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How Food Feeds the Mind

– Written by Rebekah Miller, RDN, LDN at HBC Nutrition

The Gut-Brain Connection

Food not only nourishes the body, it feeds the mind. Glucose from the foods we eat acts as energy to keep the brain active and engaged. Fat from our diet helps to build the brain, which itself is 60% fat. Anyone who has experienced butterflies in the stomach knows that emotions and feelings experienced in the brain are also felt in the stomach. Ever get irritated or upset when you’re hungry? That gut-brain connection works both ways, with the brain sending signals to the digestive system and the digestive system sending signals back to the brain. Using the Enteric Nervous System (ENS), the GI tract and brain speak to each other through a nerve network that links emotion and cognition in the brain with the function of the gut. In fact, there are as many nerves in the gut as there are in the spinal cord.

The Main Character

How, then, can we use this connection to influence our mind and emotions? Are there foods that support healthy cognition and emotional regulation?  Indeed there are, but there is one more character heavily involved in the story of food and its role in the brain.  The GI tract is filled with nerves, but it is also filled with microbes.  These tiny bacteria reside throughout the digestive tract, even in the acidic environment of the stomach.  Each bacteria performs its own essential work.  Microbiota help create vitamin K, protect the lining of the intestine, improve food absorption and, most importantly, activate neural pathways between the gut and brain.

Microbes in the stomach are also responsible for regulating serotonin, a popular hormone known to stabilize mood, regulate sleep, inhibit pain, and aid in digestion. In fact, 95% of the serotonin produced in the body is produced in the GI tract.  While the science behind how exactly the serotonin from the gut can impact the serotonin in the brain is somewhat complicated, the basic principle is that a healthy microbiome in the gut improves the brain’s cognition and mood.  Changes to microbiota affect both gut and brain serotonin levels.

What Can We Do?

What can we do to help our microbe friends?  How do we increase the number of beneficial microbes in our digestive tract? How do we keep the ones we already have? Increasing the number of microbes can be done in two ways:

Eating Fermented or Cultured Foods

Eating foods like yogurt, miso, tempeh, and fermented vegetables like kimchi or sauerkraut, or drinking fermented drinks like kefir or kombucha on a regular basis helps build a powerful plethora of beneficial bacteria. Just be sure to buy these foods with active cultures in the refrigerated section of the store. Anything canned and shelf-stable no longer has many active bacteria.

Taking a Probiotic Supplement.

There has been research that suggests that food is a better carrier than supplements, but either way works. If supplements are a more preferred route, one study suggests that the ingested bacteria survive best when taken during a meal that contains some fat content, or up to 30 minutes before or after the meal.

Probiotics increase the number of bacteria. Prebiotics feed the bacteria already present.  Prebiotics are found in foods that contain fiber. Bacteria in the gut love to eat the parts of plants that are harder for our system to break down. Common prebiotic rich foods that can increase the health of your bacteria include: almonds, asparagus, bananas, garlic, kiwi, oats and whole wheats. Fiber is not only a good food for bacteria, but it also helps to regulate blood sugar and promote regular bowel movements. Remember! When increasing fiber in your diet, always do it slowly over a span of weeks, and be sure to increase the amount of water you drink as you increase fiber.

Other Ways to Promote Healthy Gut Flora

Stay active and manage your stress. Stress decreases the amount of bacteria in your gut and limits blood flow to the intestines, making digestion less effective.

Limit the amount of foods with refined sugars or too little fiber. Sugar encourages the growth of harmful bacteria in the gut. Too much harmful bacteria leaves little space for the beneficial ones to thrive.

Alcohol, too, can kill bacteria. Choosing recovery is a great step toward a healthy gut and brain!

Although we can’t see them, these little bacteria friends help us thrive.  They are one tool in our tool chest of ways to maintain a healthy mind and happy mood.

What will you do to feed your own microbiota?

Published on November 19, 2020

Weather Changes

by Cindy Sneed, Chief Clinical Officer of The Next Door

The first day of spring might have been March 20th, but that didn’t stop Mother Nature from unleashing some of the most interesting weather in Nashville this year. We had unbelievable amounts of rain, freezing temperatures, and to top it all – SNOW on April 16th!

