contains a balanced 1:1 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids (which they did prior to agriculture). Instead, it is typically closer to 1:10! It is not enough just to avoid grains in your diet; you need to be mindful of what you eat that eats grains too. In a perfect world, we would all eat pasture-fed beef, free-range poultry, wild-caught fish and wild game meat, while also avoiding all grains, legumes and modern vegetable oils.

Systemic inflammation is the under discussed root of many problems suffered by people today, including allergies, arthritis, asthma, autoimmune diseases (Crohn’s, IBS, lupus, MS, Hashimoto’s), chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, ulcerative colitis, psoriasis, eczema, rosacea, endometriosis, and even depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Chronic systemic inflammation puts your body in a state of constant stress. It’s a full-body, long-term up-regulation of immune system activity. It’s like being kinda sick all the time, making your body less effective at healing injuries and supporting cardiac health.

The gut-brain connection is extremely strong, and not only can a leaky gut cause underlying mental ailments to arise, but it can swing both ways. Here’s some of the work of Dr. Sarah Ballantyne, explaining the gut-brain connection:

It may not be surprising that the brain has a direct effect on the digestive system. For example, thinking about food can release digestive enzymes into the stomach before you even eat. If you’re nervous or stressed, your stomach may feel upset. But how does this work?

Your brain sends signals to all of the nerves in your body. These signals are essential for everything from breathing to moving your legs so you can walk. A very large portion of your brain’s output is directed into the vagus nerve, the nerve which innervates (which means branches into the nerves controlling) most of the thoracic (chest) and abdominal cavities. The vagus nerve thus controls a wide variety of functions, from your heart beating, to the secretion of digestive enzymes, to the peristalsis of your intestines. The important part here though, is that the vagus nerve innervates the digestive tract. Stress, anxiety, depression and strong negative emotions decrease your brain activity, which decreases activation of the vagus nerve. This will reduce pancreatic enzyme secretion and cause poor gallbladder function, thereby reducing stomach acid production, as well as decrease gut motility, decrease intestinal blood flow, and suppress the intestinal immune system. When this reduced vagus nerve activation is persistent, the slowing down of so many digestive functions results in something called Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), an increased growth of pathogenic yeast and bacteria in the gut (specifically the small intestine, the longest section of our intestine responsible for nearly all digestion). These are not the beneficial bacteria that we are supposed to have lower down in our digestive tract. These “bad” yeast and bacteria (which are also too high up) contribute to an increase in intestinal permeability (a.k.a. leaky gut) beyond what is already caused by the lectins and saponins in dietary grains and legumes. Even in the absence of dietary grains and legumes, SIBO can cause a sufficiently leaky gut to produce systemic, chronic low grade inflammation. This effect of the brain on the gut is why people who suffer depression so often also have constipation or suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I know this is dense, but the basic point is that stress, anxiety and depression result in a leaky gut.

Basically, your gut is way more important than you currently think. Many of us have suffered from stomach and digestion ailments, but either accept it as just “how we are” or shrug it off as “not a big deal”. A constantly rumbly, upset stomach isn’t how you were designed to be, nor is it healthy or ideal.

If you’re an average American eating the typical SAD (Standard American Diet), you’re suffering from systemic inflammation, even if you don’t connect with any of the “big name” health crises listed above. If you have inconsistent energy levels, poor sleep, headaches, achy joints, a cough that just won’t go away, it’s probably because of the food you’re eating. It could be the processed grains in your whole grain toast that are increasing your gut’s permeability. It could be the sugar in your granola bar that disrupts the delicate balance of gut bacteria. It could be the glass of wine with dinner that contains alcohol- a literal neurotoxin.

And just as important as identifying the foods that are making you less healthy is identifying what will make you more healthy. Grass-fed protein sources like fish, chicken, and beef, organic veggies and leafy greens like kale, zucchini, and brussels sprouts, healthy fats like olives, avocados, and coconut, and denser carbohydrate sources like root veggies and fruits are the foundations to good health. Consider these “Good Food Standards”:

The food you eat should:

1. Promote a healthy psychological response (proper satiation signals, not leading to over or underconsumption like the potato chips engineered so you can eat them forever, and supportive of neural health). 2. Promote a healthy hormonal response. 3. Support a healthy gut. 4. Support immune function and minimize inflammation.

