Good Mood Food: Improving Digestion 101
How Digestion Affects our Mood and How to Heal with Probiotics
I've been coaching people for nearly four years now, and I've come to realize that while most people come to me wanting to lose weight, improve their skin, get pregnant, or deal with a chronic health issue, time and time again it comes out that they’re really dealing with deeper emotional issues. They tell me they feel anxious, depressed, or can’t think clearly. They’re always tired. They lack drive, including sex drive. This does not come out immediately for a few reasons, but the one I want to focus on is this: We are so used to thinking these feelings are normal parts of the human condition. In one sense, they are. Life is difficult at times; I’m not denying that. I know first-hand how our situations can profoundly stew in our psyches and affect our mood. But the kind of chronic fogginess, fatigue, and anxiety that most people deal with on a day-to-day basis is not normal and not something we need to learn to live with.
Why Our Digestion is Messed Up
Doctors prescribe to us medicine that gives us immediate relief but does not address our underlying issues or the synergistic way the body works. For example, we take antacids for heartburn. Antacids stop the formation of acid in the stomach, yes, but stomach acid is necessary for the digestion of protein! When we don’t properly digest our protein, amino acids are not made, which means neurotransmitters are not made. That’s when we start to feel depressed and turn to stimulants to improve our mood.
Furthermore, the protein that is not properly digested can begin to ferment, causing the stomach acid to reappear. Over time, drugs like antacids stop working because they completely disable the digestive system. Instead of taking them, we should be addressing the root causes of heartburn, which are an overly acidic diet, coffee, alcohol, smoking, sleeping on a full stomach, and overeating, and then treat people with foods that replace lost stomach acid in an extremely nourishing way (umeboshi vinegar, raw apple cider vinegar, lemon), and look to natural foods like aloe vera juice to relieve acid reflux immediately. Of course, nobody can patent aloe vera juice and pharmaceutical companies can’t profit from it. But fixing stomach acid is one example of a way to improve our mood. Without neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, depression creeps in. Our digestive system needs to do what it is meant to do. When we inhibit parts of it with drugs, when we subscribe to this over-the-counter way of life, we’re seriously messing ourselves up for the long run. We shouldn’t be blocking acid but resetting our digestive systems altogether.
A person with digestive issues is likely to feel symptoms of spaciness, depression, or lack of focus. Most doctors don’t connect the two, but now, researchers are starting to discover how our digestion plays a huge role in our mental health. Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, for example, cured her son of autism with diet. She had found that all kids with brain disorders also had digestive problems, and so did their mothers.
The number one way to boost your digestion and improve your mood is to introduce probiotics into your diet. Probiotics are microscopic bacterial organisms that promote life. They are the product of fermentation of yeast and sugar. The small and large intestine contain over
100 trillion bacteria. 95% of our body is made up of bacteria. Fermentation is a wild process and a way to assimilate the wild into the body. Chinese medicine is all about becoming a part of the natural world through holistic healing, eating with the seasons, eating locally, and following a traditional diet. Consuming the unmediated life force within probiotics helps us adapt to our own changing surroundings. Through consuming fermented foods, we become less susceptible to devastating diseases like depression. We simply connect with ancestral practices of making food digestible, flavorful, and unique.
This last quality strikes me as especially topical as more and more of our food is being genetically modified to grow identically. Each apple becomes the same tasteless, waxy, and shiny hybrid rather than an individual result of the nutrients it absorbed from its soil and relation to the rest of the apples on its tree. One way to get out of a funk, when you feel stuck, unmotivated, bland, and depressed, is to accept the opposite kind of energy.
Once upon a time, our food was a perfect source of this energy. Let’s take a quick peek at how vegetables absorb nutrients. The root of a carrot, for example, is covered in villi that absorb nutrients, microflora, bacteria, fungus, and minerals from the soil. Today, our soil as well
as the villi of vegetables have been thoroughly destroyed by pesticides. We’re left with produce that doesn’t nutritionally satisfy us as it once did, and our digestive systems are not nourished. We used to get probiotics from well water, too. In our culture, we’ve completely lost probiotics as a dietary staple.
The good bacteria in our gut is further wiped out by antibiotics, birth control, acne medications, and many other pharmaceuticals. If you’re taking these drugs, you need to be taking probiotics. Antibiotics kill good bacteria along with the bad. When that good bacteria gets cleared out, yeast in the digestive tract gets free rein. Many women get pregnant completely unaware of how much yeast is in their digestive tract. This gets passed along directly to the baby. Doctors have found a connection between autoimmune and mood disorders with babies born with yeast or fungus that has turned toxic and polluted the brain. Illnesses like depression and anxiety can start, at their very early stages, in the womb.
