Mental Health and Diet – The Road to the Brain Begins with the Belly!

By Ourania Stephanopoulos-Chichura, MD

Did you know that 75% of your brain chemistry (neurotransmitters) is produced in your gut?! Did you know that 90% of your serotonin, happy brain chemical hormone, is produced in your gut? Yes! The intestinal tract is home to so much of our nervous system that it is often referred to as our “second brain”. We make our neurotransmitters from amino acids, vitamins, and minerals; and because of this, what we eat and what we don’t eat can directly impact our mood, behavior, sleep, anxiety, depression and mental health. The healthier and less inflamed we can keep our digestive tract, the healthier and better balanced our mental faculties can be.

How do I know if my gut is healthy? There are several ways.

  1. One of the simplest is to look at your bowel movements daily. I encourage you all to do this. It is free and takes little time. Think of it as a biopsy of your intestines and brain health. We should be having at least two soft formed bowel movements, 8-12 inches long, brown in color, sinking not floating, with no undigested food or blood seen – EVERY DAY! Yes, every day. Often this is one of the first steps I work on getting into balance with patients.
  2. Do you have or take medications for acid reflux? Our bodies are miraculous. They always want to heal and will work hard to maintain balance. If we are having trouble digesting our food, especially proteins, we may be experiencing a lack of stomach acid or bile production or too much production in an attempt to help us break down the food. This is another area we immediately address to help heal a raw digestive system.
  3. How do you feel after eating certain foods? Sleepy? Have a headache? Phlegm in your throat? Rashes? Tummy pain? Gas? Bloating? Fatigue? Acid reflux?
  4. Lab testing: comprehensive stool testing, indican level, test for yeast, food sensitivity testing, urinary neurotransmitter profile (yes, these can actually be measured!), Ubiome bacterial population assessment, vitamin and mineral levels, inflammatory markers (hs-CRP and lipoprotein a), and amino acid and fatty acid levels.

Question: How can I begin to change my gut and brain? Food!

  1. Food is information to the body, as are thoughts, feelings, expressions, and conversations. You can put in good information or harmful information. The more good information we have coming in, the healthier the state of our whole being. Avoid harmful inflammatory foods: refined sugar, gluten, grains, dairy (cow, sheep, and goat’s milk), soy, soda, processed foods, and fast food.
  2. Increase fruits and vegetables and try to get organic whenever possible. 4-5 cups of veggies a day and 1 cup of fruit is a good starting point.
  3. Eat nutrient-dense foods (See examples on the next page).
  4. Before you eat, take some time to calm your nervous system – prayer, meditation, silence, and being thankful for what is being given to you.
  5. Incorporate some fermented foods into diet – these can contain helpful bacteria to rebalance the intelligence inside of our intestines called the microbiome. You can also make it hospitable for these little guys to stick around by eating prebiotic foods like Jerusalem artichokes (a.k.a. sunchokes), chicory, hydrated flaxseeds or flaxseed meal, onions, and banana.
  6. Improvement of digestion and absorption can prevent toxins from accumulating in our bodies. Toxins can drive inflammation.
  7. Fasting – medically supervised. Intermittent fasting for 13 hours a day, cycles of fasting, fasting mimicking diet, or the ketogenic diet as a fasting type of diet.

How do I put it into practice? Tips, tricks and info for cooking on a full schedule.

  1. Stock up on nutrient-dense foods so that you have a wide variety of foods to add to whatever you have in the fridge.
  2. Make a big batch and keep some in the fridge for a few days or freeze extra if time is short.
  3. Invest in a high speed blender for quick smoothies and soups on the go, easy nutrient-dense nut milks, or to grind your own gluten free flours for baking and cooking.
  4. When you buy your veggies, wash and chop/prep them when you get them home so that you can cook easily with them throughout the week.
  5. Have a bowl of fruit and veggies out on the counter so that you see them when you walk by, which will make you more likely to eat them and use them in dishes.
  6. Plan your meals and keep the recipes your family loves organized for easy reference.
  7. Shop the periphery of the grocery store first and choose organic produce and pasture-raised animal proteins whenever you are able.
  8. Start a garden! From tomatoes in a pot on your back porch to fresh herbs on your windowsill to a raised bed with lettuce and okra to a full-fledged garden – growing your own produce can cut down on costs, bring some peace and harmony with nature, and be packed full of flavor and nutrients.
  9. If you are gardening on a large scale, consider collecting a soil sample and sending it in for analysis of macronutrients and micronutrients. If your garden needs more carbon source, humic and fulvic acids may be needed to promote beneficial bacteria and prevent pests and diseases from infesting the crop. By testing the health of your soil, you can help ensure that your body is getting more of the nutrients it needs when you are eating the food you grow.
  10. Take an hour one day to chop veggies and make your own fermented veggies, which can keep for months in your fridge or a cool cellar. (See recipe)
    Add greens to your diet: arugula, bok choy, celery, parsley, purslane, dandelion, fennel, endive, kale, green leafy romaine, spinach, spring onion, radish leaves, mustard greens, and collard greens.
  11. Try to incorporate some plant-based complete proteins into diet. A complete protein contains all of the essential amino acids our bodies need.
  12. Try a Mason jar salad (see recipe below).
  13. Challenge yourself to try one vegetable and fruit per week that you have never tried before! If you need help knowing what to do with it there, is a free online resource called the World’s Healthiest Foods

Nutrient-dense foods:

Raw organic nuts and seeds: almonds, walnuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, pine nuts, macadamia nuts, sacha inchi, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, flaxseeds
Organic nut butters: almond, cashew, walnut, etc.
Tahini: sesame seed butter high in minerals and omega-3 fatty acids
Beans: high in fiber, antioxidants, minerals – need to be soaked and cooked to help us digest them properly (especially if we have a leaky gut)
Lentils: great source of folate and magnesium – Need to be soaked and cooked to help us digest them properly (especially if we have a leaky gut)
Himalayan salt or sea salt: note that you still would need to consider other sources of iodine in diet such as seaweed
Teas: cleansing tea like nettle and dandelion
Spirulina: a nutritional powerhouse and algae superfood containing roughly 60-70% protein and is a complete source of protein. Also contains major minerals, trace minerals, essential fatty acids, vitamins, a wide array of antioxidants. Believed to be a complete food.
Wild caught salmon: high in omega -3 fatty acids and antioxidants as well as protein
Cherries: organic frozen or fresh – high in zinc, helps to lower uric acid along with celery seed and celery
Cacao nibs: high in chromium which helps regulate blood sugar from being too high or too low. Also high in minerals
Quinoa: a seed (not a grain) that is a complete protein, quick-cooking, can be made savory or sweet

Have fun with cooking, and remember to take time before you eat to be at peace and calm so that the nervous system is ready to receive the food.

Warm regards,