David Schiman, Acupuncturist

Many people know that when they are nervous they have butterflies in their stomach.  But, did you know that those “butterflies” can disrupt your digestion and, if it goes on too long, eventually your mental health?  Here’s a look at how stress affects your digestion and energy levels, and, on the flip side, how your digestive health affects your mood.

We’ve all heard the saying, “You are what you eat” and the question, “What’s eating you?”.  There’s a lot of truth and insight in those sayings.  Poor nutrition can upset the balance of your neuro-chemistry, and thoughts and emotions that disturb your inner calm, also “eat up” your valuable energy and disrupt your ability to digest your food.

Your nerves affect your digestive function

The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) – from Wikipedia – “ The enteric nervous system (ENS) or intrinsic nervous system is one of the main divisions of the nervous system and consists of a mesh-like system of neurons that governs the function of the gastrointestinal system.”  The ENS predates the brain itself in terms of evolutionary development.  A case could even be made that the ENS is what gives us the “gut instincts” that have allowed us to survive for millions of years and develop into our current state with a thinking, highly developed brain.

The “Wandering Nerve”  

If you are stressed or nervous/excited your Vagus nerve can become hyper-stimulated and cause issues.  The Vagus nerve is a two way street.  If your “gut” is off from stress and/or poor eating habits, or because you sense danger, the Vagus nerve sends signals to the brain conveying your “gut instincts”.  Conversely, if you are thinking negative thoughts and dealing with mental stress, it’s likely that the brain will be sending signals to your gut via your Vagus nerve.  And, those signals may cause poor digestion, upset stomach, heart palpitations, Irritable Bowel, etc.  (1)

You are what you eat

We’ve probably all heard by now that we should eat less sugar and processed foods and eat more whole foods like fresh vegetables, nuts, fruits, healthy oils like coconut and olive oil and naturally raised meats, fish and chicken.  And the reasons are very compelling.  Study after study shows that eating healthy lowers your risks of just about every disease.  But, the most interesting developments in food science are the insights into how food and digestive health affects your mood.  Many of your brain chemicals are made in your gut.  As the saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out”.

The gut makes your brain chemicals

Neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) are made from amino acids and vitamins and minerals derived from food.  Eat a poor diet and you rob your brain of what it needs for good sleep, good mood, and quick and clear thinking.  A key component of healthy eating is getting enough essential fatty acids (EFA’s).  In fact, the British Journal of Psychiatry states that it’s possible psychiatric illness can be treated in some instances with restoring proper fatty acid balance. (7).  More than 90% of the body’s serotonin lies in the gut, as well as about 50% of the body’s dopamine (8)

The Four Major Neurotransmitters  (2)

There are four major neurotransmitters that are very important for brain health and physical performance. They are acetylcholine, dopamine, GABA and serotonin. Acetylcholine and dopamine are energizing neurotransmitters, whereas GABA and serotonin are relaxing neurotransmitters.

In order to have adequate energy in the morning, you want to have more dopamine and acetylcholine. At night it’s ideal to have more serotonin and GABA to be able to go to sleep. The nutrients you eat will influence your neurotransmitter levels, which is the reason for the importance of eating meat protein in the morning—protein boosts dopamine and acetylcholine. Carbohydrates will help raise serotonin and allow you to go to sleep, which is why eating a small amount of carbs can be ideal in the evening.


GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) is important for managing anxiety and stress. It regulates the energizing neurotransmitters, dopamine and norepinephrine, and also supports serotonin. If you feel overwhelmed, you don’t have enough GABA.

The nutrient taurine is an amino acid that calms the nervous system because it supports GABA production. Taurine will allow your body to manage anxiety so that your thoughts don’t go spiraling out of control and you don’t get the associated hormone spikes of cortisol and adrenaline that go with anxiety and stress. Taurine is found in animal products, and taurine deficiency is a well-known problem for vegetarians, which will lead to neurotransmitter imbalances and higher levels of anxiety, stress, and unhappiness.


Serotonin is the feel good neurotransmitter that is directly involved in mood and emotion. It is essential for optimal brain function. Low serotonin is linked to depression, problems with anger, obsessive-compulsive disorder, insomnia, and suicide. It is also involved in pain perception, body temperature regulation, blood pressure, and hormonal activity.


