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Your Better Mental Wellbeing Podcast
Every Friday, GP and mental wellbeing expert Dr Neera Dholakia, and software developer and neuroscience researcher Soen Trueman, will help you discover how you can manage stress and build resilience through discussion and practical exercises, so that you can live a healthy, productive and meaningful life.
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Episode 8: Happy Gut, Healthy Mind

What food can improve your mood? And why do you need to know about your gut microbiome? Feeding your gut well will benefit your brain.

That's what we are talking about today on Episode 8:Happy Gut, Healthy Mind.

We're your hosts: Dr. Neera Dholakia and Soen Trueman, and we're joined by Ruth Taylor who is the lead nutritionist in the Boots Online Doctor lifestyle team. We discuss the connection between gut health and mental wellbeing and how what we eat can impact our mood and stress management. We consider how we can improve our gut microbiome by diversifying what we eat. We also explore specific foods such as protein-rich foods, beneficial fats like omega-3, better snacks, and look at taking a 'Mediterranean' approach to eating. 

Your Better Mental Wellbeing is a weekly podcast helping you to manage stress and build resilience with easy evidence-based tools.

We're your hosts, Neera and Soen.

Dr Neera Dholakia is a GP for Boots Online Doctor and the NHS. She is an expert in mental wellbeing and has extensive experience designing mental health services whilst working for NHS England, Healthy London Partnership and mental health trusts. As well as promoting self-care, she also works to improve mental wellbeing in the workplace.

Soen Trueman is a full stack developer with Boots Online Doctor, specialising in graphics design, user experience, and user behaviour. Soen’s interests in behavioural analysis extends to psychology and further to neuroscience, which he is currently studying at Harvard University.

Links to this week's discussion:

[01:36] Understanding Food Craving, Stress and Mood

[04:48] The Role of Gut Microbiome in Mental Wellbeing

[06:54] The Gut-Brain Connection

[10:28] Proteins, Pre and Pro-biotics

[13:43] The Importance of Healthy Fats

[18:41] Healthy Snacking

[23:31] How to Identify the Impact of Changes

Key takeaways:

- We should aim to boost our beneficial gut bacteria

- Nutritious food, will benefit our gut health and our brain health, and improve our mood

-Start with simple changes and gradually build up to eating a variety of colourful foods and flavours

Join us next week when we rediscover really tasting and enjoying our food with some mindful eating.

Find our more:

Ruth Taylor is a nutritionist, health and wellness coach and registered nurse. Lots of extra information about what she discusses is here:

-Plant based nutrition guidance 

-Understanding Macronutrients

-Understanding Dietary Fats

-Mediterranean Eating

For transcripts visit our website: https://yourbettermentalwellbeing.show

For great health, lifestyle and wellbeing information visit: https://onlinedoctor.boots.com

The information in this podcast is not intended to replace your own GP or other doctor’s professional medical advice.

00:00/27:14
Read Full Episode Transcript
Neera

What food can improve your mood? And why do you need to know about your gut microbiome? Feeding your gut well will benefit your brain.

That's what we're going to talk about today on Your Better Mental Wellbeing, helping you to manage stress and build resilience with easy evidence-based tools. Hello and a very warm welcome to you are listening to episode eight. Happy Gut, Healthy Mind. I'm Dr. Neera Dholakia. I'm a GP for Boots Online Doctor and the NHS. And my expertise is in mental health and wellbeing. I'm really pleased to be hosting this show focusing on improving your mental wellbeing.

Soen

And I'm Soen Trueman. I'm a software developer for Boots Online Doctor and a neuroscience researcher. I'm going to help you understand the science of mental health and wellbeing.

Neera

We're joined by our colleague Ruth Taylor today, who is the lead nutritionist in our lifestyle medicine team at Boots Online Doctor. She's also a registered nurse and is passionate about how small changes in how you can eat can make a big difference in how you feel.

So thank you for joining us today, Ruth.

Ruth: Thanks for inviting me. It's really exciting to be here and I'm really looking forward to having a chat with you today.

Neera

Wonderful. Just before we get into it, I wanted to let you know that Boots Online Doctor has lots of great information on lifestyle and wellbeing. You'll find this on the website at onlinedoctor.boots.com.

