“WILL YOU SMELL THIS?” You’ve probably had experience with this question before. And if you haven’t been the one asking, you’ve definitely been on the receiving end.

With larger-than-life refrigerators, it can be easy to forget what’s hiding in the back of yours. And as the days on your calendar tick by, the expiration dates on your questionable food items draw near.

But expired foods are only the most obvious and easily avoidable culprits when it comes to proper food safety and preventing food poisoning. There’s many more potential pitfalls, though. Making mistakes when preparing, handling, and cooking food can leave you spending your evening on the bathroom floor.

Food Poisoning: Bad Bug Basics

Improper food safety can lead to food poisoning or foodborne illness. These issues are the result of eating contaminated foods. Contamination can occur when your food is exposed to certain bacteria, viruses, parasites, and/or chemicals, and not properly handled or treated.

You’ll hear about safe food handling below. First, let’s talk about three of the most common bacterial contaminants: Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. coli. Take a closer look at these bacteria, how they might come in contact with your food, and how to protect yourself.

Salmonella

The Centers for Disease Control in the U.S., estimates that over one million Americans suffer from Salmonella infection each year. Tens of thousands are hospitalized. Young children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable when they come into contact with Salmonella. Food is the source of nearly all Salmonella infections.

Food sources for Salmonella are contaminated:

Salmonella is often found in intestines, and therefore, the feces of animals—especially reptiles. Since fecal matter often contaminates the living environment of the animal (e.g., a chicken coop), the entire outer surface of the animal can become contaminated. This is how eggs and chicken meat can get infected.

If you come into contact with Salmonella unknowingly, you may experience symptoms including fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain or discomfort. These symptoms can last as long as a week—a painful experience for anyone.

Take precautions to protect yourself from illness by Salmonella. Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling animals. Cook your meat and eggs thoroughly to ensure the bacteria is destroyed (more on temperatures later). Enjoy pasteurized products when available, as this process kills the Salmonella bacteria.

Campylobacter

These bad bacteria affect over one million people in the U.S., every year—and even more worldwide. Again, young children, older folks, and those with weakened immune systems are more vulnerable to severe illness after Campylobacter infection.

The organs of animals (e.g., intestines and liver) are the most common home for Campylobacter bacteria. When animals are slaughtered for meat, the bacteria can spread, infecting more widely consumed parts of the animal. Campylobacter can also be spread through fecal matter touching other parts of the animal, nearby produce, or water sources.

Symptoms of a Campylobacter infection include fever, abdominal cramping, vomiting, and diarrhea (often bloody). These symptoms can last for only a couple of days to well over a week.

Take care to avoid Campylobacter infection by cooking meat thoroughly—especially poultry—to safe minimum temperatures. For poultry, the safe minimum temperature is 165 degrees Fahrenheit or 74 degrees Celsius.

E. coli

There are many harmless strains of E. coli … and then there are the few that can make you quite sick. The harmful strains can be found in animals—mainly cows, sheep, and goats. The bacteria are easily passed from these animals to their environment. This can contaminate the animals’ outer bodies and potentially their water sources. These contaminated water sources can also spread E. coli (or other bacteria) to vegetables. That happens when water is infected by animals and used to irrigate vegetable crops.

Symptoms of E. coli infection include vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea (often bloody). An E. coli infection can escalate into a more alarming condition known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). This can affect your red blood cells and, subsequently, your kidneys. If HUS develops, medical attention is necessary.

You can take easy and proper precautions to protect yourself from E. coli infection. It can be avoided by routinely washing your hands (before food preparation; after using the bathroom or changing an infant’s diaper; and when you’ve touched cows, sheep, goats or their environment). Cooking beef and other meats properly also helps. And avoiding unpasteurized milk and cheeses will help protect you from E. coli.

Simple Safety Steps

You might have noticed a theme to the safety steps touched on above. There are four key steps as you buy, prepare, handle, store, and cook your food. They are: clean, separate, cook, and chill.

  1. Clean

Above, you read about the importance of washing your hands. In addition, don’t forget the surfaces on which you handle food, and the containers you use to store it. This is especially true of animal-based products like meats and cheeses.

Keeping your hands and surfaces clean is also a time issue. Make sure that any time you touch raw meat you wash your hands immediately. The same goes for surfaces and other kitchen utensils used—clean them right after use. Bacteria can live on these surfaces for some time. Without quick and proper washing, your kitchen (and hands) can become a bacterial breeding ground.

  1. Separate

Once your hands and surfaces have been washed, it’s still possible for germs and harmful bacteria to spread. Food separation is what keeps cross contamination from occurring.

Keep animal-free products separate from animal-based products. That means fruits and vegetables are handled separately (and with separate utensils) from meat, seafood, poultry, and eggs.

Food separation starts at the grocery store. When you’re shopping, bag meats and other animal products separately from other food items. Grocery baggers usually take care of this on their own, but an extra watchful eye won’t hurt.

Once you’re home and preparing the food, use separate utensils (knives, spatulas, etc.) for animal-based products. The same goes for food storage. Store meat and other animal products separate from other food. This is especially important if the meat is raw.

  1. Cook

Bacteria feel especially at-home in your food between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, 4 to 60 degrees Celsius. This temperature range is when bacteria can most easily multiply. To keep your food safe, make sure you’re heating well above this range. Not sure what the appropriate temperature is? Check out the table below before you cook your next meal.

