The second brain
Today we know that the brain and gut are constantly communicating with each other and exchanging information. Our abdomen is lined with a highly specialised network of over 100 million nerve cells, which are similar in structure to the human brain.
Our gastrointestinal tract is therefore not only our personal digestive system, but also our second brain! A lot of information sent from the stomach ends up in the areas of the brain that are responsible for processing our emotions. This explains why we have a ‘gut feeling’, but also why satiety leads to contentment and a rumbling stomach to a bad mood.
Based on these facts, it's not surprising that our eating habits can also have a considerable influence on our mood. Studies conducted on mice have shown that a change in the composition of their intestinal flora had an impact on the animals’ emotions and personalities. Reticent animals, for example, became more aggressive. To what extent these findings also apply to humans is the subject of current research. However, since our diet directly influences the bacterial composition of our intestinal flora, experts suspect that our moods are much more strongly affected by our intestinal flora than previously assumed.
But what does this mean exactly? Can we eat ourselves happy and are there ‘good mood’ foods?
First the bad news: the perfect diet to lift our mood has not yet been discovered. Many factors influence the way we feel and our diet is just one of them. However, research in recent decades has provided compelling insights into the interaction between nutrition and mood.
For example: studies have shown that low-carbohydrate diets increase feelings of impatience, tension and anger. In contrast, a high-carbohydrate diet has been shown to improve general mood and sleep.
Basically, however, when it comes to food and mood, the general picture is similar to that of many other diet-related topics: the best thing for good spirits and happiness is a healthy and balanced diet. Scientific studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of developing depression. A Mediterranean diet features plenty of fruit and vegetables, olive oil, whole grains and lean protein sources such as fish and chicken. It is also rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. In several studies, low omega-3 blood levels have been associated with depression, pessimism and impulsiveness.
Happiness bringers, serotonin and tryptophan
Serotonin, also called the ‘happy hormone’, regulates our emotions and influences our sleep. It is mainly produced in the gut, but also in the nerve cells of the brain. Serotonin has a calming effect and can suppress feelings like fear and anger. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the serotonin contained in food has no effect on our mood because it is unable to pass our blood-brain barrier – unlike the hormone’s precursor, the amino acid tryptophan. It is from this amino acid that serotonin is formed in the brain.
Although foods rich in tryptophan such as Parmesan, soya beans, bananas and cocoa are said to be particularly effective ‘happiness bringers’, the amount that would need to be consumed to achieve a lasting influence on a person’s mood appears to be fully unrealistic.
Is a healthy diet the elixir to eternal happiness and good mood?
A healthy, diverse and varied diet is important – not only for our mood, but for our overall well-being. However: nothing makes us happier than consciously savouring something tasty! The emotions and positive feelings that can be triggered just by the smell of our favourite dish are invaluable and immediately boost our psyche.
With an average per capita consumption of around 10 to 12 kilograms of chocolate in recent years, Switzerland should be a particularly cheerful country!