The Mind-Gut Connection: Why What You Eat Affects Your Mental Well-Being

wetzsteinKitchenFor some, the holiday season is a joyous time filled with family and festivities. For others though this time of year, filled with planning, shopping, traveling and more, might bring about stress and exhaustion. There are a plethora of ways to help combat the holiday blues including practicing gratitude and mindfulness, but what if we could also eat our way to a less stressful, more cheerful holiday season?

In recent years there has been a lot of research and new information proving that what we eat can affect more than just our waistlines. In fact, many doctors and nutritionists argue that there is a strong link between a healthy gut and a person’s mood and overall mental well-being.
For a deeper look into the mind-gut connection, I turned to one of Scarsdale’s own nutritionists, Melissa Wetzstein. Ms. Wetzstein owns a wealth of knowledge and had much to say about the topic.

WM: There has been a lot of recent research on the gut-brain connection and how eating certain foods can either exacerbate unwanted symptoms (such as depression and hyperactivity) or help to reduce those symptoms. What are your thoughts about how what eat can affect our minds?

Ms. Wetzstein: Everything we take into our bodies, is broken down and either assimilated for use as energy by our cells or detoxified and excreted as waste. Either way, we are intimately affected by the food we eat. We cannot underestimate the importance of the “QUALITY” of the food put into our bodies. which has a profound impact on our overall well-being - and ultimately, our QUALITY of life. Unfortunately, the standard American diet (SAD) filled with low quality, highly processed packaged foods, and focused on refined carbohydrates (found in most store-bought bagels, muffins, pasta, crackers and chips), negatively impacts the body’s ability to regulate itself, and deprives us of the important nutrients needed to make brain-balancing neurotransmitters and hormones.

The relationship between the digestive tract and the brain is referred to as the “GUT-BRAIN AXIS”. Research on this connection has experienced significant growth in recent years. We’ve learned that the gut and brain communicate with each other; “gut health and mental health go hand in hand”. The basic premise is that: A normal, healthy functioning gut, supports healthy brain function. Alternatively, gut Dysbiosis (an imbalance of the microorganisms in our Digestive tract), can lead to leaky gut, and contribute to stress, anxiety, depression and mood issues. One thing we don’t talk about as much, is that this relationship is a two way street; and chronic stress and anxiety can negatively impact digestive function - leading to gut dysbiosis and inflammation in the body.

WM: What can we do to create a healthy gut and improve the Gut-Brain Axis?

Ms. Wetzstein: We can support the optimal function of this gut brain connection with healthy food and mindful eating habits (as well as getting adequate sleep and mediating stress). We need to be in a “parasympathetic” or relaxed state to properly digest our food and absorb the
nutrients. When we are stressed and anxious, or scarf our food down in a rush, digestion is
impaired, and leads to nutritional imbalance. The food we eat can influence mood by providing the amino acids, vitamins and minerals that play a role in the production and/or release of brain boosting neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine, serotonin and dopamine.

WM: Are there foods that you believe contribute to gut dysbiosis and should therefore be avoided?

Ms. Wetzstein: Refined foods - such as white flours, sugar, sodas and soft drinks, high-heat chemically processed vegetable oils (ie. canola, cottonseed, safflower and soy oils), hydrogenated fats from margarine or other plants oils that have been chemically altered to become solid at room temperature. Sugar is not only highly addictive but may contribute to or exacerbate poor blood sugar regulation, mood swings and inflammation. In addition, sugar feeds the bad bacteria in the gut, which can lead to dysbiosis.

WM: Are there foods you recommend eating for a healthy mind?

Ms. Wetzstein: Our bodies require a number of essential nutrients to help fuel our cells, synthesize hormones, and function optimally. “Essential nutrients” are those that the body cannot synthesize on its own, and must get from food. Many B vitamins, Vitamin C, Calcium, Zinc, Copper and Iron, Magnesium, Selenium, and Omega 3 fatty acids are a few of the essential nutrients for optimal gut and brain health! Green veggies such as broccoli and Kale, pumpkin seeds, turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, walnuts, almonds and brazil nuts, blueberries and raspberries, pomegranates, fatty fish such as salmon, cod and sardines, ground flax seeds, and green tea, to name a few. On the flip side, not getting enough omega-3 fatty acids is linked to learning impairments, as well as depression.

WM: What is the optimal diet for a healthy mind?

Ms. Wetzstein: An optimal diet is based on nutrient-dense, properly prepared whole foods:

• A wide variety of fresh, seasonal, and colorful vegetables and fruits, both cooked and raw.
• small amounts of beans or legumes, such as chickpeas and lentils, and/or high quality
animal protein (try to find pasture raised meat, chicken, eggs or wild caught seafood).

• Fresh and dried spices and herbs provide a wealth of benefits, some offer anti-inflammatory

• Small amounts of grains in their whole form (like oats, buckwheat, millet and faro)

• Nuts and seeds

• Healthy fats from avocado, olives, flax, unrefined extra virgin olive oil, small amounts of grass-fed butter or ghee, and coconut oil.

• Add in raw lacto-fermented foods such as sauerkraut, pickled beets and kimchi, which are beneficial for the gut, because they contain “probiotics” (healthy bacteria which aid digestion and nutrient absorption, and help balance the microbiome).

Concluding the interview, Ms. Wetzstein left us with this parting thought: Hippocrates, the founder of modern western medicine, said “all disease begins in the gut”. Perhaps we can extrapolate that to mean, “all health begins in the gut” too.

So whether you are traveling or planning to have family around your own table this holiday, for a happy mind make sure you serve plenty of veggies and maybe even a side of sauerkraut!

For even more helpful information about nutrition, including recipes and great blog posts, or to make an appointment with Ms. Wetzstein for a consultation, please check out her website:
Or follow her on Instagram and
Facebook at

Wendy MacMillan is a former teacher and a proud mom of two children. While her background is in psychology and education, Wendy was recently trained in mindfulness at She has long been passionate about wellness, and as an active member of the Scarsdale PTA, Wendy helped to bring mindfulness to her children's elementary school. In addition, Wendy helped establish and is an acting member of the school's Wellness Committee. For more information about mindfulness check out this site: or Watch the video of Jon Kabat-Zinn explaining what mindfulness is ... or contact Wendy MacMillan at