Meal or Food Product Minimum Internal Temperature
deg F deg C
Beef, pork, veal, & lamb (bone-in) 145 63
Ham 145 63
Seafood 145 63
Minced fish (fishcakes) 158 70
De-boned, ground, or minced meats 160 71
Eggs 160 71
All poultry 165 74
Leftovers 165 74
Casseroles 165 74
Stuffing (inside meat) 167 75

Often when eating in large parties, it’s typical to dish up your plate from a common pot and sit down to eat. It’s important to remember that part of food safety is keeping cooked food hot until it’s stored in the refrigerator. Ensure your pots of food are held at 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius) or more before sitting down to enjoy your meal.

  1. Chill

Bacteria can grow in your food if it’s not properly chilled within two hours of preparing or cooking. So, it’s important to store your foods properly—and quickly. The advice to let foods cool before placing them in the fridge is a myth. Don’t wait to get foods into refrigeration.

Once you’re done eating, make sure that your food is stored separately (as appropriate; see above), and placed in the refrigerator or freezer within the two-hour window. Breaking up extra-large portions into smaller containers will also help ensure your food is chilled quickly.

What about the reverse? A common misconception is that meat and other food can be safely thawed on the counter at room temperature. This is wrong. It’s unsafe! Room temperature is an inviting range for bacteria to thrive. Thaw frozen meats and other foods well ahead of time by moving it into the refrigerator. If you’re really in a hurry, consider a bowl of cold water or the microwave for a quicker thaw.

Final Food For Thought

Now you’re ready to head into the kitchen. You’ve tossed out expired or questionable food items. You’ve learned about foodborne pathogens to avoid. And you’re armed with food safety knowledge. But before you get into gourmet mode, let’s review some simple and helpful tips to keep you healthy in the kitchen:

  • Thoroughly clean and wash all fruits and vegetables. They can be contaminated before they even reach your home, either during harvesting or shipping.
  • Consider buying separate cutting boards for produce and meat. Some retailers sell a package of multiple cutting boards of different colors or with images of the board’s appropriate use etched into each one.
  • Invest in a food thermometer. Armed with the minimum internal temperature chart above, you’ll know when your favorite foods are ready to eat.
  • When buying meat at the store, wrap it in a plastic produce bag after receiving it from the butcher. That way if your purchases wind up in the same bag, there’s already a secondary barrier in place.
  • Wash as you go. Cleaning up after yourself while cooking makes the post-meal cleanse faster. It will also keep you from inadvertently cross-contaminating other surfaces or utensils.

Bon Appetit

Time to cook! Know that you have the knowledge, and now you just need the inspiration. Check some healthy recipes to spark your kitchen creativity. Happy cooking!

About the Author

Jenna Templeton is a health educator and freelance science writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. After receiving a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Virginia Tech, Jenna spent five years as a research scientist in the nutritional industry. This work fueled her interest in personal wellness, leading her to pursue a graduate degree in Health Promotion & Education from the University of Utah. Outside of work, Jenna enjoys live music, gardening, all things food, and playing in the Wasatch mountains.

A whiff of something enticing hits you and you immediately wonder what it is. You have to identify the smell. Before you know it, the scent has started a tango between your brain and your stomach. When you finally walk by a burger joint, pastry shop, or a place serving one of your favorites, it’s hard to turn off the craving.

This scene happens to everyone, even if your tummy is full. That’s because everybody has strong connections to different foods. It’s part of everyday life in a world full of potential food addictions. Yes, they’re real, and food addictions are hard to break.

But how, exactly, do you know when you’re addicted to a food or beverage? The answers are below. You’ll find out how your tastiest choices consistently register in your memory and what causes food addiction. With that brings the usual internal battles like how to pace or limit yourself in the face of your delicious addictions. You’ll find tips for accomplishing that tough task, too.

What is Food Addiction?

You have cravings for a variety of foods. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s been scientifically shown that food addiction is an everyday issue some people encounter. So, if you’re dealing with it, you aren’t alone.

The cause of food addiction might seem like it starts in your rumbling stomach. But food addiction actually begins in your brain. That’s because it realizes that foods or drinks replete in fat, sugar, or salt are among the most rewarding and pleasurable for certain parts of your brain.

Studies have related the chemicals released in the brain when you eat certain foods to those that are released in the presence of an addictive drug. The substance most responsible for this is called dopamine.

That fact makes dopamine arguably one of the most impactful and crucial chemicals in your body. It’s a messenger between cells in your brain (also known as a neurotransmitter). And dopamine plays a direct role in how you move around, learn, and digest information—and digest foods, too. This brain chemical is what gets you up and going and helps you stay determined to tackle whatever you have in front of you.

But it also plays a key role in food addiction and cravings. Here’s how dopamine works with food cravings and addiction: Soon after you eat certain foods, this chemical messenger in your brain arrives. Dopamine increases stimulation of your brain’s reward centers. And your brain wants to trigger this reaction again and again. That’s because your brain craves these pleasurable, rewarding experiences. And certain foods are one way for your brain to get its reward fix.

