The Mind/Body Connection

In This Chapter

  • How the mind communicates with the body about food
  • Food and its impact on your mental state
  • The role of a healthy diet in disease prevention
  • Current research and what it reveals about the mind/body connection

The food we eat nourishes the body, mind, and soul. It supports us with vital nutrients we can’t live without, provides a feeling of comfort, and reconnects us emotionally to a place in time when we enjoyed eating particular dishes. Unfortunately, our relationship with food can become a mental tug of war where we become vulnerable to the little voices in our head. We may unknowingly contribute to the problem by causing our bodies to crave certain foods and act impulsively about what we eat or don’t eat. The lack or abundance of certain foods and nutrients as shown in recent research leads to health conditions and diseases such as obesity, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Achieving optimum health through food is possible. We can use food to affect our mood and mental state and to prevent disease. Changing our diet and our relationship with food can help us feel better and live a longer healthier life.

Mind Control

Our brain can work for or against us when it comes to eating. By listening to our body’s cues, food can help us achieve an optimal body environment where it helps us think more clearly and have more energy. It seems everyone would want to line up to get more of this. On the other hand, if our schedules and lifestyle have become so hectic that we put our self-care last, most likely we have altered our natural relationship with food. This alteration can cause serious health issues and put us on the road to disease.

Mindless Eating

As a young child you intuitively knew when you were hungry and quickly alerted your parents by crying loudly. Liquid nourishment was immediately provided and you ate until you were full. It’s a simple concept that unfortunately many Americans can no longer follow. There are numerous reasons we tell ourselves why we’ve altered our natural state. These reasons range from busy schedules to family commitments, jobs, travel, etc. This has led to undereating, overeating, and a general feeling of “dis-ease.”

How can we expect ultimate performance and longevity from our body when we treat it so poorly? Think of your hunger cues as your body’s doorbell. If someone rings your doorbell, the correct response would be to answer it. When your brain fuel is running low, your brain sends out a message and your stomach grumbles. Many times we ignore the body’s doorbell. This leads to a lack of nutrients for our brain because we’re overhungry, setting us up for overeating at the next meal. The next thing you know, you’ve consumed too much food and put yourself into a “food coma.” Your body is now working overtime trying to utilize this large food payload. Your brain is foggy and makes you feel worse than you did before you ate.

By following this practice, you’ve taught your body it may be a long time before your next meal. Your brain sends out a hunger message in order to “stockpile” food. It believes food must be scarce since you’re unable to feed it on a regular schedule and are ignoring the doorbell. How do you change this behavior and get back on the track to good eating habits? By eating intuitively.

Intuitive Eating

Intuitive eating is being mindful of what your body is telling you. It involves listening to your body’s cues about hunger, satiety, emotional state, and taste. It helps to identify and eliminate the good food/bad food rhetoric in our minds and teaches us to make positive changes.


Satiety is the feeling of fullness after eating. It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to receive the message of fullness after consumption of a meal.

The three core principles of intuitive eating are unrestricted eating based on need, following hunger cues as opposed to eating for emotional reasons, and relying on your internal signals for fullness and satiety. This practice is also referred to as mindful eating.

Intuitive or mindful eating practices not being judgmental toward your emotions and physical feelings. It also removes outside influences such as marketing. Oftentimes the practice of being mindful involves some form of meditation. This practice has shown to decrease stress and depression. A 2009 study showed a high body image score in individuals practicing mindfulness through yoga, meditation, and intuitive eating.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) states that intuitive eating interventions have been shown to decrease negative eating behaviors as well as symptoms of anxiety and depression. Practicing mindful eating fosters increased self-esteem, along with a healthier body image and relationship with food.

Psychological flexibility is used in fostering intuitive eating. Individuals with increased levels of psychological flexibility give themselves unconditional permission to eat for physical reasons. Individuals who practice these concepts generally have a lower BMI and better acceptance of their feelings in regard to their weight, and in turn, practice more intuitive eating approaches.


Psychological flexibility involves keeping your long-term goals and values in sight. Present emotions and behaviors don’t always fall in line with your overall values. Impulsive behavior and disruptive thoughts can undermine what you really want. Being able to adapt to various situations without losing sight of your goals is crucial for your well-being. Psychological flexibility is measured using a scale called the Acceptance and Action Questionnaire (AAQ). In several studies, a low AAQ indicates increased anxiety, reduced work performance, and lowered quality of life.