Soen

Today, we're going to talk about all things food, mood, gut, and brain, and how improving our nutrition and eating habits will not only make us feel better, but will also improve our ability to deal with stress. So, hey Neera, what's your food sin?

Neera

When I feel tired and stressed, I usually go for chocolate. And then ice cream, and then chips. Lots of chips. And then probably back to something sweet, maybe some cake.

Soen

I'm into chocolate, Haribo, a bit of booze and some pepperami. All massively processed delights.

Neera

So Ruth, as a nutritionist, do you have any healthy food you wish you liked?

Ruth: Yeah, completely. I have a complete aversion to eating eggs. Unless of course they're in cake and then I'm quite happy to have them. But if they're eggs in an egg form at all, I just can't eat them. But I recommend them all the time for people to eat because they're so healthy. Um, and I just feel a bit of a hypocrite really.

Soen

I think that's fair enough. I think, you know, Neera and I have talked about foods that we often eat when we're stressed. Why do we reach for these foods that are often high in fat, high in sugar, high in salt and very delicious?

Ruth: Yeah, I think it's Soen, it's probably a couple of things. So I think partly we're creatures of habit and we tend to just learn how to behave in certain situations. So when we're stressed or agitated, anxious, or even sometimes when we're really happy, we'll have our sort of emotional go to foods.

Soen

For sure.

Ruth: But one of the reasons that we go for those foods is they sort of highly processed foods will really boost something called dopamine, which is one of our neurotransmitters, which is sort of like a feel good neurotransmitter. So we feel like an elevation in our moods. We feel a little bit happier, almost instantaneously. So, yeah, we might not even realize that we're eating those foods because it's going to give us a lift in our mood. But it becomes something that just automatically happens and we'll reach for those things without even stopping and thinking about it.

Soen

Absolutely. And I think, um, from a neuroscience perspective, when we talk about dopamine, we always tie in the effect as a reward mechanism as well. So that, you know, you get this dopamine lift and so it reinforces those behaviors. And so you kind of get stuck in those ways.

Neera

But also I find that I'll have the chocolate that I want because I'm feeling tired and I just need something to pick me up and it'll feel great and for a little while I'll feel better. But then, maybe like half an hour or an hour later, I'll sort of feel a bit of a crash happening and want to have some more again and I feel like the cycle just perpetuates over the whole day. And I find that really difficult to actually crack.

Ruth: So you're explaining exactly how most people feel who are in that cycle. And then when their sort of blood sugars start creeping back down or falling back down, the next thing you're going to find is that you're going to be really craving something sugary or the next sort of fix for your mood or for your energy. Yeah, we just have this whole blood sugar rollercoaster going on because we're sort of reaching for that reward that our body is craving. But it sets off this whole craving cycle. Also, your mood is so badly affected when that's happening. So you can be feeling up and down and all over the place.

Those foods are sort of generally those ultra processed foods. And so what we know is that overall they're going to be feeding our sort of gut bacteria in a way that just isn't healthy for them and we'll end up with an imbalance of bacteria in our gut. So I tend to think of our sort of gut microbiome which we start colonizing when we're born. We start creating the balance of bacteria in our guts and we know that we have some bacteria which are good for us, our healthy gut bacteria, and we have a whole host of other bacteria which are less beneficial to us.

But actually then everything that we eat and all of the things that we put inside our body will have an impact on how our microbiome is set up. I tend to think of that microbiome almost like a garden. You've got your sort of beneficial flowers that are beautiful and benefit your sort of mood. They're the beneficial gut bacteria that can help us to really thrive, help to support our immune system, help to produce some of our vitamins, which are really important for energy. But then I also then think we often have a huge number of weeds in our guts too. So those are those less beneficial bacteria. And we all have those. So you could have lots of flowers thriving if you're eating those really healthy whole foods.

And if you're eating loads of sugars or loads of processed foods, you're going to have a lot more weeds and the weeds can start crowding out a bit like my garden looks when I haven't bothered to do much gardening for a few weeks. And so overall that can have a huge impact downstream on how we function.