Humans aren’t alone in this. In studies where rats were fed diets rich in junk food and unhealthy snacks, the subjects adopted similar behavior to that of habitual drug users. The rats wanted more food that did them no good nutritionally in order to feel eased by the dopamine rush. The rats even refused to dine on more healthy options once they got used to the foods rich in sugar, fats, salt, and carbs. The 2009 study showed rats even went as far as starving in order to wait for the junk food that might never come.

That’s a startling example. So, what are the traditional trigger foods and drinks that can influence this process in your brain? Unfortunately, there are a lot.

What are Among the Most Addictive Foods?

They’re usually the best tasting ones. And that’s maddening. A food addiction researcher gave her rundown in a recent study. The results showed that processed foods higher in fat and glycemic load were “most frequently associated with addictive-like eating behaviors.” Here’s a few of the most addictive foods:

  • Pizza: Of course, this delicious combination of carbs, salt, and fat is near the top of the list. You’ve probably asked yourself: “How many slices should I eat?” The answer, is one, if any. But pizza is hard to resist. That’s bad, because it’s usually filled with processed ingredients. It also has more fat per bite than most healthy meals. Combine that with the salt and you have a perfect recipe for a flood of dopamine that sets you down a path toward another slice. You know you don’t need it, but your brain wants it.
  • Sweet treats: Chocolate, cookies, cake, and ice cream are all chock-full of sugar and fat that can easily convince your brain that you need more. Offsetting the savory of your meal with a sweet dessert is common. But it isn’t a healthy choice. Those sugars can piggyback an unhealthy main course decision and lead you to overeat when you don’t need to. And you’ll get a lot of extra calories, fat, and sugar, too.
  • Fried foods: From what you already know, there’s no surprise here. French fries and potato chips are salty and usually baked or fried in oils that don’t do your body or brain much good. As out-of-this-world good as fried delicacies can be, at times, they’re the perfect recipe for unhealthy and addictive decision making.

As is the case with everything in life, moderation is key. If you’re going to have a glass of red wine at dinner for heart health, have one, not four. If you’re going to have a cheat day once a week, try and stick to it. Don’t weave your way through the kitchen to plunder your snack drawer every day. Also: It might be wise to avoid having a snack drawer at all.

What About Soda?

Soft drinks are just as addictive as fatty, salty foods. And consumption of soda has a direct correlation to negative nutritional and health effects, as well as weight gain. One study in 2007 found a clear link between soft drink intake and increased energy intake—in other words, getting more calories in a day. Drinking soda was also associated with lower intake of calcium and other nutrients. Soda drinkers are also at a higher risk for medical issues down the road.

So why is soda so addictive? Well, it’s not that hard to decipher. Non-diet soft drinks are filled with a serious amount of sugar. And they sometimes pair the sweet with high levels of caffeine.

You might counter with, “What about diet soda?” Turns out research shows that diet soft drinks can also contribute to weight gain. Artificial sweeteners are designed to create similar reactions in the brain as normal sugar. And one study suggests those who regularly take in artificial sweeteners may crave more sweets, choose sweet food over nutritious food, and find healthier options like fruit less appealing. This can lead to weight gain.

Overcoming Food Addiction

This is the hard part. But you don’t need to feel guilty for a sudden hankering for food or soda. It happens to everyone. And beating yourself up about these cravings isn’t a productive way to deal with food addictions. Understanding what causes these addictions is the first step, but there are more things you can and need to do.

Start by planning ahead to figure out how to manage your intake. The expert advice is pretty simple: Get ahead of these urges. That means dumping your snack drawer, and stocking your house with healthier options.

Luckily, you can also trick your cravings. If you’re craving a sweet, go the route of natural sugar and have fruit. If you’re looking for something more filling, plan out a meal you know will satisfy—starting with dietary fiber and protein is a good start.

A meal-prep plan for those dealing with food addiction entails spacing out meals throughout the day—anywhere from four to five hours between eating. You should include fresh fruit and vegetables in as many of the snacks and meals as possible.

You can break the cycle of food addiction, though. It takes daily focus, determination, and planning. An ideal daily routine could go something like:

  1. A strong start: Healthy foods might not have the same amount of clout in your memory bank as the sort of foods that set you back in your fight against food addiction. But there are still good substitutes. For example, breakfast foods to put on your list include eggs, granola, bananas and strawberries. Sure, it might take a little longer to prep, but that sounds like a tasty start instead of a Pop Tart or cinnamon roll.
  2. Include the fresh stuff: Find the time for fruit and veggies. Getting in the habit of including vegetables and fruit in at least two meals a day is a good start. That will help you turn to fruits and veggies on a regular basis. Making this a habit will help in your fight against unhealthy food addictions.
  3. Think ahead: Understand your cravings and try to plan ahead. If you know you love fried foods, find a healthier option—maybe roasted sweet potatoes instead of French fries—and have it ready to go. Making a healthy choice more convenient can help you short-circuit your cravings before they take over.
  4. Learn to trick your brain: Dopamine can be released by foods that benefit your stomach and overall health in the long-term, too. In fact, healthy food like spinach, watermelon, avocados, and even tofu, can offer rewarding neurological responses. If you’re looking for alternatives for fatty or salty snacks, carrots and hummus work, as does peanut butter and apple slices.