We should be incorporating probiotics in our diet more than ever now, and traditionally, all cultures did have their own practices of eating probiotics, from injera in Africa, sauerkraut and beer in Europe, olives in Mediterranean climates, wine...We’ve lost this practice
with our modern diets, and if we want radiant health, we need to get it back, ideally with every meal.
How Probiotics Work
Probiotics predigest your food, which is especially helpful with harder to digest foods like meat. This is where the traditional of a glass of wine with steak originates. In Chinese Medicine, probiotics are classified as “tonics,” meaning they initiate change. They do this by:
• enhancing the immune system (which exists mostly in the gut)
• promoting regular bowel movements
• removing pesticides and heavy metals from the body
• converting nutrients into absorbable compounds
• producing antioxidants
• helping with skin conditions (especially when applied topically)
• reducing cholesterol
• maintaining bone health by making minerals more absorbable
(minerals in supplements are not absorbable on their own)
• maintaining a good mood and cognitive function
Researchers have started to realize exactly how powerful probiotics are in
this last bullet point: maintaining cognitive function.
Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, as I mentioned earlier, found that kids with brain disorders all also had digestive problems, and so did their mothers. She ended up curing her son of autism with what she called the GAPS diet, which is a combination of probiotics and saturated fat. Jordan Rubin, the founder of Garden of Life, cured his Crohn’s disease through whole foods and probiotics.
Then we have our food which contains toxins we aren’t always aware of. Mercury, for example, is a brain toxin. “The UltraMind Solution: Fix Your Broken Brain by Healing Your Body First” by Dr. Mark Hyman connects declining brain power to the toxins in our system.
We can get mercury poisoning from eating too much big fish like tuna (smaller fish contain less toxins and usually come from safer water sources). Probiotics help with detoxification, as well as learning which foods heal and which hurt.
Where Do We Find Probiotics?
So, how do we incorporate them into our diet, besides a side of sauerkraut? The simplest way for many is through supplements. Garden of Life has a line called Primal Defense that you can find at Whole Foods. It’s great quality but a little pricey. Still, it’s the best if you’ve been sick or recovering from an illness. As I’ve mentioned, the founder of the company cured his Crohn’s Disease, a disease of the intestinal tract, with probiotic dirt. He knows his stuff. Alternatively, Jarodophilus is very good and easier on the budget. Dr. Ohhira’s probiotics are vegan and can be purchased at drohhiraprobiotics.com. As a general rule, look for probiotics that contain at least six different strains of bacteria. The downside to supplements, though, is they can be killed if stomach acid is too high. The best way to boost yourself with probiotics that will synergistically work with your body is to eat and drink them.
Try kombucha, a fermented sweet tea. It’s also great for the liver and detoxifying. It detoxifies because of its gluconic acid content, which makes the tea fizzy and extracts toxins from the blood and body. Kombucha also improves pancreatic function and helps with alcohol withdrawal. The beverage comes in bottles that are more than a serving size for people that are new to probiotics. If you’re just starting out, try drinking between a quarter and half a bottle per serving. Introducing probiotics to your diet for the first time can be so detoxifying that you may release toxins too quickly, causing “detox symptoms” like fogginess. Best to start slow and work your way up to that clear, energetic buzz you’ll love from kombucha.
If you eat dairy, try kefir. It’s a yogurt drink with more strains of bacteria than regular yogurt. It’s delicious on its own or in smoothies. Coconut kefir is also DELICIOUS and vegan!
Kimchi, pickles, and sauerkraut are fermented vegetables that make tasty additions to lunch or dinner.
Fruits can also be fermented. Umeboshi plums, for example, are fermented plums and bay leaves. They’re incredibly alkaline. If you’re having a stomach ache, half a plum provides better relief than antacids. You can get them at a health food store or Whole Foods. They’re not cheap, but they do last a very long time. I’ve had the same pack of plums for two seasons already.
If you like bread, try sourdough. Bread Alone makes a whole wheat sourdough that’s to die for.
There are plenty of fermented soy products out there, like shoyu, tamari, tempeh, and miso. Just be sure to buy organic, because fermented GMO soy does not provide much probiotic benefit. Eat a variety of probiotic foods in order to get different strains of bacteria in your system. Each strain does something different. Some might help send messages to the brain, some might help you detox something like mercury, and some might help you make more B vitamins, which help make neurotransmitters. Whenever you see “stress complex” supplements in the store, they’re made of B vitamins. B vitamins are water soluble, meaning if you take them in the morning, you’ll pee them out. But with probiotic activity in your system, you will continually be making B vitamins and feeling good.
Ok, you've made it this far! What's next?
Speak with me one-on-one to hone in on exactly what's going on with your digestion, which foods will heal and hurt it, and to create a meal plan that works with your tastes, time, budget, and lifestyle.