Neera

So the balance has shifted if you're eating food that isn't beneficial for you. So the foods that, that, Soen and I have been eating when we're feeling tired and stressed. Mm-Hmm. . And so that is having an impact on our gut directly.

Ruth: Yeah. Completely. And the more we eat of those foods and the more regularly we eat them, the less beneficial bacteria we're going to be able to colonize. Mm-Hmm. and have in our guts. And you've got an imbalance then in your gut microbiome for sure. So that is gonna have a direct impact on our physical, but also our emotional and mental wellbeing.

Neera

So I wanted to touch on that actually. So something that we've realized in the last few years is that our gut and our brain are directly connected. If you've ever gone with your gut instinct to make a decision or felt butterflies in your stomach because you're feeling nervous, you're likely to be getting signals from or what some people call your second brain. So this is the enteric nervous system and this is in the walls of your digestive system. And this nervous system connects up your brain and your gut and it's like a communication highway involving your vagus nerve, the immune system and the compounds you produce in your gut that you've just been talking about. And the vagus nerve is really important here, as it's part of our parasympathetic nervous system, our rest and digest mode, and is a key ingredient in managing stress.

And if you want to know a little bit more about the parasympathetic nervous system, and particularly how it impacts our stress, we've got a couple of great episodes, episode 2 and episode 4, that covers this.

Ruth: Yeah, that sounds fantastic.

Neera

When there is some disruption between this gut brain connection because of what we're eating and our gut microbiome, this can lead to various problems with our bowels and with our digestive system and can affect our brain function and also how our minds work.

Soen

One thing that I've really got my head into recently is that basically everything that we put into our mouths is medicine. Then I stop looking at food as food and start seeing it for what it is. It's nutrition and what the body needs. And then listening to the body as well. When you've got an upset stomach, why have I got an upset stomach? What have I eaten that could be helping or causing that? You know, things like that. So that's kind of my perspective on it is that everything that I consume now I treat like medicine, and that's really helped me improve my energy levels, um, and my positivity as well.

Ruth: Sometimes you can't really afford to listen to what your body is telling you quite so strongly because those bacteria that are perhaps overgrown will probably also need you to crave more sugar too. So, you know, that, that's quite tricky, isn't it? Because if you do tune in and listen to those bacteria, they're going to be saying, give me some more sugar, feed me some more sugar.

Neera

This, this isn't a case of listening to your gut then, is it? Actually, in this case, it's more about stopping and thinking, actually, what is the balance that I need today in my life, but also on my plate as well?

Ruth: Yeah, that's a really good idea. Be really considering what you want to thrive in your body.

Neera

If we think about what it is that we actually do need to put into our bodies, can you give us an idea of the sorts of things that we should be thinking about eating?

Ruth: Yeah, I mean if we're thinking about mood and food then there are some really clear winners that that we should all be thinking about on a sort of daily basis or even more regularly than daily. So we talked a little bit about dopamine, but the other really important neurotransmitter that we need to provide a regular supply of food for is serotonin. So whereas the dopamine is a little bit more of a short term fix. The serotonin can give us a longer sort of sense of better mood. So we want to actually eat some protein rich foods because they can be rich in tryptophan.

So tryptophan converts to serotonin. So it's a really important food for us to eat. The old advice was that we needed to really eat loads and loads of protein rich foods, so lots of people would recommend animal based proteins as being the key to boost that tryptophan, but actually the recent evidence is suggesting that we need to eat an abundance of food that has got a lot of tryptophan.

We need to be thinking more about the vegetarian sources of tryptophan as being something that we can really boost up, so things like seeds and nuts. and perhaps chickpeas and different proteins along those lines can be really helpful. But what we need is for that tryptophan to actually reach our brain. So then there are other foods that can help carry it into the brain as well. So we need to almost also package it up with some magnesium rich foods. So again, nuts and seeds are quite a good source of magnesium as well as dark green leafy vegetables. Um, so those become really important to be thinking about in terms of mood boosting foods.

Neera

What I found interesting is that I think it's something like 90 percent of our serotonin is actually in our gut. So whilst we tend to focus on the serotonin in our brain, particularly when we're thinking about treatments for people who may have depression. and anxiety. Actually, we have a way of increasing our serotonin through the food that we eat, as you've said, Ruth.