Win the Battle, Because You Can

Overcoming food addiction can be a long, painful process. You have to take it meal-by-meal, and day-by-day. But there’s hope. You can do it. And your attitude is a critical part of the battle. Know you can do it. And then start taking small actions and building on them.

Bookmark this article as a reminder of the science behind food addictions, how they occur, and a step-by-step guide to overcoming them. Start by identifying triggers and then make healthy substitutions. Soon you will have the power to say no to your cravings. Because you will have discovered healthy alternatives you enjoy and you’ll also understand the dangerous path quick-fix foods can present.

Weight may be a number on a scale. But it hangs heavily over the health of many people. That’s because excess body weight can drag down many aspects of your health. So, if you’re looking to maintain a healthy weight, you aren’t alone. Weight management is one of the biggest concerns for people around the world.

Setting goals, making a plan, and using a checklist are all important ways to jumpstart your weight-management journey. But first, you need to get some information.

Take this short quiz to weigh the amount of knowledge you have about weight management. Then see the answers and share your score—and the quiz—so everyone in your life can fill up on this important information.

The brain is often talked about as the master of the body. It sends messages along the information superhighway of the central nervous system. This turns electric impulses and thoughts into action and behavior. The brain is like the Wizard of Oz: it’s the ring leader behind the curtain, directing the cognitive processes and movements of the body.

However, in recent years, scientists have found that the brain doesn’t act as independently as once believed. Careful studies show there is another major player aside from the brain. And a curious one at that. In fact, this other player isn’t a sole entity at all, but rather trillions of microscopic ones. It’s a system of trillions of bacteria and other bugs, known as your gut microbiome.

Here’s another way to look at it: Say the brain is the CEO of the company known as your body. That would make your microbiome the extensive members of the company’s staff. Having a good, connected working relationship between employees and the CEO creates success. But just like a company run with zero input from its staff, a body run solely by the brain misses out on essential messages and signals that would contribute to an ideal functioning body.

To avoid such tyranny, the body has coevolved alongside intestinal bacteria and other bugs. This makes the relationship between the microbiome and the brain an intertwined one. It’s a mutually beneficial partnership based on regular communication between the brain and microbiome. The two speak through a variety of mechanisms to maintain the health and well-being of your body. This crosstalk between the two affects hunger, digestion, and satiety, as well as your immune and mental health.

In order to appreciate how your microbiome can affect your brain, let’s gain an understanding of the microbiome. Then we’ll look at how it works together with the brain. First, let’s focus on the bacteria and other bugs. To answer: What exactly lives in your gut and why?

The Microbiome: Your Body’s Bacteria And Other Bugs

Your gut is home to trillions of little bugs known collectively as the microbiome. These microorganisms (including bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa, and other bugs) make up the community that resides there.

Microbiota is often used interchangeably with microbiome. You’ll see the term microbiome used more here because it stands for much more than the bugs themselves. “Microbiome” encompasses the entire community of microorganisms along with their functionality and activity in the gut.

Many of the functionalities of your gut microbiome occur there, in your intestines. However, there are interactions between those bugs and other parts of the body that act as communication mechanisms between the microbiome and the brain. Let’s learn more about these interactions that make up the gut-brain axis.

Your Brain On Bugs—Gut-Brain Axis Basics

As mentioned before, your brain and microbiome constantly communicate. This link is often referred to as the gut-brain axis, or GBA. Communication along this line is essential to maintain homeostasis—or balance—in your gut and elsewhere. There are various routes of communication that constitute the GBA. But the most prominent is the vagus nerve. It’s involved in digestion and healthy gut immune response, among other bodily processes and reactions.

Digestion

The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve that starts in the brainstem and runs down to the large intestine. This nerve covers so much ground within the body that it’s no surprise that the vagus nerve is responsible for regulating a number of internal functions. Some of these are digestion, respiratory rate, heart rate, blood pressure, some immune responses, and several internal reflexes (e.g., sneezing and swallowing).

Digestion is the first topic to chew on.

Research has shown that the gut isn’t just the site of digestion and nutrient absorption. The gut is also the mediator between its microbiome and the brain. Basically, the gut witnesses the processing of the food you consume. Then it reports relevant information from that process to the brain via the vagus nerve.

As the site of food digestion, the gut has immediate knowledge of what is being consumed. It gathers information about nutritional and energy content. The vagus nerve makes sure the brain stays up-to-date on this sensory information, like hunger cues and feelings of fullness.

This knowledge is important for the brain, so it can determine:

  1. How to drive related impulses (e.g., telling your brain your gut is full and therefore you should stop eating).
  2. How to shift your mood (e.g., if you’re hungry, your mood can become irritable).
  3. Where it is best to send energy (e.g., when you are cold, energy is sent to warm your most vital organs).

Relaying Immune Reflexes

The vagus nerve also communicates other gut events to the brain. Along with the ingested food comes allergens and other microbes that can activate normal immune responses in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Even though they are typical, healthy responses, these reactions can occasionally and temporarily get in the way of regular gut function.

Your brain needs to know about these minor inconveniences. So, this information is “sensed” by the gut and carried to the brain by the vagus nerve on the information superhighway of the gut-brain axis. The direction of information described above is referred to as an “afferent” pathway. That means messages travel away from the gut to the brain.

