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How proper nutrition affects your mood

When it comes to your mental health, there may be more to the old adage "go with your gut" than you think. That's because our gut is connected to our brain, courtesy of one of the largest nerves in our body - the vagus nerve. This wandering nerve goes straight from our brain to our gut, infusing other vital organs along the way. So, when your stomach is upset or doesn't have the proper nutrition, it can influence how you feel.

"Your gut is essentially your second brain," said Taylor Bruner, Moda Health's Supervisor of Wellness and Operations. "If you're not treating your gut the way that you should, it can impact the way your brain functions, generally. And it works both ways. If something stresses you out and your stomach gets all tied up in a knot, it will influence your brain. Maintaining gut stability through proper nutrition can reduce inflammation, which upsets the gut area. Just knowing that your brain and gut are connected tells you that eating healthy foods support a healthy brain."

Taylor says a healthy diet can have a positive impact on the different bacteria in your gut. For example, foods like fruits, vegetables, fiber and healthy fats fuel the gut's bacteria (also known as the microbiome), contributing to healthy gut bacteria while removing deficiencies to support mental health. At the same time, limiting or replacing processed sugar and processed foods with healthy alternatives can help you maintain stable blood sugar. Together, they are good for coating our nerves and helping our brain function appropriately.

"Nutrition is the fuel your body needs to function properly," she said. "If we are deficient in vitamins B and D, we may become more anxious with our interactions with other people. It can also make us more prone to depression or seasonal depression. The B vitamins are present in lots of whole grains, which are a great source of fiber that helps keep our blood pressure stable and fuels the healthy gut bacteria. That's why paying attention to the foods we eat is so important. They all work in tandem."

Challenges during the pandemic

How does the COVID-19 pandemic fit into all of this? Taylor says our emotional resilience to COVID is very low because we keep getting hit with things that we can't control to maintain our mental health and wellbeing. Having a structure and knowing what to expect infuses our mental health. It also prevents us from making split moment decisions such as reaching for a candy bar when we otherwise wouldn't.

"Doing little things is the root of nutrition behavioral change, in general, that supports our bigger being," she said. "It doesn't have to be a total revamp of everything you've always been doing. It can be just a couple of little things that you may have not been aware of that can make a big impact. Maintaining it over time can really support your mental health and your whole health."

Slow and steady

While proper nutrition is important, Taylor says people should not expect to see changes overnight. The impact of eating healthy takes time.

"With nutrition, it's slow and steady that wins the race," she said. "There are some changes that can make an impact, but it's hard for people to see that because it's over time that you really see the changes in your health."

Taylor shared some superfoods that help boost your brain power, including:

  • Green tea: Green tea includes Gabba, a compound that helps with mental health. It doesn't give you jolts of caffeine that result in highs and lows with coffee. Instead, it helps you relax over a longer period of time.
  • Fruits and veggies: Fruits and veggies are a great source of nutrients that can help increase your mood in the moment. Plus, they've got great natural sugars that can boost your energy.
  • Dark chocolate: Dark chocolate contains nutrients, antioxidants and magnesium, with little sugar. The higher the cocoa content (60% and above), the more it relaxes your whole system. It's a nice way to unwind. The general rule is the more bitter, the better.
  • Healthy fats: Foods like avocado, cheese, whole eggs, fatty fish, nuts and high-fat dairy products are loaded with nutrients that are good for the body, gut and mind.
  • Water: Water is something that shouldn't be overlooked for improving our mood. Taylor says we can get stressed out when we're dehydrated because we don't recognize that we are dehydrated. Water also stimulates other processes in the body that might otherwise make you feel like you are experiencing stress. A tall glass of water is helpful for your body and your mind.
  • Movement: While many of us remain at home, things like breathing techniques, stretching, taking walks or meditation are healthy activities for releasing stress and boosting your mental health.

Incremental changes

Whatever you do to help improve your mental health, Taylor believes the most important thing is to get started. Maintaining movement, no matter your fitness level, is progress in the right direction for both your body and mind.

"To have a sustainable change to your overall system, consistency is key in whatever behavioral change we make," she said. "Doing something rather than not doing something is always helpful. If you can do it just two times a week, you've done it two times. And that's progress. It doesn't have to be an all or nothing kind of a thing. Whatever you're striving for, consistent change starts with making small, incremental changes."

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We have exciting news to share. ODS is changing its name to Moda Health.

Moda comes from the latin term "modus" and means "a way". We picked it because that's what we are here to do: help our communities find a way to better health.

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