How does this relate to Addiction Treatment?

The journey to sobriety is an unpredictable one… as is life! At The Next Door, we see rays of sunshine in the women we serve each day. We see them grasp a step in the 12 Steps. We see them become aware of who they are through an individual or group counseling session. But there are also days when it seems like a small cloud might be hanging around. We trust – we have to – that the cloud and its rain are providing much-needed refreshment for the seeds that have been planted. If the sun were to shine all the time, we would become parched and wish for rain. We first meet our clients when they are in the middle of their storm. Dolly Parton said it so well when she said, “Storms make trees take deeper roots.”

The women at The Next Door often wonder if it’s possible they will ever experience warmth from the sun again. We see after a week or even a few days the clouds begin to part. Then the real work begins.

In my 14 years at The Next Door, I’ve seen all kinds of weather. It is both the rain and sun and everything in between that keeps me coming back to see the rays of sunshine that will surely shine again soon.

Season of Renewal

by Sallie Hussey, Chief Development Officer of The Next Door

Spring is such a beautiful season of renewal. You see it all around and in many forms – flowers starting to bloom, neighbors dusting off lawn mowers to give the yard its first cut of the season, and drive-through car washes with lines around the block. With more daylight now, I see entire families on long strolls testing out bicycles from Christmas.

We see renewal here, too, as women discover how to live a new life in recovery. Watching strong, courageous women overcome a new challenge each day and blossom during their time at The Next Door is humbling. Years of substance addiction have worn down so many women and families physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I see changes happen in the women who are here and it’s just like the awakening in my own neighborhood each spring. Like most staff, I’m occasionally blessed with a brief hallway conversation once or twice a week with one of our women. In every case, I walk back to my office convinced of two things – women are resilient and God is present here. So many obstacles and barriers, like a snow storm on the first day of spring, threaten sobriety, but these strong, amazing women keep pushing forward. Staff (and amazing volunteers) here know that faith and prayer, layered on top of the very best treatment, are like sunshine on rich soil. They can and do produce the most beautiful results.

Addiction treatment is available for every woman and at TND it’s given with a special mix of compassion and grace. We are grateful to be a place of hope and renewal not just during the spring but all day, every day.

Springtime Reflections

by Ginger Gaines, Chief Operating Officer of The Next Door

I love SPRINGTIME!

Every year when I spot the first little tiny crocus petals peeking up through the ground (or sometimes the snow!), quickly followed by the beautiful bright yellow daffodils sprinkled throughout my drive to and from work, I get so excited about Spring! I know that very soon I’ll also see the forsythia and redbud trees in bloom and the pear trees looking so glorious everywhere! Every March I always say, “Spring is my favorite time of the year!” I break out my sandals, put away my heavy sweaters, and happily move my winter coat from the back seat of my car to the inside closet.

But then, inevitably, the temperatures drop again, and I race to cut and bring in at least a few daffodils before the freeze kills them, I pull on my fur lined boots again, and feel like a cold wet blanket was thrown over my spring spirit.

Sometimes I feel like my relationship with God is a lot like the changing seasons. There are days when I recognize Him as the Light, in bright moments all throughout my day, and my heart and life feel like the “well-watered garden” in Isaiah 58:11:

The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden; like a spring whose waters never fail.

But on other days, my heart and soul feel like that cold wet blanket. I dwell on the disappointments, the problems, or my failures, rather than His provision and love. Whether one’s struggle is with substance addiction, mental illness, financial difficulty, broken relationships, loss of a loved one, or any other life issue that might knock us sideways, there are some days we are better than others at recognizing that God’s blessings are given according to His rich grace, not the depth of our faith or our performance!

We are also slow to recognize that the troubled times magnify our need for Him, and we can recognize that even “in the valley of the shadow…” HE is with us! He comforts us and gives peace that only He can.

I will move forward on this cold spring day by remembering and accepting His great love and grace with every beautiful bloom I see. I will trust His timing for every blessing, and lean in closer to Him, not trying to live only for the next bright spot, but taking in the harder times and growing in them. I will be still long enough to get a glimpse of His “big picture.”

(I’ll also put on my big fuzzy socks again before climbing into bed tonight!)