Funnily enough, foods closest to the earth follow these guidelines. Animals raised in their natural capacity, eating the diet their designed to eat. Plants grown in good soil without a barrage of chemicals and manipulations. Fats from said animals and plants. Getting back in touch with whole-food sources does your body a whole lot of good.

By eliminating dietary stressors, you can not only heal chronic physical issues like that shoulder problem that just won’t go away, or knee that keeps you off the track, but heal your relationship with food and mental ailments. Food that doesn’t mess with satiety signals prevents the lifelong struggle for many between restriction and binging, and helps stabilize blood sugar levels (meaning no more hangry outbursts when your blood sugar swings).

So here’s how I approach it:

1. Remove stressors. This means processed foods, possibly dairy (if you suspect lactose intolerance), and anti-nutrient dense foods. This doesn’t mean you can never have an oreo ever again. It means letting it go for awhile so you can stabilize your stress state and add it back mindfully as a treat later on. Key word here being treat. See Step 3. 2. Give it some time and focus on adding nutrition. Your body didn’t get sick in a few days, so it’s going to take time to heal. Take a break from processed foods and think of it as a vacation. Soon enough, you’ll see how much more energy you’ll have and how much better you’ll feel. Focus on adding nutrient-dense foods like leafy greens, and maybe think about finding a high-quality fish oil supplement. Just as important as what you take out is what you add in. 3. Once you’ve taken a step back, start focusing on your individual needs. Every body is different, and so every tolerance is different. I personally used to try and eat yogurt because I always heard about how good it was for me. And while a high-quality fermented dairy might be a good choice for others, I was ignoring the fact that I’ve been lactose intolerant since birth. So while treats aren’t to be obsessively avoided, I know that eating an ice cream would ruin my beach trip with stomach pains and discomfort. And I definitely know that eating it every day would have detrimental affects. But back on the treat thing: Oftentimes we lose concept of what a treat really is, and the truth is, if you’re having whipped cream on waffles every day, or a candy bar every night, it’s no longer a treat. You’ve made it a foundation of your diet. Don’t go out of your way to incorporate treats later on: let them come to you, and make sure they’re special. You can buy a Snickers any day you want, but a fresh cookie from a bakery at the end of a stroll with a friend might be your special treat for the week or so. 4. Get excited, be empowered. This isn’t a diet. This isn’t a quick-fix, 30-day, get bikini-body-ready restriction. This is a lifestyle, a way of living. It’s natural, and honestly, not really weird at all. Eat things your great-grandparents would have eaten: plants and animals that still resemble what they are (i.e., potato chips don’t count). Eating whole foods is natural, normal, and what your body wants. It’s a way to heal your body from the inside out, and you should be proud of it. Change the way you think about food. It has a deeper connection to your health than you may know. Do your research. Learn the facts. Understand what food does to your body (your body, specifically).

I’ve found so much lightness in reconnecting with food. Shifting the focus from a cycle of control and confusion to one of understanding and nourishment is incredibly empowering. I feel and perform so much better knowing what I’m putting into my body and where it came from- and this stems not just from reconnection, but from literal, physical healing of my body and brain to directly aid my mental ailments. My anxiety, depression, and other conditions that previously held me back have lessened far more than I ever thought possible. It’s possible for anyone and everyone.

I know this isn’t strictly yoga-related, but it’s health and mindfulness related, and important to me to share. It’s truly changed my life and passing on the information I’ve gathered is something I’d be honored to do. This was a whirlwind of food and brain and science, but there are many other factors that I’d like to later address in relation to maintenance of a healthy body and mind, including sleep, stress management, and movement.

In case you haven’t noticed, I like knowing “why” more than blindly accepting dogma or conventional wisdom. Science means more to me than, say, the FDA food pyramid or previous nutrition advice I’ve received (and besides, the concept of the FDA’s overwhelming goal to make money over all else is a topic for another time).

Suggested Readings:

  1. Denise Minger's Death By Food Pyramid
  2. Dallas and Melissa Hartwig's It Starts With Food
  3. Melissa Joulwan's Well Fed 1 and Well Fed 2
  4. Micheal Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food
  5. Liz Wolfe's Eat the Yolks
  6. Russ Crandall's The Domestic Man