Our bodies have an incredible ability to protect and heal themselves through the process of inflammation. Inflammation is the body’s defense mechanism against harm, injury and infection. The swelling that occurs around a stubbed toe or a papercut is inflammation in action. While inflammation is well intended in protecting our bodies, this reaction is not always good for our health. Our bodies often view added chemicals or artificial ingredients found in food, environmental toxins and pollutants as infectious, inducing a mild inflammatory response. This happens particularly in the gut, where these substances are broken down and digested. Over time, consistent exposure to these minor toxins leads to chronic low-grade inflammation which does not impact daily function, but can lead to negative health outcomes. Chronic inflammation has been associated with depression, anxiety, arthritis, cancer, neurodegenerative conditions, heart and neurological disease.
When chronic inflammation occurs in the gut specifically, our brains are in danger. You may have heard the idea that the gut is our second brain, and it’s true! The gut is full of nerve endings which together make up the enteric nervous system (ENS). The central nervous system, controlled by our brains, is connected to the ENS through the vagus nerve, which runs from the medulla of the brainstem to the gut. This relationship is often referred to as the gut/brain connection and through it, information collected by the nerves in your gut is communicated directly to the brain, inducing an inflammatory response. Gut inflammation often occurs in response to an overgrowth of bad bacteria, which can be caused by an overconsumption of inflammatory foods, or an insufficient consumption of anti-inflammatory foods. Chronic inflammation of the gut leads to neuroinflammation, or inflammation of the brain and nervous tissue. This can trigger neurodegenerative diseases, such as alzheimers, Parkinsons and ALS, as well as generalized anxiety disorder. Therefore, the health of our gut not only affects our mood and the way we think and feel, but also our long term brain health and risk of developing serious diseases.
Luckily, we have a lot of power to control inflammation in our guts and brains through the foods that we do (and don’t) eat! Reducing or avoiding the following inflammatory foods can have a significant impact on taming gut inflammation and improving mental health.
- Added/Refined Sugars: often found in baked goods, boxed cereals, granola bars and salad dressings, these sugars have the potential to wreck our gut health and overwhelm our brains with more sugar than it needs. High fructose corn syrup is the most commonly used added sugar but there are more than 200 different names for sugar. Studies have shown regular consumption of added sugars is associated with anxiety, depression, an unhealthy gut flora, obesity, decreased libido and poor sleep.
- Industrial Vegetable Oils: highly processed oils, such as corn, grapeseed and soybean oil, are particularly high in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids and low in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and are drivers of both gut and neuroinflammation. Their regular consumption has been associated with anxiety, depression and an increased progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
Processed Foods: processed or packaged foods that you find on grocery store shelves with long expiration dates are typically packed with added sugars, industrial vegetable oils and chemical additives. In addition to the above dangers of added sugars and vegetable oils, additives such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) have been shown to have a toxic effect on gut and brain health, increasing inflammation and worsening symptoms of OCD and PTSD, as well as having the potential to interfere with certain antidepressant medications.
Processed Meats: much like other processed foods, processed meats including sausages, hot dogs and deli meat, are full of chemical additives and preservatives that are detrimental to mental health. Added nitrates and their related compounds, specifically, are used to enhance color and extend expiration dates for many processed meats, but they have also been seen to alter gut bacteria in a way that is associated with both bipolar disorder and depression.
Gluten: gluten is a protein found in many wheat, barley and rye containing products which some people’s bodies have a hard time breaking down, even those who do not have celiacs disease. This difficulty in digestion has been associated with chronic inflammation, as well as anxiety, ADHD, brain fog and poor memory, and worsened OCD. Here is where body intelligence is key, listen to your body and identify your gluten tolerance levels. Notice patterns and symptoms like headaches, bloating, constipation or anxiety, and limit gluten consumption if any of those are present.
- Coffee & Alcohol: My guideline for both of these is sip mindfully and in moderation. If either start to affect you, then cutting back is important. Also pay attention to the added sugar, sweeteners, liqueurs and juices added to such beverages which are disruptive to the gut. For some, alcohol consumption use has been associated with increased anxiety, poor sleep and decreased libito, so sip mindfully!
Meanwhile, including the following anti-inflammatory foods into daily diet helps maintain gut and brain health by fending off inflammation for optimal mental health outcomes.
Whole foods: un-processed, fiber-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, olive oil and seafood are high in polyphenols, fiber and healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats which have widely been shown to be anti-inflammatory and promote a healthy gut flora, which in turn improves your brain heath! People who eat diets high in whole foods have notably fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety and slower rates of cognitive decline with age.
Leafy Greens: there’s a reason that salads are so often associated with health – leafy greens are nutrient powerhouses! Specifically, folate found in greens such as spinach, kale, cabbage, romaine and spring mix lettuce is an important vitamin that maintains brain health and neurotransmitter function. Sufficient consumption is associated with improved moods and sharper minds.
Cruciferous Vegetables: broccoli is perhaps one of the most commonly associated health foods, and for good reason! Cruciferous vegetables, which also includes cauliflower, brussels sprouts, Bok choy and arugula contain the powerful anti-inflammatory compound sulforaphane which has been shown to promote healthy gut bacteria, shut down inflammatory pathways and act as a powerful antibiotic. Those who regularly consume cruciferous vegetables may have fewer anxiety and depression symptoms, improved focus, and reduced progression of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Probiotics and Prebiotics: prebiotic foods such as onions, leeks, garlic and asparagus, feed the gut microbes. Probiotics, found in fermented foods such as kimchi and yogurt, provide more healthy bacteria in our guts, which reduces inflammation and support a healthy brain, healthy hormone levels and happy moods.
Turmeric: perhaps the most currently popular health food, turmeric deserves all the clout it is getting! The active ingredient, curcumin, is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory and promotes neurotrophic activities which helps maintain healthy brain function and resist degenerative processes. Incorporating turmeric into your diet can also help relieve fatigue, anxiety, OCD symptoms and depression, as well as improve cognitive function throughout the lifetime. Make sure you include a pinch of black pepper when cooking with turmeric though, as it increases your body’s ability to absorb curcumin by almost 2000%!
- Dark Chocolate: unlike sugary milk chocolates, dark chocolate and its high cacao content is rich in both fiber and antioxidants, which we know to be anti-inflammatory, and is a well known aphrodisiac. Dark chocolate has been shown to increase libido, and increase dopamine which reduces depression symptoms. Go ahead, eat the chocolate!
Who knew that taking care of our brains and training our mental fitness could be done by mindfully choosing the food in your plate? Keep these food lists in mind on your next grocery trip or when cooking and you’ll be on your way to decreased inflammation and improved mental health.