Gut Microbes

The tiny bacteria living in the gut is beneficial for breaking down fiber and creating a variety of vitamins. However, these microbes are also living organisms and are not doing this out of the kindness of their heart. The goal of the bacteria is to thrive and reproduce. They require certain nutrients to do so.

A review published in BioEssays states that gut bacteria have the ability to increase intake of foods the body needs to survive and thrive. By creating cravings for particular foods through the vagus nerve, our brain gets the message from our gut to eat. If their needs are not met, the bacteria have the ability to create a state of dissatisfaction in our gut, likely leading to discomfort or pain.

Depending on the strains of bacteria, the brain receives messages to increase intake of certain types of foods. Some bacteria thrive on carbohydrates. Other strains need polysaccharides (sugars) or fat components to survive. Sending too many calories to the gut bacteria may also increase specific strains and upset the balance of microbes in your gut.

Making changes in our diet and consuming foods such as pre- and probiotics can help control our gut bacteria and the messages they’re sending to our brain. By eating a balanced diet with an optimal amount of energy, we can rewire the bacteria to survive on new foods.

Food and Mood

What you eat or don’t eat will affect your brain chemistry. There are a host of hormones and chemicals that help regulate your body and participate in the communication process with your self. For example, if you’re craving carbohydrates, it may be that your blood sugar levels have dropped and you need more glucose for the brain to run efficiently. As glycogen (the storage form of glucose) drops, your blood sugar drops. Next, your brain sends out a message to release a nerve chemical, which stimulates appetite and causes you to crave carbohydrates.

After consumption of those delicious carbs, the chemical levels in your body return to normal along with blood sugar levels.

Stress is also an instigator in craving carbohydrates, and it puts your food cravings into high gear. When you’re extremely stressed, your adrenal glands release a hormone that activates a brain chemical and stimulates the desire for carbohydrates. They decrease your stress level by helping to soothe and calm you. Repeating this cycle due to stress can lead to unwanted weight gain.

A study published in The British Journal of Nutrition showed improvements in mood when individuals followed a diet low in sodium and high in potassium. During the study, individuals on low-sodium diets had lower urinary excretion and exhibited fewer symptoms of anger and vigor. Those who had a higher dietary intakes of potassium and magnesium also had higher urinary excretion levels of potassium and magnesium along with reduced symptoms of fatigue and vigor, as well as increased cortisol levels. The study points out the connection between low sodium to potassium ratio and reduced feelings of anger and overall depression. Participants on the prescribed low-sodium, high-potassium diet also had an improved global mood score over those on the diet replicating the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet.


Cortisol is a hormone thought to play a role in the stress response. Reduced levels of cortisol are found in individuals with depression and type 2 diabetes.

How we feel about our food choices influences our mood. A study published in Appetite states a link between perceived ingestion of calories and mood. Participants were given one of two breakfasts, one cereal and one a muffin, which were identical in calories and nutrient make-up. Participants believed the breakfast of cereal was lower in calories, and those individuals who ate the cereal reported higher body image, mood, and satiety.

Food Frenzy

Oftentimes it seems that eating food is a real chore. What to eat? When to eat? How much to eat? These are all very good questions. It may be so overwhelming that you decide to eat whatever is the fastest and easiest thing to grab. This causes a cascade of detrimental effects that can keep your body in a vicious cycle of feeling lousy, with low energy and a foggy brain state. It’s like you have a cold and can’t think clearly. Sometimes we think it’s related to our age or health status, which can be partially true. What it really comes down to is providing your body the nutrients it needs to function at its very best.

Eating on a regular schedule has been shown to affect mood. In a study published in Appetite, individuals in a cafeteria setting were surveyed about their mood during the morning. The participants, both male and female, who reported they ate breakfast also reported a better mood and more relaxed feeling throughout the morning.

The energy composition of meals may be as important as the timing. A study in Physiology & Behavior showed a link between fat content at breakfast and mood. Individuals eating a high-fat breakfast showed more signs of lethargy, decreased attentiveness, and depressed feelings. The same link was not seen at lunch.

All Systems Go

When you eat a healthy diet throughout the day, your body works more efficiently. Your mood is better, and you have more energy and stamina. It prevents those highs and lows of blood sugar along with preventing the release of a host of hormone- and appetite-stimulating chemicals that drive us to eat. Eating well helps us think more clearly, especially about the food choices we make. Food has an important role in our lives, and eating the right foods can make a positive impact on our health and longevity.