Gut-brain axis communication helps provide your brain—and eventually the rest of your body—with information it needs to mount and maintain a proper, healthy response. The communications from the brain to the gut are along what’s called “efferent” pathways (working in the opposite direction from the afferent pathways). They work when the efferent fibers from the brain send signals back down the vagus nerve to help maintain and support a healthy, normal immune response.

You Are What You Eat

It’s important to consider how to keep your gut and brain healthy in order to maintain quality communication between both along the gut-brain axis. The easiest way to do this is through food and nutrition. And you have at least three opportunities each day to influence what goes into your gut.

Your microbiome acts as a mediating factor between lifestyle choices—like diet—and the maintenance of health. What you eat enters your body and may alter the bacteria found in your gut. The effects of this can be positive or negative on processes like digestion. And changes to these processes can either maintain or hinder your health. Let’s take a closer look.

Diets rich in plant-based protein and fiber tend to increase the abundance of bacteria like Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus. These are beneficial bacteria that tend to maintain health in your gut. Conversely, diets rich in animal-based protein and saturated fat could increase the abundance of Bacteroides and Alistipes, which are thought to be associated with cardiovascular and bowel issues.

Additionally, studies show that those who consume more vegetables and less fat tend to have a more diverse microbiome with many different beneficial bacteria represented. And those who consume a high-fat diet tend to lack bacterial diversity in the gut, which isn’t good for your digestive health.

While the community of bacteria within your gut is complex, keeping it healthy can be rather simple. Beneficial bacteria prefer to eat certain types of food that tend to get labeled as “healthy” or “healthier.” The opposite is true for bad bacteria: they prefer to eat the things you should eat in small amounts, like saturated fat. So, when you sit down to eat next, ask who you would rather feed—the good or the bad bacteria?

Here are some tips to consider:

  • Minimize your intake of saturated fats. Unsaturated fats like olive oil and avocados promote the healthier bacteria like Bifidobacteria and Saturated fats tend to increase Bacteroides, the bugs that negatively impact gut health.
  • Increase your intake of fiber-rich vegetables. These foods contain many complex starches and fiber your body can’t break down completely on its own. Instead, your body relies on the gut bacteria to break down some of the fiber. In the process, the bacteria create short-chain fatty acids that support gut health. These fiber-rich foods act like prebiotics, feeding your microbiome.
  • Consider adding probiotic foods to your diet. Probiotics support a healthy balance of beneficial bacteria to your gut. Find a tasty yogurt that you like, and keeping your gut healthy will feel like a sweet treat! If dairy isn’t your thing, you can try fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, or sourdough. And probiotic supplements are also a great way to help you find a beneficial balance of gut bacteria.

Minding Your Microbiome

Your microbiome is a complex system that’s ready to help you live your best life. It does so largely through digestive processes, but also by relaying important messages to your brain. Maintaining a happy gut keeps communication along the gut-brain axis flowing. And together, this powerful pair helps support your overall health.

About the Author

Jenna Templeton is a health educator and freelance science writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. After receiving a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Virginia Tech, Jenna spent five years as a research scientist in the nutritional industry. This work fueled her interest in personal wellness, leading her to pursue a graduate degree in Health Promotion & Education from the University of Utah. Outside of work, Jenna enjoys live music, gardening, all things food, and playing in the Wasatch mountains.

References

Agusti A, Garcia-Pardo MP, et al. (2018). “Interplay Between the Gut-Brain Axis, Obesity, and Cognitive Function”. Frontiers in Neuroscience. 12: 155.

Carabotti M, Scirocco A, et al. (2015). “The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems.” Ann Gastroenterol. 28 (2): 203-209.

Bischoff SC. (2011). “‘Gut health: a new objective in medicine?’” BMC Medicine. 9: 24.

Breit S, Kupferberg A, et al. (2018). “Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders.” Frontiers in Psychiatry. 9: 44.

Foster JA, Rinaman L, Cryan JF. (2017). “Stress & the gut-brain axis: Regulation by the microbiome.” Neurobiology of Stress. 7: 124-136.

Houghteling PD, Walker WA. (2015). “Why is initial bacterial colonization of the intestine important to the infant’s and child’s health?” J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 60 (3): 294-307.

Hsiao E. (2013). “Mind-altering Microbes: How the Microbiome Affects Brain and Behavior”. TED Lecture.

Quigley EMM. (2013). “Gut Bacteria in Health and Disease.” Gastroenterol Hepatol. 9 (9): 560-569.

Singh RK, Chang H, et al. (2017). “Influence of diet on the gut microbiome and implications for human health.” J Transl Med. 15: 73.

Young VB. (2017). “The role of the microbiome in human health and disease: an introduction for clinicians.” BMJ. 356:j831.

Your favorite foods take a wild ride after you take a bite. Picture a go-to snack and consider its journey through your digestive system. Take a ripe, juicy apple, for example. The fruit is full of nutrients for your body to use.

But how does that fruit become usable in your body? After all, your blood isn’t pumping microscopic apples through your arteries and veins. Your body is utilizing the chemical compounds that make apples crunchy and sweet.

Those compounds are extracted from your food through the digestive process. It’s the method by which your diet’s fats, sugars, proteins, fiber, and essential vitamins and minerals—as well as other important nutrients—find their way out of the food you eat to power your body. Digestion also removes waste. And this process is constantly going on in your body.