Ruth: Yeah, if you've got a sort of an abundance of healthy gut bacteria, you are going to be in a better position to create that serotonin. If your gut is happy, your brain will be happier. And if your brain is happier, your gut will be happier. So we need to really thinking about how we feed those beneficial gut bacteria.

So thinking about perhaps, so bringing in some of the sort of pre and probiotic fiber foods, which are really trendy now, but actually there's good reason for them to be trendy. So things like yogurt and kefir and even bringing in a few fermented foods can be really helpful. So I think if they're new to you, you just want to be bringing in very small amounts to begin with and gradually increasing those as you go.

There's some fantastic products available that you can get in just most supermarkets now that have got sauerkraut and kimchi, you know, or even sourdough has become quite a trendy thing.

Neera

I tried kombucha because it's a little bit fizzy and I quite like a fizzy drink, um, but it's what you say actually that I probably had a little bit too much of it initially because it did disrupt my system, but I think probably having smaller amounts and then gradually building up is the way to go.

Ruth: Yeah, I quite like it.

Soen

It was really actually life changing how good quality sleep, um, from drinking something so simple.

Ruth: That's really amazing, isn't it? Yeah, that's so good to hear.

Neera

So, Ruth, we've talked about the good proteins that we should have. We've talked about prebiotic and probiotic food to help with our digestion.

Are there other things that we can do to support both our gut function but also our brains?

Ruth: So I think one of the key things we haven't really touched on are those other healthy fats and they're really, really important because the brain is, well they say it's made of around 60 to 70 percent fat. And that's something that we forget and I think you know we need to feed our brain some healthy fats as well. And we have a bit of cultural sort of attitude that we shouldn't eat fats because they're not good for us. And we're really not certain what the level of fat is that is healthy, and I think it's probably unique for all of us to a degree, and we can all tolerate different amounts of fats, but I think we all would benefit from eating a small amount of additional fat. So things like some nuts or some seeds, but also thinking about the omega 3 rich fats are really, really linked to helping to reduce inflammation and can also help to reduce something called neuroinflammation, which is linked to low mood and depression. So eating perhaps, I hate to say it, but oily fish, which is never something that people absolutely love routinely, but things like salmon, mackerel, sardines. They can be really great and you want to go for the sort of less farmed, um, variety of those just because they will have some of those healthier fats.

And then things like walnuts are a good source of omega 3 and chia seeds and flax seeds are something that you can add into porridge or sprinkle on top of salads. So I know people either love or hate avocado, but avocado for some people can be a positive, yeah.

Neera

So, we have got alternatives to oily fish, so seeds, walnuts, avocado.

Ruth: Yeah, very much. And also think about those nut butters and seed butters. Quite a lot of supermarkets you can find almond butter and walnut butter now and also pumpkin butter.

So it's sort of maybe a conscious effort to bring in some healthy fats every day, a small amount with every meal or a good amount with at least one meal. Um, because that will also help us absorb our fat soluble vitamins, so vitamin D, which we're all really deficient in, especially in the UK.

Soen

Sure, that makes a lot of sense.

Neera

And Ruth, what vitamins should we be concentrating on getting into our body? You've mentioned vitamin D and magnesium. Are there any other things that are really important or you want to highlight in terms of how we can improve our mood through our food?

Ruth: Yeah, I think the key ones are those B vitamins, especially vitamin B6, um, so you'd be thinking about the dark green leafy vegetables again. Also, um, really good sources of zinc. And bananas and some of the proteins to some of the sort of oily fish are a rich source of vitamin B6 too.

But I would say sort of thinking about eating in a way that is following a Mediterranean approach to eating, say for most people would be really beneficial.

Neera

When you talk about the Mediterranean diet or the Mediterranean way, the thing my mind always goes to is pizza, pasta, tiramisu and all the really nice ice cream based desserts. So clearly that's not what you mean. So when you say Mediterranean, what sort of things should we be looking for?

Ruth: Yeah, it's so funny, and I've had quite a few people who've thought that over the years and were almost ecstatic that I was recommending they eat pizza, but unfortunately not. I guess we could all have space for pizza occasionally.

