Your Stomach, Your Food, and Your Emotional Distress

Updated: Aug 10

The gut-brain axis is, simply put, the connection between your stomach and your mind. We now know that your stomach has a mind of its own, called the enteric nervous system, that causes all those familiar feelings like “butterflies in your stomach” when you’re excited or a “pit in your stomach” when you’re dreading something. Notice the common factor? It’s your stomach!

This connection appears to work two ways, meaning your mind influences your stomach and your stomach also influences your mind, including your autonomic nervous system that is responsible for the familiar “fight or flight” response (Carabotti et al., 2015). The gut, therefore, has a large influence on your mental health and your ability to regulate your emotions, and it is highly responsive to the foods you eat.

Here in the United States, we eat what is generally called a western diet. This includes foods that are high in fat, sugar, processed foods, and calories. Think of your favorite hamburger or the last time you ate too much ice cream when you were sad or stressed. This diet is also low in antioxidants and fiber, which are found in unprocessed grains, fruits, and vegetables. This diet stresses out our stomachs (Estrada & Contreras, 2019), which can lead to the negative mood states, increased emotional stress, and difficulty regulating powerful emotions.

One way to help change this? Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. The western diet is inflammatory, meaning it is stressful to our bodies. It has been directly linked to mental health disorders like depression (Tolkien, Bradburn, & Murgatroyd, 2019). An anti-inflammatory diet would include antioxidants, fibers, and unprocessed foods including fruits and vegetables. It can be tough to do when you’re busy or on a budget, but eating whole, unprocessed foods with names you can pronounce generally helps our physical and emotional wellbeing.

Always remember that this is not a restrictive diet that will have you counting calories. Try to focus on adding nutrition rather than removing anything from your diet. The only goal here is to improve wellness and mental health, not to focus on physical appearance. Changing what you eat for restrictive purposes could contribute to an unhealthy relationship with food.

As a final thought, always consult with a medical professional before changing eating habits or supplementation, especially if you have any existent health conditions.

Carabotti, M., Scirocco, A., Maselli, M. A., & Severi, C. (2015). The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems. Annals of gastroenterology, 28(2), 203–209.

Estrada, J. A., & Contreras, I. (2019). Nutritional Modulation of Immune and Central Nervous System Homeostasis: The Role of Diet in Development of Neuroinflammation and Neurological Disease. Nutrients, 11(5), 1076.

Tolkien, K., Bradburn, S., & Murgatroyd, C. (2019). An anti-inflammatory diet as a potential intervention for depressive disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Nutrition. 38(5), 2045-2052.

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