Mind-Gut Connection with Dr. Caroline Lewis, ND
How to Fuel your Body to Improve Mental and Physical Health.
The old style of “dieting” no longer cuts it. We don’t want to eat to be skinny, we want to eat to feel strong and mentally ready to take on the day. We already know that food effects mood (refer to our first blog post Food For Good Thought) but we thought it was important to understand why this happens.
When looking for someone to help us get a better understanding of the gut-mind connection, our friend Dr. Caroline Lewis, a Naturopathic Doctor & Functional Medicine Practitioner, immediately came to mind. Caroline (@healthwithcare) helps her patients and social media followers feel their best from the inside out, giving advice on how to build new habits by starting with small changes to improve overall health.
We asked Caroline 11 questions on gut health and how to effects mood, and here’s the scoop:
1) Is there a connection between gut health and mood?
Absolutely! It’s a huge focus of my clinical practice. Many people know about the “mind-gut” connection now, and how thoughts, emotions, and anxieties can affect our digestion. And this is something we can optimize through more mindfulness-based activities, changing our thought patterns, and managing stress.
But, our gut health can affect our mood too - in more ways than one. Some neurotransmitters (like serotonin and GABA) are made in the gut, which actually has its own nervous system that directly talks to the brain. So, if your gut’s unhappy, your brain might be too. Certain bacteria in our gut microbiomes can influence our mood and anxiety, so keeping these in balance is important!
Inflammation comes into play too, which can be caused from lifestyle habits like heavily processed diets, high stress, infections, and bad sleep (or underlying medical conditions). With higher inflammation in the gut, you might notice more anxiety, lower mood, and more digestive symptoms.
2) How can what we eat affect the gut microbiome?
The balance of gut bacteria in the microbiome can change in just 24 hours, which can be affected by our diet! Eating foods that act as prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics in the gut can support levels of good gut bacteria, whereas eating more inflammatory or processed foods can have the opposite effect.
3) What are some foods that you recommend eating that help with improved mood?
Fiber is a great source of prebiotics for the gut (that feed our good, probiotic bacteria), which you can get from cauliflower and other cruciferous veggies, dark leafy greens, seeds, and complex carbs.
Tryptophan gets converted into dopamine and serotonin (AKA “happy hormones”) in the body, and it’s an essential amino acid, meaning we can only get it from diet! So eat your protein! Our bodies also need fats and cholesterol in order to make hormones, so don’t be scared to add more healthy fats to your diet!
And of course - eating a variety of fruits and veggies is important to get a good dose of bioflavonoids, vitamins, and minerals.
4) How long does it take to feel the effects on mood from food?
This can fluctuate depending on the person, but some symptoms caused by foods might not show up until 2-3 days after eating them, which can make it difficult to put two-and-two together. It can also happen more immediately within hours after eating something.
5) Do the same foods cause anxiety or mood changes in everyone?
Inflammatory foods in general can definitely contribute to anxiety and mood. Eating a diet higher in refined, processed foods, omega-6 fats, and lower in whole foods, omega-3’s and fiber, can be a recipe for low mood and anxiety, and impact our gut health. Gluten and dairy are just examples of foods that can be inflammatory, but this depends on the person and the quality of these foods. Each person might have different food sensitivities.
6) Can you explain a bit about food sensitivities and whether they can affect anxiety?
Food sensitivities can be caused by inflammation, an imbalance in the gut microbiome, or an overly repetitive diet. All of the above can lead to anxiety and irritability or low mood. Food sensitivities can improve or even resolve once you start doing things to lower inflammation and support a healthy balance of gut bacteria!
7) What are some ways to lower gut inflammation through our diet?
Instead of restricting, focus on what you can add IN to your diet that’s anti-inflammatory. Think of things like plant-based fats, nuts and seeds, wild fatty fish, bone broth, and cooking with herbs like ginger and turmeric. If you’re buying packaged and pre-made foods, look for a whole-food ingredient list without any additives (or words you don’t recognize).
8) Can snacking impact our mood?
For sure! Whether you’re on-the-go or munching on something after dinner, try including a source of protein, fat, or fiber. These will help prevent blood sugar spikes that can lead to increased cortisol (initially making us feel more anxious), and a drop in blood sugar later (making us feel moody or tired). It’s easy to grab a protein bar or chips if we’re hangry and rushed, but these can be loaded with inflammatory additives/oils/sugars, so be proactive and keep good quality snacks in your bag and kitchen.
9) How do you find a balance between fulfilling your cravings and maintaining good gut health?
The key word here is balance! It’s so important to listen to our bodies and satisfy cravings. If you’re craving sugar or carbs all the time, this could actually indicate nutrient deficiency (if so, it helps to see an ND)! Otherwise, I recommend eating intuitively by paying attention to your hunger and fullness cues, the way certain foods make you feel, and your mood around meal-time. If you’re out with girlfriends and want some pizza and wine, have it! Maybe your other meals that day are more nutrient-dense. The variety of yummy alternatives nowadays is great, so you can still feel indulgent while eating gut-friendly foods.
10) What are some tips to support a healthy microbiome and healthy mood?
Eat the rainbow! It sounds cliché, but eating vibrant, colourful foods will give you a good dose of mood-boosting phytonutrients and support a diverse gut microbiome (AKA different strains of good gut bacteria). Exposing the immune system in our gut to different foods rather than eating the same foods all the time can also help prevent food sensitivities!
Mindful eating is a good practice to get into. Try sitting at the table for meals and limiting distractions - focus on the smells, textures, and tastes of your food and chewing it properly. Making your meals an experience can definitely influence your mood and digestion, too.
Self-love. If you love and respect yourself, you’ll want to feed your body with foods that make you feel good!
11) Should people be counting calories or macros to be and feel healthy?
I think this can negatively impact mental health, and isn’t sustainable long-term. Try focusing on eating a variety of nutrients and whole foods. If you’re spending time and energy stressing about hitting a certain number of calories or macros, this can affect your relationship with eating and mood around food. Not to mention the effects of that unnecessary stress on your digestion. I like to think of food as information for your body versus “fuel”.
Dr. Caroline Lewis, ND is a Naturopathic Doctor from Toronto who loves helping women optimize their gut, skin, and mental health. For the latest in wellness or to book a consult with Dr. Caroline, find her on Instagram @healthwithcare.
Disclaimer: This is not to be interpreted as medical advice. Please seek assessment from Dr. Caroline or a healthcare practitioner for individualized recommendations!