Soen

And if it's sourdough pizza, it's even better for you.

Neera

And mozzarella's got lots of tryptophan in it, hasn't it? Exactly.

Ruth: Yeah. I'm sort of really visualising a really sunny diet. You can almost smell that sort of Mediterranean approach to eating where it's sort of just rich with herbs and vegetables and different colours and then those oily fish and olives and olive oil and avocado, it just all comes together so easily in that type of way. Yeah, diversity, sort of eating a variety of different colourful foods is probably one of the key things and really helps to feed our gut microbiome in a healthy way.

Soen

Yeah, I completely agree with it.

Neera

So, what you're saying, Ruth, is that I could have pizza with mozzarella, but lots of vegetables.

Ruth: I think that's a really good way of going for it. And maybe just less of the pizza and fill up a little bit more on those vegetables. Just make the salad a bit more of the party and more of the plate. And then put some lovely seeds on top with some olive oil drizzled over the top just to bring in those healthy fats. And just nourish you in a completely different way.

Soen

Sure.

Neera

So when I'm having my mid afternoon slump, what would be a healthy snack that I could reach for that would help with my concentration, for example?

Ruth: That's a really interesting question. So I think, well, if you're having an afternoon slump, maybe you need to also think about whether you're eating enough protein at breakfast. And which sounds really converse, but actually if you load up your day at the beginning it can really help you get rid of those slumps in the afternoon. But if you're still having a slump, then carrying around some sort of nuts or a hard boiled egg if you're happy to eat one of those. Like some almond butter and some chopped apple or some hummus and some chopped pepper or cucumber, some cherry tomatoes.

Just really whatever you like to eat. It's got to be something you enjoy as well because you're not going to eat something that you don't enjoy. Berries I think are fantastic, we haven't really talked about those but they're great for vitamin C and also very low in sugar but naturally really sweet so they can be a fantastic sweet thing.

Neera

I had that when I was pregnant because I had gestational diabetes and so I had to really change what I ate. I had, you know, berries with yoghurt as a pudding and actually you totally get used to having it without sugar.

Soen

When you acclimatise yourself to less sweet foods and then you go back to what you were eating and you're like, how could I eat an entire bar of this? You know, it's like, you get so normalised to that, that sugar.

So Ruth, I wouldn't know a healthy meal if it was served to me. What would you recommend, um, how I could make, change my diet just slightly, just to make it a bit healthier for me?

Ruth: I think for each and every one of us, making some simple tweaks. I think variety is really key. And then at this time of year, obviously we all need to be thinking about our immune system. So really boosting our beneficial bacteria as much as possible by eating lots of vegetables, lots of whole grains, lots of healthy fats. If you're not eating very much fruit and vegetables, we just need to start from wherever we are and just increase the variety as much as we possibly can.

And it is about just bringing in that energy balance and getting rid of those cravings. So the protein that you add onto your plate can really help with that. If you can manage it to be a palm sized portion of protein. I think a lot of people, unfortunately, for whatever reason, perhaps really struggle to eat enough protein. But one of my great go-to foods, are eggs, because they're very inexpensive, very easy to cook. So it could be some cottage cheese, but also fish and tofu and all of those different lentils and beans are fantastic. Learn to love some different flavors. I think we do sometimes have to teach ourselves to eat things that aren't familiar to us and and change our taste buds a little bit.

So we haven't really talked very much about whole grains and in fact there is some theory that eating a little bit of carbohydrate rich food can also help bring that tryptophan into our brains so it can also boost our mood so I think we definitely don't want to be following. a very, very low carbohydrate diet. We want to be having a small amount of whole grains. So those brown rice or some bulgur wheat or quinoa would be really good to be thinking about adding in. And if you're somebody who likes white rice, you know, there is a real benefit in thinking about switching over to brown rice. But you can do that by mixing the two together to begin with. And that can be a way to sort of really change your preference over, and you'll still be having some of the food that you're familiar with.

