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Improve your Mood with Food!

Let’s unpack some of the exciting (and preliminary) new research about the link between gut health, mood, and stress. I want to introduce you to your friendly resident gut microbes, probiotic foods, and supplements, as well as offer some simple recipes to keep your gut and taste buds happy.


There are trillions of microbes that happily live in our gut. These friendly microbes do more than help us digest foods, make vitamins, and protect us from the not-so-friendly microbes - they have mood-boosting and stress-busting functions too!

It’s a hotbed of research right now and we’re finding out more about their awesome health and mood/stress benefits every day. And, while the research is just starting to figure out the many gut microbe-brain connections, it’s such a cool new topic that I couldn’t wait to share it with you!


The microbes that live in our guts are known as our “gut microbiota”. The microbes that we can ingest are known as “probiotics”.

“Probiotics” are live organisms that you can eat, drink, or take as a supplement. They turn milk into yogurt, and cabbage into sauerkraut; and they are great for both your gut health and mental health. Special probiotics that have mental health benefits are called “psychobiotics,” (psycho = mental health, and biotics = live). They are live organisms that can benefit our psyche.


Probiotics can be found in yogurt, sauerkraut (and other fermented veggies), miso, tempeh, and kimchi. You can drink them in kefir or kombucha. Be sure to choose unpasteurized ones that will be refrigerated in your local grocer. Unpasteurized foods are not recommend if you are pregnant or have a compromised immune system, so please check with your healthcare provider.

Of course, there are a number of probiotic supplements available too. Check with your healthcare provider to identify which one is best for you. Generally, we look for one that’s refrigerated and has at least 10 billion active cultures. We also suggest you look for one that has been “third party tested,” which means someone outside the company has tested it and says it’s a quality product.

Also, be sure to read the label before taking any supplements. The probiotics with the most research are of the Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus types. But we still don’t know enough legitimate facts about the psychobiotic effects to make specific mood-boosting recommendations yet... BUT the internet is FULL of anecdotal evidence.


Try some of my favorites -

Confetti Vegetable Salad with Miso Dressing

½ lb. green beans, snipped and chopped 2 heads kale shredded 1 red pepper, chopped ½ red onion, diced 1 head radicchio, chopped 1 tart apple, cut into matchsticks ¼ cup walnuts, chopped Dijon-Miso Dressing [will make more than you need]: 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard 2 tablespoons of yellow miso 2 medium shallot, chopped 1/3 cup of sherry wine vinegar 3 tablespoons olive oil 2 tablespoons water 2 tablespoons maple syrup

1 Place green beans in a steamer basket and steam until al dente, then rinse in cold water to stop cooking process. 2 In a large bowl, add kale and massage until it has softened. Add pepper, green beans, onion, radicchio, and apple. 3 Place dressing ingredients in blender and process until smooth, thinning with water if needed. 4 Toss salad with dressing and walnuts.

Cauliflower Olive Salad with Yogurt

1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives, drained and chopped 2 tablespoons capers, drained 1 cup jarred roasted peppers, drained and chopped [1 tablespoon brine reserved] 1 head cauliflower, cored, cut into florets [see notes] 1/2 cup walnuts, chopped 2 cloves garlic, minced 1 Tbsp fresh mint 1/2 cup fresh parsley + 2 tbsp (for garnish) 3 Tbsp olive oil 6 oz Greek yogurt, low-fat Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper

1 Chop cauliflower into florets. 2 Chop peppers, walnuts, mint, and parsley. 3 Mince garlic. 4 Drain olives and capers. Drain peppers, reserving some brine. 5 Blanch cauliflower in salted water until just tender then shock in ice bath; drain and set aside [great batch cook item]. 6 In a food processor, pulse 1/2 cup peppers, brine, garlic, mint, parsley, and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Salt to taste. 7 Mix yogurt with remaining olive oil and spread across plate or platter. 8 Top with cauliflower, walnuts, olives, and remaining peppers 9 Garnish with parsley and drizzle with pepper sauce. 10 Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Strawberry Almond Chia Pudding

1 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk 1 cup plain low-fat Greek yogurt 2 tablespoons pure maple syrup 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract ⅛ teaspoon kosher salt ¼ cup chia seeds 1 pint strawberries, hulled and diced ¼ cup sliced almonds

1 Hull and dice strawberries the day you are serving pudding. Make: 2 In a medium bowl, whisk together the almond milk, yogurt, maple syrup, vanilla, and salt. Whisk in the chia seeds. Let stand for 30 minutes and stir again to ensure all chia seeds are incorporated and not sticking to bottom of bowl. Cover and refrigerate overnight. 3 The next day, spoon pudding into bowls and top with strawberries and almonds. Drizzle with additional maple syrup if desired.


It may not seem obvious or intuitive, but your body is interconnected in many ways and more research is focusing on the “microbiota-gut-brain axis.” It’s the very complex connection between your gut, its microbes, and your brain. This new field has been called a “paradigm shift in neuroscience” (Dinan, 2017).

In fact, there are a number of ways that we’re beginning to understand how our gut microbes can affect our brain. One is via the “vagus” nerve, which is a nerve that directly connects your gut to your brain. The other ways are through “biochemical messengers.” Biochemicals that are made in your gut and travel throughout the body to communicate with other organs, including your brain. Examples of biochemicals include short chain fatty acids, cytokines, and even tryptophan (the amino acid that the neurotransmitters melatonin and serotonin are made from).

The exciting thing is that this may help us with not only mood and stress, but the microbiota-gut-brain axis may one day prove to be helpful for other conditions like autism and Parkinson’s.


