Food is mood
As a neuropsychologist, I am most often used to treat my patients’ brains head but when planning treatment, I am increasingly drawn to the function of the brain in theirs Intestines. The enteric nervous system (ENS) is made up of the lining of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and colon and comprises an estimated 500 million neurons and 40 neurotransmitters that are directly related to mood and cognition. The latest research suggests that 95% of the available serotonin and 50% of the bioavailable dopamine is produced in the ENS.1.2
The relationship between inflammation and ENS function is simple: a high intake of saturated and trans fats, red meat, and refined starches and sugars promotes inflammation, and a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, natural antioxidants, fruits, vegetables and whole grains is cereal reduces inflammation. For the same reasons, the same diet caters to patients with chronic inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and conditions such as depression, which research has also characterized as chronic, mild inflammatory disease.3 Indeed, research suggests that increased bacterial translocation in the gut as a result of our modern, stressful lifestyle and inflammatory diet can be a major contributor to the onset of clinical depression and further exacerbate inflammation in diseases such as RA. In essence, the scientific literature confirms that we are what we eat, or that we feel as good as we eat.
The use of food to manipulate mood is not new. In fact, Hippocrates is known to have studied the healing powers of food.4th The Hippocratic oath contains this clause: “I will use dietary measures, for the benefit of the sick, that correspond to my abilities and my judgment …” This study concluded that eating foods high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids was directly related to improvements in mood, anxiety, and impulse control.5 Importantly, this study also found that consuming good quality chocolate also improved mood and alertness.
So how can you harness the interventional health benefits of food to support your RA clients and promote better mood and wellbeing? Talk about food. Suggest foods high in protein or omega-3s to help fight depression and fresh fruits and vegetables to improve cognitive function. And don’t forget to mention that chocolate lifts your spirits too. While the conversation about food can be a tense conversation, however, as with any difficult conversation about behavior change, one of the best techniques is a motivational conversation where the goal is to plant an idea and then reinforce it. Nobody wants to be asked to eat differently or more healthily, but maybe when they come up with the idea.
Avoid the obvious temptation to step on a soap box and “prescribe” a healthy diet and instead start the conversation with open-ended questions about your patient’s current diet and lifestyle. For example, say “Tell me about what and how you eat”. Next, recognize your patient’s strengths with affirmations that make them more willing to share. For example, say, “It’s great that you are prioritizing your health and eating more vegetables.” Finally, summarize their answers and reinforce any ambivalence you hear. For example, say, “You started prioritizing your health by drinking water and eating three servings of fruit, but it sounds like you are making other dietary changes as well.”
Then, as with planting seeds, you can expect slow and steady progress. Make sure you check in regularly and celebrate your winnings. Invite them to co-investigate this new intervention (behavior change) and ask them to track their mood and RA symptoms every day. If you recognize eating disorders like binge eating or diets that are overly restrictive, you can turn to a list of local eating disorders specialists or nutritionists, but you have the training to start that conversation and use this powerful intervention. You can also better relate to the intensity of their struggle if you also prioritize diet – always easier said than done.
Eating Disorders Specialists:
National eating disorders
Academy for Eating Disorders
ANAD treatment directory
National Board of Physician Nutrition Specialists
Mia Baumgartner is a Masters in Forensic Psychology at the University of Denver with an interest in Neuropsychology and Somatic Therapy. In her first year, Baumgartner did research on traumatic brain injuries in the criminal justice system. She wants to work in prison reform or teach yoga in prisons.
1) Strandwitz P. (2018). Neurotransmitter modulation by the gut microbiota. Brain Research, 1693 (Pt B), 128-133. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brainres.2018.03.015
2) Gershon MD, Tack J. The Serotonin Signaling System: From Basic Understanding to Drug Development for Functional GI Disorders. Gastroenterology. 2007; 132: 397-414.
3) Berk, M., Williams, LJ, Jacka, FN, O’Neil, A., Pasco, JA, Moylan, S., Allen, NB, Stuart, AL, Hayley, AC, Byrne, ML and Maes, M . (2013). So depression is an inflammatory disease, but where does the inflammation come from? BMC Medicine, 11.200. https://doi.org/10.1186/1741-7015-11-200
4) PRASAD, C .. Food, mood, and health: a neurobiological perspective. Braz J Med Biol Res [online]. 1998, Volume 31, No. 12 [cited2021-05-05], Pp. 1517-1527. Available under:
5) AlAmmar, WA, Albeesh, FH & Khattab, RY Food and mood: the corresponding effect. Curr Nutr Rep 9, 296-308 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13668-020-00331-3