Originally published in Yoga Australia's Yoga Today magazine , winter 2016
About 90% of your body’s serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. Is this mood-regulating biochemical the key to happiness or a simplified theory that sidesteps the complex psychology of food association? Jo Power enlists the help of Dr. Jaroslav Boublik to explore the link between diet and peace of mind.
Traffic jams, spilt coffee, stubbing your toe – most people see these as the seeds the sow a bad mood. But mood might be more than a reaction to what’s going on around you. We’re seeing a growing number of scientific studies that focus on the gut-brain connection with experts across multiple disciplines confirming the link between the two. Medical doctors, dietitians, psychologists – they’re all asking the question, “How does food affect your mood?”
The doctor that will help answer this is Dr. Jaroslav Boublik (“Dr. JB”), Chief Science Officer for Australian-made raw wholefood supplement range, Activated Nutrients. He’s an expert in the field of nutrition with a passion for using diet to build optimal wellness and maximise performance. In addition to consulting on the research, formulation and testing of Activated Nutrients, Dr. JB is an Associate Member of the Australian College for Nutritional and Environmental Medicine with over 30 peer-reviewed articles published in scientific journals and research residencies at universities across the world.
According to Dr. JB, about 90% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the digestive tract. He explains that serotonin, a neurotransmitter, is synthetised from an amino acid called tryptophan and stored in nerve cells until some event causes it to be released. When it’s released, it travels across the tiny gaps between nerves, finds serotonin receptors and binds to them. Some of these serotonin receptors are in the brain and they’re involved in mood regulation. Serotonin reaching these receptors is crucial for mood maintenance; when there’s not enough serotonin activating the receptors in the brain, depression can develop.
Some experts simplistically state that “junk food” blocks serotonin from reaching the brain, resulting in poor mood regulation. However, Dr. JB argues that food and mood are more likely to be psychologically linked rather than physically linked. He says, “I think the relationship between food and mood is much more likely to be a socio-culturally driven effect that depends on how certain types of foods have been used as rewards or punishments.” This argument defines mood as a state that combines the outcome of basic metabolic processes with how an individual perceives something based on their life experiences. In this case, how they perceive a certain type of food. One person associates a certain food with happiness and comfort; another associates it with negative feelings like sadness or guilt.
If association is the link between mood and food, how can you use food to help find peace of mind? Modifying behaviour is key. If you’ve been conditioned in a way that produces negative associations with food, perhaps you can find a way to create positive associations with food. But before tackling behavioural therapy, it might be a good idea to detox from nutritionally-empty foods. A poor diet depletes energy levels, disrupts digestion, causes irritability and affects immune function; and when these symptoms get bad enough, negative associations can intensify and emotional distress is almost certain to take hold. When you change your diet and detox from unhealthy food, your body is able to refill formerly deficient nutrient stores and hopefully leave you with a mentally clean slate to begin behavioural modification.
According to Dr. JB, when you detox, “The profile of the gut bacteria will change toward a preponderance of ‘good’ bacteria and there may be a change in bowel functions while this normalises. The liver will be able to clear any backlog of cellular toxins and facilitate cellular renewal and repair. The immune system will assist with cellular renewal and reduction of inflammation. As the metabolism normalises there may be loss of fat from adipose tissue and sometimes, if there were stored toxins in the fat, these fat soluble toxins are released and need to be cleared. If plenty of water is available and the body is fully hydrated water soluble waste products will also be cleared, so it’s important to ensure this is the case.”
When your body is operating optimally with fuel from wholefoods, you should start associating your newfound health with the good foods you’re consuming. Food will tell a happy story instead of a negative one that causes emotional distress and a behavioural spiral that makes it difficult to change habits. Physical activity will complement the process perfectly, not only because of the reinforcing effects of positive body image, but also because of another bodily chemical. Exercise causes your body to release endorphins, a pain-inhibiting, pleasure-linked chemical that floods your brain with natural euphoria.
Unfortunately, making over your mood isn’t as simple as switching brands of yoghurt. It’s a subject that many approach too simplistically, usually to sell a product or peddle a service. But the reality is a complex relationship between your body, your lifestyle, a lifetime of experience and quite possibly elements that science has yet to uncover. The most straightforward way to find peace of mind is figuring out what your strengths are and applying them in a way that keeps your daily routine centred around health and wellness.