The Sleep Connection

The National Sleep Foundation reports a decrease of two hours of sleep per day for the average American over the last century. Yet sleep is critical for mood, work performance, and good health. Not everyone gets a good night’s sleep. About 40 percent of Americans spend a few nights a week tossing and turning. Those with chronic pain face a sleep debt of close to 45 minutes every night. Stress and poor health appear to contribute to inadequate sleep patterns.

The obesity epidemic may also be partly caused by poor sleep. The body’s hormones help control its many functions. The hormones leptin and grehlin affect hunger, satiety, and weight loss and gain. Sleep, or the lack thereof, has been shown to significantly affect these and other hormone levels.

Sleep and Hormones

Grehlin is a hormone found in the GI tract that is released when there’s an inadequate supply of energy. This hormone stimulates the satiety center in the brain, called the hypothalamus, and tells you to eat. Think of “ghrelin gain.”

Leptin is a hormone released by the adipocytes (fat cells) to help you lose weight. When leptin levels rise, the body burns fat. Leptin levels are directly affected by caloric intake. Think “leptin lose.”

In addition to calories, sleep has the ability to increase circulating leptin levels. According to researchers at the University of Chicago, cortisol and insulin have been shown to work together to control leptin levels.

Studies have shown that individuals with high BMI generally have low levels of ghrelin and high levels of leptin. One theory is that the constant release of leptin during overeating suppresses levels of ghrelin.

In a research study looking at sleep and leptin levels, participants were assigned sleep times of 4-, 8-, and 12-hour spans. The participants’ leptin levels changed significantly based on sleep time allowed, even when their weight stayed stable. During the study, individuals on the 12-hour sleep plan had significantly higher leptin levels above the 4-hour sleep patterns.

The Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study found healthy adults experienced a drop in leptin and an increase in ghrelin in conjunction with self-reported deficiency in sleep. The Research Network on Mind-Body Interactions of the MacArthur Foundation reports individuals who had only 4 hours sleep for two consecutive nights already experienced a drop in leptin and an increase in ghrelin.

It’s thought the decreased leptin levels during reduced sleep help account for the increased time awake, and thus the increased caloric need to fuel the body. Increased cortisol levels are negatively correlated with leptin levels. When cortisol was high (during stress), leptin levels decreased. Glucocorticoids, such as cortisol, are known to increase hunger and food consumption. Researchers believe hunger and eating patterns may be stimulated by lack of sleep earlier in the day.

Diet in Shift Workers

Approximately 20 percent of workers in America work shifts that include all or a portion of the night hours. These workers have a propensity for less than healthy habits and a higher risk for specific health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, mood and digestive disorders along with hormonal imbalance. Shift workers experience a change in the quantity and quality of food intake in addition to a higher risk for home life and personal and social problems.

In a study comparing shift and day workers’ dietary intake, researchers at Université Toulouse III found shift workers consumed more meals than their counterparts working the day shift. The energy intake between the groups was comparable, but the quantity and quality varied. Shift workers ate almost one third less at breakfast than their counterparts, and a slightly smaller lunch. The subsequent meals made up for the previous smaller meals with an increase in fat and saturated fat over the daytime workers.

A review article in the International Journal of Endocrinology reported nighttime shift workers consumed over half of their calories in the evening and at night. Nighttime feeding also accounted for an additional 350 to 500 calories a day. Eating at times when the circadian rhythm is low increases insulin resistance and is biologically less effective than feeding during daytime hours.


The natural clock inside your body controlling hormone levels and sleep-wake cycles is called the circadian rhythm or cycle. This natural rhythm closely follows a 24-hour clock. It’s stimulated by environmental factors such as availability of light and dark. The circadian clock stimulates eating and sleeping patterns and is affected by lack or inconsistent amounts of sleep.

Connection Between Food and Mood Disorders

There are numerous human studies involving men, women, and children supporting the relationship between a healthy diet and a decreased risk of disease. A diet high in macro- and micronutrients is positively correlated with an improved mental state, greater energy, and delayed onset of certain conditions and diseases such as depression, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. Researchers found that certain foods and nutrients can have a beneficial effect on the quality of life and longevity.