From dinner plate to elimination, the food you eat takes a long trip through your digestive system. Take a look at the path your food will follow as it is digested:

Mouth >> Esophagus >> Stomach >> Small Intestine >> Large Intestine

At each step along the digestive journey, food is modified and broken down into usable pieces. By modeling this system step-by-step, you can gain a better understanding of the fate of your food after it enters your body.

Learn the Language of Digestion

Before exploring the ins and outs of the digestive system, let’s brush up on the vocabulary. Knowing the words associated with the digestive process will make learning about it a piece of cake.

  • Bolus: chewed food mixed with saliva.
  • Pharynx: throat, the space that links the mouth to the esophagus.
  • Sphincter: ring of muscle that controls passage of liquids and solids from one organ to the next.
  • Chyme: mix of broken-down food and digestive juices that leave the stomach and travel through the small intestine.
  • Villi: microscopic, finger-like projections that cover the walls of the intestine.
  • Bilirubin: pigment released as the result of red blood cell degradation.
  • Stool: waste remaining after digestion.

Mouth

Eating is by far the most enjoyable part of the digestive process. Your mouth and tongue encounter foods and beverages of all varieties, textures, and tastes. And together, they begin digestion by breaking up the food you eat into small, easy-to-swallow pieces.

You may think digestion begins the moment you take a bite. But in some case, it starts even before that. The sight, smell, or thought of food can be enough to trigger your salivary reflex. That’s why your mouth waters when you’re hungry. Saliva is also produced with the chewing motion. It moistens and lubricates food, making it easier to swallow.

Think of the apple. In the afternoon, when you need something to tide you over until the evening meal, an apple is a great choice. Just thinking of the crunchy fruit and the sweet, tangy, juice can make your mouth water.

The salivary glands in your mouth secrete saliva, which is rich in the digestive enzyme amylase. Salivary amylase breaks apart starches into two-chain sugars called maltose. This simple sugar will later be broken down further into single glucose molecules that can be used as cellular energy.

The movement of the tongue is also important in the digestive process. After food is chewed up and mixed with saliva, it’s ready to be swallowed. Your tongue molds and mashes food into a bolus and guides it to the back of your throat. As you swallow, the bolus of food is pushed through the pharynx and into the esophagus.

Digestive Tract Fact #1 – The salivary glands in your mouth secrete between one and one-and-one-half liters of saliva every day.

Esophagus

Boluses of food are shuttled from the mouth to the stomach via the esophagus. This key connector is guarded by two sphincters at the upper and lower ends. These round muscles act like purse strings that open and close as you swallow.

Each sphincter works independently. The upper esophageal sphincter ushers in boluses from the pharynx. The lower esophageal sphincter empties the contents of the esophagus into your stomach. It can also open to release gas build-up from the stomach. This causes you to belch.

The force that propels food and drink through the esophagus is called peristalsis. The smooth muscles that line the esophagus undergo regular contractions after a bolus is swallowed. The wave-like movement created by peristalsis continues throughout the digestive tract. The motion pushes food through all phases of digestion, in the stomach, small intestine, and large intestine.

Gravity can also aid in moving a meal through your esophagus. By sitting upright, the food you eat can travel swiftly and comfortably down the esophagus and into your stomach.

Digestive Tract Fact #2 – It takes only eight seconds for a bolus of food to travel from the pharynx, through the esophagus, and into the stomach.

Stomach

As you bite, chew, and swallow, boluses of food are dropped into your stomach. The stomach acts as a storage unit that accepts small packages of food over the course of a meal. A large quantity of food can be quickly stored and then digested over a long period of time.

This is remarkable because, when empty, an adult stomach has a capacity of 75 milliliters. But it can stretch and house up to one liter of food over the course of a meal. That’s over 10 times the starting capacity.

Let’s say you decide to eat more than just an apple. Instead you have yogurt, a turkey sandwich, and some carrots, too. That is a lot of food for your body to store in one sitting. Since your stomach is designed to accommodate full meals, you don’t need to worry about bursting at the seams. Your tummy will take each bite in stride, and process the full meal over the next several hours.

The stomach is a dynamic organ, too. It churns, squeezes, and grinds boluses of food and mixes them with gastric secretions. Peristalsis continues in the stomach and is the driving force for blending food with stomach acid. Stomach secretions help make nutrients available for absorption later in the small intestine.

This digestive juice is powerful hydrochloric acid. It’s strong enough to break apart tightly bound proteins into polypeptide chains (smaller chains of amino acids). It can also eliminate potentially harmful bacteria that may be present in some foods.

Since stomach acid is so potent, its production needs careful supervision. At the start of a meal, gastric function is just starting to warm up and very little stomach acid is secreted. Peristalsis gently begins stretching and squishing the stomach in preparation for incoming food.

In the middle of a meal, peristalsis and stomach acid rev up. Gastric secretions are at an all-time high mid-meal. The muscular stomach is rapidly mixing food and drink with hydrochloric acid. This ensures plenty of fluid in which to break down each bite of food. After food is liquified, it is referred to as chyme.

