Have you ever felt stressed or anxious without a specific reason why?
We’ve all been there—the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety can manifest in our body without us consciously understanding why or where they’re stemming from.
We could be meditating, exercising, feeling calm and good with our day-to-day routines, and still having those racing hearts, sweaty palms, trembling fingers, and clenched chest feelings creep up.
Stress and anxiety have become not only widely accepted in our culture but, dare I say, encouraged. How stressed we are has become a measurement of how much we’re working, producing, or accomplishing.
Because of this, we tend to have little insight into factors that could be causing us stress outside of work or home life.
Most of us have heard people say, “You are what you eat,” but what does that really mean?
On a physiological, mental, and emotional level, how does the food we consume truly affect us?
Recent studies in New York Times show that more so than genetic factors, “The composition of each person’s microbiome appeared to be driven more by what they ate, and the types of microbes in their guts played a strong role in their metabolic health.”
The microbiomes that we get from our food determine our gut bacteria, which synthesizes neurotransmitters like GABA (our natural anti-anxiety mechanism), dopamine, and serotonin (our happy, feel-good hormones).
In fact, 90 percent of our serotonin is produced in our guts. Read that one more time. Serotonin, GABA, and dopamine all calm our limbic systems, which regulate and determine our moods and emotions.
Furthermore, the vagus nerve, which is the largest nerve in the body and has a massive impact on our central nervous system, connects our guts to our brains.
So, essentially, microbiomes from our food determine our gut bacteria, which synthesizes neurotransmitters that make us feel calm, happy, and balanced. They then travel up into our brains, having far more impact than we even know at this point.
Joan Borysenko, a health psychologist, Harvard-trained cell biologist, and New York Times best-selling author, articulates this beautifully:
“Our gut bacteria make the lion’s share of our neurotransmitters. And you can say affirmations till the cows come home, and if you don’t have good gut bacteria, you’re still going to be anxious.”
None of this is to say that stress-management tools are irrelevant; quite the opposite, actually. A strong stress-management routine is essential because stress has such a negative physiological impact on the body, especially over time.
It also affects nearly every aspect of our lives, from sleep, relationships, connection to self, energy levels, ability to focus, and so much more.
Stress-management can look like various practices depending on the individual, but something to consider is that our health and happiness are multifaceted.
We can’t simply rely on one or two practices to reduce stress or feel healthy; rather, we must look at our lives as a whole system, with interconnected pieces, and that includes our nutrition choices.
So, what foods should we be eating to reduce stress and produce more of those feel-good hormones?
My belief and strongest advice is to get back to basics: whole, organically-grown food.
Even though the majority of our gut microbiomes are developed before or during birth (we obtain essential microbes from our mothers’ vaginal canal), gut microbiomes will begin to change and completely reconfigure themselves after just 2-4 days of eating whole, non-processed foods. With it, your stress and energy levels will change too.
Foods like beans, green veggies, leafy greens, yogurt or kimchi (natural probiotics), nuts and seeds, and sprouted whole grains increase our BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). This, in turn, promotes the survival of brain cells and the healthy function of neurotransmitters, which regulate mood.
In our culture, stress will always be a factor to consider in creating and sustaining healthy bodies and healthy lives.
There are so many transformative tools we can use in reducing stress and anxiety, but next time you open your fridge, don’t just consider how you want to feel physically in an hour. Think about how you want to feel mentally and emotionally.
Our bodies are systems, and all of these choices are powerfully interconnected.