The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry published a study showing the effects of low zinc levels on increased mania and depression. Individuals functioning at a higher psychological level had an increased intake of calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, iron, and zinc. This intake could be from both food and supplements.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Changes due to circadian rhythm affect approximately 5 percent of Americans. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is characterized by disturbances in mood patterns with seasonal variations. Symptoms generally worsen in the darker winter months and lessen in the summer months. Symptoms include food cravings, increased appetite, carbohydrate intake, weight gain, fatigue, and increased sleep.


The “winter blues” is also called seasonal affective disorder. The condition generally begins in your 20s, but the risk of acquiring it increases as you age. Some individuals may gain upwards of 20 pounds and sleep an additional four hours a night. Individuals in parts of the world where there are more hours of night than day during the winter months are at a higher risk of having the disorder.

Research published in Chronobiology reports individuals afflicted with SAD crave an increased level of carbohydrates in the evening hours. This ingestion of higher levels of carbohydrates by SAD sufferers seems to decrease their level of depression and increase their energy. It appears glucose increases the reaction of the retina to light.


Depression is one of the most common mental disorders worldwide—it’s estimated that 350 million people are affected. Depression can be mild, moderate, or severe. Depression is a persistent sadness with feelings of hopelessness and loss of interest in life, especially with activities that used to bring pleasure. There are many different types of depression. They include major depression, persistent depressive disorder, psychotic depression, postpartum depression, seasonal affective disorder, and bipolar disorder. Treatment typically involves medication and psychotherapy.

Studies have shown a relationship between depression and health. A research study published in The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine reported there was a connection between having a very low magnesium intake and an increased incidence of depression. This was especially pertinent in younger adults.

Magnesium is found in most vegetables and fruits. It’s recommended Americans consume 2,400 milligrams of magnesium every day.

Another researcher examined the impact of a high-protein diet and severely depressed moods. They found the high-protein diet offered protection from depression in men but adversely affected women. Researchers believe the difference is due to the way the body metabolizes energy and the chemical effect on the brain.

There were also apparent differences in baseline nutrient values between men and women.

An additional study found a link between an increase in depressive symptoms in mid- and late-life adults. Women with high cholesterol levels had more rapid onset of depressive symptoms and interpersonal problems. The same increase was not seen in men.

Cognitive Decline

Nutrition plays a key role in reducing and delaying the symptoms associated with cognitive decline. Healthy eating patterns rather than individual foods have been shown to have the largest impact. The nutrients in diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, work together in a synergetic manner. These patterns have been reported to work for cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. In 2015, it was estimated that there were 5.3 million Americans suffering from this disease. Alzheimer’s causes a decline in memory and thinking abilities. It renders people unable to communicate and/or perform daily activities of living. A recent study in the American Society for Nutrition reviewed dietary patterns, cognitive decline, and dementia. It found less cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease among people who follow a Mediterranean diet.


The DASH diet was developed to help people reduce blood pressure by consuming foods high in potassium, calcium, and magnesium, and low in sodium. The diet focuses on whole grains, vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy, and lean proteins along with nuts, seeds, and legumes.

Another study looked at the differences between the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, and a hybrid of the Mediterranean and the DASH called the MIND diet.

Researchers found that while all three diets helped reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, those who strictly followed the MIND diet were able to reduce their risk by 53 percent and those who only moderately followed the diet by 35 percent. These are impressive findings showing that many people could markedly improve their health through food.

The MIND diet differs from the other two diets by specifically recommending the intake of berries and green leafy vegetables, and makes no recommendations for high fruit, dairy, and potato intake. It also reduces the total servings of fish to once per week.

Serotonin Sensitive Disorders

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of wellbeing and happiness. Vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids are involved in production and activation of serotonin. A research article published recently suggests supplementation of these nutrients could help treat symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, impulsive behavior, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This type of supplementation would have fewer side effects than traditional medications currently used to treat these issues. Researchers mentioned it’s common for people with these types of conditions to be deficient in many nutrients. Additionally, they stressed the importance of adequate vitamin B6 and iron due to its role in serotonin synthesis.


Neurotransmitters are chemicals responsible for sending communication signals throughout your body. They can either stimulate the brain or calm the brain. Stress, poor diet, genetics, drugs, alcohol, and caffeine adversely affect neurotransmitter levels.

The Least You Need to Know

  • A healthy diet can lead to mental clarity.
  • What you eat affects your mind/body connection.
  • Always listen to your body’s hunger and satiety signals.
  • Key nutrients can help prevent or delay the onset of certain diseases and conditions.
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