Peristalsis helps pump chyme into the small intestine while you eat. Once your meal is over, stomach acid secretion comes to a halt. But there may be excess acid. When too much gastric juice remains in the stomach after a meal, irritation of the stomach lining can occur. To protect itself, the stomach adjusts acid production to stay healthy and keep you comfortable.

Stomach contractions continue until all the chyme from the previous meal has entered the small intestine.

Digestive Tract Fact #3 – Stomach rumbles are produced by peristaltic contractions as they move contents through the intestinal tract. They occur during digestion and can continue two hours after the stomach has emptied.

Small Intestine

The small intestine plays the most significant role in the digestive process. And it’s anything but small. At 22 feet (seven meters) long, the small intestine’s primary role is nutrient absorption. Along those 22 feet of digestive “pipe,” several forces combine to optimize small-intestine function.

The lumen (center) of the small intestine is covered in tiny, finger-like tentacles called villi. These densely packed hairs give the mucosa (mucous membrane) of the small intestine a velvety appearance and help their function.

Think of villi like a densely packed carpeting, soaking up every usable nutrient in sight. The purpose of these villi is to increase the surface area of the small intestine. As chyme is further digested, nutrients are absorbed through the villi and transported to the blood stream. A larger surface area means more absorptive space.

Let’s go back to that apple. The fruit-and-stomach-secretion cocktail (chyme) enters the small intestine and mixes with water and other digestive juices like bile. Rhythmic stirring of chyme continues the breakdown of sugars, fats, and proteins from the apple or whatever your previous meal was.

Bile is critical in the digestion of fats into free fatty acids. Bile is composed of water, salts, acids, and lipids. It is a medium in which fats and fat-soluble vitamins can dissolve and be carried into the blood stream via the villi.

Bile also contains bilirubin, a yellow-orange pigment released by red blood cells as they break down. Your body can’t metabolize bilirubin on its own, so it relies on bacteria to help out. When the bacteria in your small intestine chow down on bilirubin, they produce a dark material called sterobilin. This by product gives stool it’s notable brown color.

You also get some help breaking down your food. Microbes in your small intestine do a lot of work to help make fatty acids available for later use. They work alongside secretions from the pancreas (called proteases) that help digest proteins. Proteases break apart complex proteins into peptide chains, then further into individual amino acids.

Now, glucose molecules, amino acids, and free fatty acids are available to be absorbed into the blood stream through the villi.

Digestive Tract Fact #4 – It takes four to five hours for the stomach to completely empty into the small intestine after a meal.

Large Intestine

At end of the journey through the small intestine, most nutrients from digested food have been absorbed. But not everything you eat is an absorbable nutrient. So, what happens to the parts of your food that your body doesn’t need? In the large intestine, undigested material, excess fluids, and mucus all combine to form stool. (There are many more colorful names for it, but stool is the preferred medical term, and what you’ll see moving forward.)

Stool is the solid waste of the digestive process. Believe it or not, your body doesn’t use every particle of food you ingest. Roughage (fiber) travels through the digestive system relatively intact. This is because the digestive enzymes produced in the body cannot break down fiber.

Your snack from earlier, the apple, is a good example of this. The compounds that make the apple skin tough and give the fruit its characteristic crunch pass right through your digestive system with very little nutrient absorption.

Undigested bits of food and fiber accumulate in the large intestine. This final stop on the digestive journey is full of pockets of tissue called haustra. They give the large intestine its puckered appearance. Haustra can stretch to accommodate large amounts of stool as it prepares to leave the body.

The exit of the large intestine and end of the digestive journey—when solid waste is eliminated—is another sphincter called the anus. But in order for stool to leave the digestive tract, it needs a little momentum.

A bowel movement is necessary for your body to expel stool from the large intestine. Very strong peristaltic contractions (the wave-like movements from earlier in the trip through the digestive tract) move stool toward the exit. This creates feelings of pressure in the region and eventually triggers the defecation reflex.

Solid waste is characteristically brown and stinky. You know that bilirubin gives stool its color, but what causes its odor?

If you guessed bacteria are involved, you’re right.

Microbes that reside in the large intestine make a meal of the leftovers from the small intestine. As they interact with stool, gas is created. The smell associated with stool comes from the gases released during the break down of solid waste by bacteria.

Digestive Tract Fact #5 – Stool can sit in the large intestine for up to 48 hours before it is expelled from the body.

Tips for Healthy Digestion

When your digestive system runs smoothly, you feel healthy and comfortable. There are simple ways to keep your tummy in tip top shape.

Let’s start with water.

Ample hydration makes the material in your intestines move easily with each wave of muscle contractions. Drinking plenty of water also helps soften the waste that lurks in your gut. When stool is eventually collected in the rectum, water makes it more comfortable to eliminate.

Fiber also eases digestion.

The complex carbohydrate is bulky and adds weight to stool. Bowel movements are easier to pass when solid waste is heavy. Fiber also absorbs water and softens stool as it travels through the digestive tract. Consider increasing your fiber intake if you notice irregularity in bowel movements. Remember, elimination of solid waste can be different for each person. One study found that normal elimination patterns varied from three times per day to three times per week.

