Sweat drips down your back, coating your forehead, your hands. You wipe your hands and take a shaky breath, trying to remember your lines. But now your mind is endlessly blank and you feel a pit opening in your stomach.
Most students are painfully aware of this anxiety that drapes things like oral presentations. But where exactly does that sinking feeling in your stomach come from, that gaping black hole?
From butterflies in your stomach to feeling nauseous when you see an unsettling sight – these feelings remind us just how amazingly interconnected the human body is. But have you ever wondered how your thoughts affect your body, how your mind produces a physical reaction to psychological distress?
According to Harvard Health Publishing, “the brain has a direct effect on the stomach.” So, when you experience extreme emotions, like the anxiety of an oral presentation or the excitement of a first date, your body actually produces a physical reaction.
But how does your brain affect your stomach? Well, if you look closely – and I mean really closely – you’ll find over 100 million brain cells living in your gut. It’s fascinating, this biological mosaic. But that’s not even the best part; new research is beginning to suggest that the gut, sometimes called our second brain, is sensitive to and reacts to our emotions. The cells in your brain actually communicate with the brain cells in your gut and vice versa. So, as you’re reading this, notice your gut might have something to say about it.
BODY LIKE A HUNGRY RIVER
Trillions of cells act as building blocks, forming each follicle of hair, each individual eyelash, each inch of skin. Those trillions of cells house about 78 different organs, and those organs are connected by winding streams of over 60,000 miles of blood vessels that stretch from your feet all the way to your head.
There is a fountain of emotions ever running through your mind; these thoughts and feelings spill out as messages from the brain and weave through the back streams of your body to influence its entire functioning. So what is food’s roll in all of this? When food is digested in your gut, messages are then sent back to your brain. Your body is like a river, a complex system of canals that carries messages from one organ to the next. All of your cells, organs and blood vessels can be categorized into 11 different body systems, all of which are dependent on one another. The foods you eat not only appease cravings and elicit feelings of satisfaction, but also actually induce unique chain reactions and specific hormones to be released as well. So is there a connection between the food you eat and your brain chemistry? Definitely.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Running with the river analogy, imagine the connections in your brain to be free-flowing water. In the absence of enough algae and with too much pollution running amuck, the water is obscured and slows in movement. Just as the water depletes in quality, so does the potential of the inner workings of your body. The first step is choosing the right foods to properly fuel your body and essentially clarify the passageways. Medical researchers recommend a diet rich in essential fats, complex carbohydrates, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and, of course, water.
Nutritious foods not only help your brain function quicker, but also help enhance your mood. So eating better can actually make you feel better.
“Deficiencies of certain minerals can sometimes affect mood, clarity and speed of thought and general demeanor,” said personal training and nutrition expert Michael Czech.
Freshman Shainaya Kukreja, who became vegan nine months ago, said, “Basically, I’m more motivated throughout the day and have more focus from my healthy diet. I can tell I feel more lethargic when I eat unhealthily, so I really just never do anymore.”
But it’s not just your mood that’s at risk; it is your mental health, too. Scientists are working to uncover the prevalent link between diet and the risk of mental health disorders, like anxiety and depression.
When following a “traditional” diet, rich in vegetables, fruits and grains, your risk of depression is far lower than when following a “Western” diet, which is full of processed foods and refined sugars.
Luke Sukiennik, a former University of Miami student who completely changed his diet over a 12-week period, traded pizza and pasta for lean meats and vegetables and has noticed a dramatic change in his mental state. By eating a diet full of protein, leafy greens and vegetables, Sukiennik said, “Overall, my mental health improved in the long-run.”
Along with the brain cells, there are also trillions of bacterial cells in your gut. These bacteria, both “good” and “bad,” are necessary for your body to function properly.
As a general rule, the body wants to be balanced, just as most things in nature strive for homeostasis. Your body naturally balances itself out, striving to maintain the perfect levels of “good” and “bad” bacteria. But sometimes, it needs a little help. Scientists are starting to think that when there is too much “bad” bacteria in our guts, people are more susceptible to developing health problems, specifically mental health issues. Scientists are exploring the idea of introducing more “good” bacteria to fight the excess of “bad” and, in turn, combat the development of mental illness. Some scientists are using the probiotic philosophy, which focuses on introducing more probiotics into your diet. This “good” bacteria can be found in yogurt, kombucha and kimchi. With more of this “good” bacteria floating around in your stomach, you may lessen your chances of falling victim to bad moods and you will almost certainly have more energy to go about your day. Yes, the link between gut and brain is actually that strong.
SUPER SIZE ME
The two-way dynamic between one’s mental health and diet cannot go ignored. In the United States specifically, foods are increasingly being stripped of their natural vitamins and minerals through excessive processing. Both unhealthy eating habits and depression rates are at all-time highs. Is it just a coincidence? Czech believes that the problem with mental health lies with food industries, specifically fast-food chains. “The food industry places a high premium on profitability rather than nutritious value in these foods,” he said, adding that these processed foods “are made widely available, inexpensively and devoid of the nutrition people of all ages require.” There seems to be a problem with the food industry itself, as the majority of large food chains do not promote healthy, clean eating. Instead, they focus on minimizing costs by using the cheapest ingredients to thus maximize their own profits – possibly at the expense of people’s mental health.
Remember a balanced diet makes for a balanced mind. Those brain cells and bacteria in your gut are hard at work; the least we can do is supply them with healthy, nourishing foods. And sometimes, it really does pay off to listen to your gut.
words_anya balsamides. illustration_dana musso.