Several studies show that stressed rodents not only have increased stress hormones and stressed behaviors; but, they also have different gut microbes. This has also been studied, to a small extent, in people too. One study showed that moms with high levels of stress hormones during pregnancy had infants with more of the “bad” gut microbes.

But, can it work the other way around? Can changing our gut microbes affect our moods and stress responses?

Studies of rodents that grow up without any gut microbes at all (in a “bacteria-free” environment) respond to stress more than mice with normal gut microbes. Then, when they’re given either a probiotic or gut microbes from non-stressed mice, their stress responses often go back to normal.

“Gut microbiota and probiotics alter behavior and brain neurochemistry.” (Ait-Belgnaoui, et. al., 2012) That’s a pretty powerful statement.

Many animal studies show positive effects on behavior when they get probiotic supplements. For example, after a probiotic, stressed rats had lower levels of both stress hormones and an inflammatory molecule associated with depression (“LPS” - lipopolysaccharide). Human studies show that after a few weeks of taking probiotic foods or supplements, healthy people have reduced stress hormones, feelings of stress, negative thoughts, and sad moods.

One fascinating study showed that when people took probiotics, brain MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) tests showed reduced brain activity for negative and aggressive thoughts.

There is some exciting research on the positive effect that probiotics can have on moods and stress. So, what can you do to nurture your own healthy gut microbes?.


Earlier, I talked about the benefits of consuming probiotic-rich food. Once the gut microbes take up residence in our guts, we need to feed them!

PREbiotics are food for gut microbes and, when fermented in the gut, produce specific changes in bacterial composition or activity. They are your friendly gut microbes’ favorite delicacies so they’ll happily grow, and multiply. Prebiotics are basically foods that contain fiber. Things like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Even dark chocolate (preferably with at least 70% cocoa). Foods that are particularly high in prebiotics include jicama, asparagus, avocado, whole grains, and allium vegetables like onions, garlic, leeks, and shallots.

Giving animals prebiotics has shown to reduce stress hormones, and anxiety-related behaviors. In people, studies show that taking psychobiotics along with prebiotics can improve both the microbes in our gut, as well as our mood.


Asparagus with Lemon Thyme Dressing

1 1/2 pounds asparagus, tough ends removed 3 tablespoons olive oil 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard 1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar 1 lemon [for zest and 1 tablespoon juice] 1 teaspoon dried thyme salt and pepper to taste

1 Trim tough ends from asparagus. 2 Zest and juice lemon. 3 Add oil, mustard, vinegar, lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon zest, and thyme to a small mason jar. Shake to combine. 4 Drizzle asparagus with half the dressing and toss to coat. 5 Grill until asparagus turns bright green and tops begin to brown. 6 Remove from grill and drizzle with remaining dressing. 7 Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Triple Greens Soup with Avocado

1 tablespoon coconut oil ½ sweet onion, chopped 2 garlic cloves, minced 1 teaspoon cumin ½ teaspoon nutmeg 2 cups vegetable broth 3 cups broccoli Salt and pepper to taste 1 cup coconut milk 2 cups spinach 2 cups kale ½ lemon, juiced 1 avocado, sliced 1 tbsp olive oil for garnish

1 Chop onion and mince garlic. 2 Heat coconut oil in a pot over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until golden, for about 5 minutes. Add garlic and stir for another minute then add cumin and nutmeg and stir until fragrant. 3 Add vegetable broth to the pot. Stir until producing a light steam. Add the broccoli florets in with the mixture and let steam for 5 minutes or until broccoli is bright green. 4 Add coconut milk and stir well. 5 Add spinach and kale. Stir just until the greens are wilted and remove from heat. 6 Ladle soup into blender and process until smooth, covering lid with towel when processing for safety. 7 Transfer blended mixture back into a large pot. Warm to desired temperature. 8 Add salt and pepper to taste. 9 Ladle into bowls. Drizzle with lemon juice and add sliced avocado.

Creamy Mediterranean Garlic Chicken

8 boneless skinless chicken thighs 8 ounces plain greek yogurt 1/2 cup nutritional yeast 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil 1 cup sweet onion chopped 3 garlic cloves, minced 1/2 cup sundried tomatoes [see notes] 2 teaspoons dried oregano 2 teaspoons dried basil 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme 2 cups low sodium chicken broth 6 cups spinach chopped 1/2 cup parsley chopped

1 Chop spinach/mince garlic. 2 In a large skillet, sauté chicken thighs in 1 teaspoon olive oil until browned on all sides. Remove from pan and set aside. 3 Add another teaspoon to the skillet and, over medium heat, sauté onion until soft. Stir in garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, oregano, basil, and thyme and sauté for another few minutes until fragrant. 4 Stir in yogurt and chicken broth, then nestle chicken pieces in pan. Simmer for about 20 minutes until chicken is cooked through [165°F internal temperature]. 5 Stir in spinach and cover pan until wilted. Top with parsley just before serving.


Ait-Belgnaoui, A., Durand, H., Cartier, et al (2012). Prevention of gut leakiness by a probiotic treatment leads to attenuated HPA response to an acute psychological stress in rats.

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 37(11):1885-95. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2012.03.024. LINK:

Bailey, M.T., Dowd, S.E., Galley, J.D., et al. (2011). Exposure to a social stressor alters the structure of the intestinal microbiota: implications for stressor-induced immunomodulation. Brain Behav Immun. 25(3):397–407. LINK:

Bharwani A, Mian MF, Foster JA, et al. (2016). Structural & functional consequences of chronic psychosocial stress on the microbiome & host. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 63:217–227. LINK:

Cryan, J.F. (2016). Stress and the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis: An Evolving Concept in Psychiatry. Can J Psychiatry. 61(4):201-3. doi: 10.1177/0706743716635538. LINK:

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