Soen

Actually, one thing that I've been getting into recently is, um, simplifying my diet. You have chicken and a couple of different types of veg with that, and they usually steam it so it's nice and healthy. I don't really like complicated food, but something like that, you know, um, It's very easy, and it's, and it's fulfilling and, you know, as Ruth is saying, you're feeding your gut, which in turn feeds your mind.

Neera

And it's made you feel better.

Soen

Oh yeah, absolutely.

Neera

This is about prioritising yourself and making that time to cook yourself a healthy, nutritious meal.

I find that it helps prepare things in advance and I'm not saying I do lots of preparation on the weekend or anything like that, but doing a little bit of preparation means you've probably got, you know, a meal for a couple of days and that sort of thing, which is really helpful if you're busy.

Ruth: Yeah, I think preparing in advance or even knowing what you're going to eat in advance so you're not caught out. Um, one of the things we can really struggle with is sort of carrying around healthy snacks.

Neera

Ruth, what I was wondering was that if I did improve what food was going into my body, how would I know that that was working, that actually I was starting to have an improvement in my mood, in my concentration, in the way that I perhaps deal with stress?

Ruth: That's a really interesting question and I think you wouldn't know immediately. I think it wouldn't be that you would suddenly notice that you were feeling completely different day one. But what you might notice is perhaps your cravings began to lessen, um, that you weren't reaching for those chocolate bars or feeling quite so desperate for a sugar boost in the middle of the morning or in the middle of the afternoon.

And then when that stops happening, you know that you're beginning to get it right and you're beginning to rebalance. Um, and I think also just actually keeping a note of how you're feeling because I think when you're feeling anxious or a little bit low in mood or very low in mood even, it's really difficult to see the wood for the trees, isn't it?

And it's really difficult to know that you actually feel better today than you did a week ago. Because you're still maybe not feeling fantastic. Um, and I think actually just maybe having some mechanism of checking in with yourself and actually recognising that there is some improvement because that can motivate you to keep going.

Neera

So Ruth, it's been fascinating talking to you today about how our food affects our mood and how our gut and brain are connected. And we've looked at how stress can have an effect on our eating habits and how that impacts our brain and our mood. We have talked about the intimate connection between the gut and the brain. And how important the gut microbiome is, particularly in terms of how we can diversify the food that we eat to really improve the variety of gut bacteria and that in turn will really help our brain function and improve our mental wellbeing.

And you've given us a few little tips that we could put into practice to make those switches easier. So thank you very much for joining us today, Ruth. Soen, have you thought about something that you might do this week that you're going to change?

Soen

I think I'm going to go buy some kefir. What about you, Neera?

Neera

I think actually I'm going to focus on eating a bit more protein earlier on in the day so that I don't have that slump after lunch and reach for some chocolate or something sweet that I like to do. And I think that will help actually in terms of regulating my sugar levels. Ruth, have you got any final top food tips for us?

Ruth: Um, I think keep it simple. Don't overthink it, and be kind to yourself in the process of making the change. And don't lose sight of what your goal is, but you know, and also just remember that food is so intimately connected to how you feel, that actually is really worth making a few simple switches.

Neera

Wonderful.

Soen

Sounds good. That's great.

Neera

Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Your Better Mental Wellbeing.

Soen

If you liked this episode or think it would be useful for someone else, please follow us and share this podcast. Visit our website for transcripts and more information on yourbettermentalwellbeing.show

Neera

Join us next time for an Impactful 10 episode all about mindful eating and how we can really taste and enjoy our food.

Soen

And remember to live your values, accept yourself and let go.

About This Podcast
Your Hosts
Dr Neera Dholakia
Dr Neera is a GP and Clinical Lead for our Depression and Anxiety service. A safeguarding and mental health expert, she helps ensure services are both efficient and safe. As well as promoting self-care, she works to improve mental wellbeing in the workplace.
Soen Trueman
Soen is a full stack developer with Boots Online Doctor, specialising in graphics design, user experience, and user behaviour. Soen’s interests in behavioural analysis extends to psychology and further to neuroscience, which he is currently studying at Harvard University.
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The information in this podcast is not intended to replace your own GP or other doctor's professional medical advice.
Music credits: Main theme by AudioCoffee, Impactful 10 by Dream-Protocol, Jingle by Serge Quadrado Music