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How a Healthy Gut Can Make You Happier

author image Kate Bayless
Kate Bayless is an accomplished writer covering lifestyle, health, travel and parenting with bylines across the web at sites like Prevention, LivingHealthy, iVillage, Babble and Momtastic as well as national glossies like Parents and Fit Pregnancy.
Serotonin doesn't always develop in your brain.
Serotonin doesn't always develop in your brain. Photo Credit Gracie Wilson/LIVESTRONG.com

If you’ve been following the news over the past year, you know that the wellness world’s golden child is your gut. Though not as glamorous as the heart or brain, studies are showing that the status of your gut microbes can impact everything from your body’s inflammation and weight to your skin and brain health. And now we can add one more important aspect that your gut can influence — your state of mind.

One of the biggest influencers of mood in your body is a neurotransmitter called serotonin. Serotonin is sometimes referred to as the “feel good” hormone because of its ability to impact mood, anxiety and happiness among other functions.

While some serotonin is created and used in the brain, between 80 and 90 percent of it is created in the intestines — our gut. There is recent evidence that the gut bacteria can even coax the intestines to produce more serotonin, says Erica Sonnenburg, Ph.D., senior research scientist at the Stanford University School of Medicine in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and co-author of “The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-Term Health.

How Your Happy Hormones Go From Gut to Brain

Located in the tissues that line the esophagus, stomach and small and large intestines is a network of neurons, neurotransmitters and proteins that send and receive impulses, record experiences and respond to emotion.

This enteric nervous system (ENS) in your gut is also often called your body’s “second brain,” and it connects and communicates with your central nervous system (CNS). Scientists have known that the brain can send signals to the gut, which is exactly why things like stress can lead to gut issues like stomach pain, constipation and diarrhea (we’ve all been there).

But current research is finding more proof that communication is a two-way street: The central nervous system can impact the enteric nervous system in the gut — and vice versa. So, in short, irritation and imbalance in the gastrointestinal system can send messages to the central nervous system causing mood changes.

Treat your gut well and a happier mood may follow.
Treat your gut well and a happier mood may follow. Photo Credit Mike Watson Images/moodboard/Getty Images

Also, according to a 2015 report by Linghong Zhou and Jane A. Foster, various studies in which participants took a course of probiotics showed brain activity in the emotional centers of the brain, a reduction in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol and improved mood. “Overall, these studies in healthy individuals provide clear evidence of a link between microbiota and emotional processing,” the report says.

How Do You Know If Your Gut Balance Is out of Whack?

“We really don’t have the tools to tell at this point what is ‘normal’ [for your gut], but the field is advancing rapidly,” explains Dr. Kirsten Tillisch, an associate professor of medicine in the digestive diseases division at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. If you eat a typical Western diet, though, there’s a good chance your gut microbes could use some help.

So how can you build a strong gut and maybe improve your mood in the process? While probiotic pills get a lot of praise for improving gut health, you don’t need to rely on a supplement, says Tillisch. A change in the foods you consume can alter your gut health and your mental outlook for the better.

“The state of our microbiota is a product of many factors, but we know that one of the major levers that controls this community is diet,” Sonnenburg explains. “Your long-term dietary patterns dictate to a large extent which bacteria you have in your gut and their metabolic output (i.e., what molecules they are manufacturing in your body).”

While supplements might be a quick fix for some, you can make your diet more gut-friendly by making some simple adjustments. “When optimizing digestion and gut function there are certain foods that should be avoided as well as key foods to include,” explains Jacqui Justice, nutritional director, Balance 3H+ Diet Plan, NY Health & Wellness.

Eat These 3 Foods for Optimal Gut Health

1. Fiber

Experts all agree: We need to be eating more fiber — 25 to 37 grams a day, according to the FDA. “Fiber, the complex carbohydrates found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, are the major food source for the bacteria in our gut,” says Sonnenburg.

When your gut doesn’t get this fuel from your diet, it starts to “eat” your gut lining, leading to intestinal issues and a permeability of the gut wall. “This mucous lining is a key barrier that our body erects to keep our gut bacteria at a safe distance from our intestinal cells,” Sonnenburg explains. “If that barrier breaks down it could set off alarm bells within our immune system resulting in chronic inflammation.”

Justice recommends high-fiber foods like beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, cruciferous veggies and fruits like avocados, pears, blackberries and raspberries.

Blackberries and raspberries are a good source of fiber.
Blackberries and raspberries are a good source of fiber. Photo Credit circlePS/iStock/Getty Images

2. Fermented Foods

Noticed your local grocery store stocking more kombucha and sauerkraut? There’s a reason these fermented foods are gaining in popularity. “When foods are fermented or cultured, the bacteria, yeasts or molds used in the process predigest the food, meaning they break down the carbohydrates, fats and proteins to create microflora — friendly, life-giving bacteria beneficial to the gastrointestinal system,” explains Justice.

While most people are familiar with fermented dairy products like yogurt, there is growing interest in other fermented foods like kimchee, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, miso and natto. Many of these fermented foods can even be made at home.

3. Anti-Inflammatory Foods

If you’re eating foods that are more likely to inflame your insides, you're certainly warranted to be in a bad mood. What you should avoid may differ from person to person. “People need to be their own experimentalists,” says Sonnenburg. “Since the microbiota is individual, what could be fine for one person may be an issue for someone else.”

While you figure out which gut-busters to avoid, try adding in more anti-inflammatory foods like fish, green tea, flaxseed, garlic and walnuts and spices like cinnamon and ginger, Justice recommends.

Ginger is a great anti-inflammatory food.
Ginger is a great anti-inflammatory food. Photo Credit LenkaPrusova/iStock/Getty Images

What Do YOU Think?

Now that you know what you eat can impact the way you feel emotionally, will you change your diet? Do you believe that "you are what you eat"? What are ways that you keep yourself vibrating at a happy high frequency? How do you keep your gut healthy?

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