As mentioned, eating carbohydrates can raise serotonin. Eating carbs will trigger insulin to be released from the pancreas. Insulin in the blood will clear out the amino acids except tryptophan. When the amino acid tryptophan (found in high concentrations in Turkey and in milk) is elevated, it enters the brain and is turned into serotonin if you have adequate levels of B vitamins. Once serotonin is elevated, it reduces pain, decreases appetite, and produces a sense of calm, allowing you to go to sleep.


Dopamine is responsible for motivation, interest, and drive. When you have low dopamine, you won’t feel energized, may have low energy, poor concentration, and low sex drive. It is involved in muscle control and function, making it highly important for athletes. But, you don’t want too much or too little because even though low levels can make you unmotivated or inhibit performance, high levels are involved in mental problems and attention disorders.

Dopamine is involved in Parkinson’s Disease and looking at how the mechanism behind it can illustrate how neurotransmitters actually work. In Parkinson’s, the dopamine transmitting neurons die in a part of the brain, meaning the brains of people with Parkinson’s contain no dopamine. Drugs called dopamine agonists are given to people with Parkinson’s, and these drugs are able to stimulate dopamine receptors directly.

Dopamine levels are very vulnerable to poor sleep, stress, sugar, and caffeine intake. Dopamine is directly affected by oxidative stress and inflammation, and ensuring you have adequate antioxidant intake will help you achieve ideal levels of dopamine. Dopamine is synthesized from the amino acid tyrosine. Foods that contain tyrosine are almonds, avocados, dairy and meat, and sesame seeds, among others.


Acetylcholine was the first neurotransmitter to be discovered in 1921, and anyone who has studied exercise physiology knows that acetylcholine is necessary for muscle contractions.  It is the primary neurotransmitter for the motor neurons that innervate muscle. Acetylcholine is also responsible for memory and optimal brain function.

Acetylcholine affects heart rate, digestion, secretion of saliva, and bladder function. It is linked to Alzheimer’s disease and there is loss of almost 90 percent of acetylcholine in people with the disease. This neurotransmitter also improves the number and sensitivity of androgen and insulin receptors, making it critical that athletes have adequate acetylcholine to maximize energy production and anabolic response.

Acetylcholine is made out of choline, which is a B vitamin. Choline is related to cholesterol and is necessary for fat metabolism as well. Foods high in choline are eggs, soy, and organ meats. It can also be taken as a supplement and is found in most high-quality B complexes.


You need Carbs!

So, eating some carbs is a good thing!  But, don’t overdo it!  Eating too many carbs is linked to cardiovascular disease, Type 2 Diabetes, cognitive impairment, and obesity.

Additionally, eating sugar, fructose and grains is the equivalent of slamming your foot on your brain-aging accelerator.  When consumed in excess, sugar, and fructose in particular, act as a toxin and drive multiple disease processes in your body, not the least of which is insulin resistance, a major cause of accelerated aging.  Intermittent fasting appears to be a way to combat diet induced brain aging and inflammation.

The highest dietary sources of fructose, besides pure crystalline fructose, are foods containing table sugar (sucrose), high-fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, honey, molasses, maple syrup, fruit and fruit juices, as these have the highest percentages of fructose (including fructose in sucrose) per serving compared to other common foods and ingredients.  In particular, sodas and foods containing High Fructose Corn Syrup are the most harmful.

Fasting can be great for you!

Intermittent fasting seems to be akin to stepping on the aging brakes. Fasting increases insulin sensitivity and appears to trigger a variety of health-promoting hormonal and metabolic changes that may help prevent age-related brain shrinkage and other chronic and debilitating diseases. The protective processes triggered in your brain when suddenly decreasing your food intake are similar to the beneficial effects of exercise.  You don’t have to do it all the time, in fact, some research shows that random, intermittent fasting, is the way to go.

Quite simply, your gut health can impact your brain function, mood, and behavior, as they are interconnected and interdependent in a number of different ways.  Watching what you eat, and how you eat, can make a huge difference in how well your body produces the chemicals needed for good mood and good energy levels.  When making a change in diet, or when adding new supplements or foods, make changes slowly and simply.  Then pay attention to how you feel.  See for yourself what works and doesn’t work.  Over time you can arrive at a diet that works for YOU!