But be careful, adding too much fiber too quickly can have unpleasant consequences. Intestinal gas build-up, bloating, and abdominal discomfort can be the result of ramping up fiber intake too quickly. So, increase the amount of fiber in your diet slowly to maintain intestinal comfort. Look for natural sources of fiber to add to your diet. These include:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Whole grain

Another way to improve digestive health is to take care of the bacteria living in your gut. These microbes do a lot to facilitate healthy digestion. By utilizing probiotics, you can help maintain a healthy balance of intestinal bacteria.

Probiotics support the numbers of helpful microorganisms in your gut. They also aid in nutrient absorption in the small intestine and help break down your food. There is growing evidence to suggest that probiotic supplementation may play a role in supporting immune health, too.

Take a closer look at the digestive system and consider the path your food takes. It is remarkable how your favorite meals are torn apart, liquefied, absorbed, and eventually eliminated by your body. And it’s all to harvest the essential nutrients you need to survive.

So, support your digestive system with lots of water and a high-fiber diet. And make its health (and yours) a priority.

About the Author

Sydney Sprouse is a freelance science writer based out of Forest Grove, Oregon. She holds a bachelor of science in human biology from Utah State University, where she worked as an undergraduate researcher and writing fellow. Sydney is a lifelong student of science and makes it her goal to translate current scientific research as effectively as possible. She writes with particular interest in human biology, health, and nutrition.

It’s often easy to practice gratitude when you’re on the receiving end of life’s greater fortunes. It could be the birth of a healthy baby, getting a promotion at work, or celebrating good health, or winning a major award. It can be trickier to feel grateful during times of hardship or the doldrums of everyday living.

But making a simple shift in attitude can better color your worldview, leading to better mental, emotional, and even physical well-being. In fact, numerous studies have shown that having a general attitude of gratefulness and appreciation improves your overall sense of well-being. Read on to learn about the benefits of gratitude to your mental and physical health. And get easy tips for integrating more gratitude into your life.

Gratitude Improves Your Mental Well-Being

One of the most impactful benefits of regularly practicing gratitude is that it provides an outlet to purge negative thoughts and emotions. Experiments tested what happened when people thought back on three good things that occurred during the day. The results showed significant improvements in subjects’ overall sense of happiness in just a few weeks.

You can do the same with some dedication. Over time, you will notice your frame of mind changes. You will feel small swells of gratitude multiple times a day, and not just in the moments you deliberately reminisce over positive daily events. Obviously, practicing gratitude alone can’t overcome clinical mental illnesses, but living a grateful lifestyle has lasting impacts on your brain and sense of happiness.

Gratitude doesn’t just help fight off down moods and negative emotions. Practicing gratitude helps reduce the number of hormones, like cortisol, your adrenal glands produce in response to psychological or physiological stress by as much as 23 percent. By perceiving life through a more appreciative lens, your parasympathetic nervous system (the calming part) is triggered. This helps combat stress hormone cortisol and perhaps increases the feel-good bonding hormone oxytocin.

Additionally, studies have shown that recognizing your blessings—especially during times of difficulty and strife—can lower rates of post-traumatic stress and help you feel more resilient. That means that even during stressful times, you’re better able to cope.

A shift from negative to positive framing is a large part of why gratitude is so effective at improving mood. Changing your mental focus from negative thoughts and emotions allow you to interpret life as being filled with positive feelings, events, and ideas. Since the positive shines through, you’re able to be more optimistic that good things will be in your future. That’s because you’re more aware of all the positives that exist in your present.

Practicing gratitude also eliminates the toxic practice of comparing yourself to other people whom you might perceive as being more advantaged than you. That helps you have better self-esteem. Being happy with what you have makes it easier to avoid desiring what others have.

Another, less obvious, aspect of mental health is your relationship with others. And yes, gratitude can help improve that area of your life, too. When you’re going through life looking for positive experiences, you’re more likely to be open to new relationships in the first place. Practicing gratitude also helps you see what loved ones do for you and how they add to your life. It makes you more likely to express your appreciation to those around you.

One study found that when romantic partners feel grateful toward one another, it can increase their sense of connectivity and overall satisfaction with the relationship. Other research found that those who were more gracious were more patient and made better decisions. Both of these attributes make for better relationships.

The benefits aren’t temporary, either. Practicing a grateful mindset during a down period will also help reset your mindset, and regularly focusing on your blessings can affect your mood long term.

Gratitude Improves Physical Health

It makes sense that being grateful would positively affect your mental well-being and relationships. But multiple studies have shown that living more appreciatively can also boost your physical health.

One major cause of improved well-being? It turns out that being filled with gratitude makes you take better care of yourself. Those who make gratitude part of their everyday lifestyle have been shown to eat healthier, exercise more, and go to the doctor regularly. Similar to how being grateful increases your patience, it also replenishes your willpower and decision-making skills. So, you can say no to overeating and yes to healthier lifestyle choices.

Beyond making healthier choices, cultivating a sense of gratitude has been shown to improve heart health by positively impacting blood pressure. In another study, researchers followed heart failure patients who weren’t yet experiencing symptoms. They found that patients who regularly wrote down the things they were grateful for had healthier heart rhythms.

The physical benefits of gratitude don’t stop there, either. Gratitude has been shown to have an impact on immune functions. And people who are more thankful also tend to sleep better. Instead of lying awake, ruminating over negative thoughts, focusing on blessings soothes the nervous system. That helps you fall asleep more quickly, sleep better, and sleep for longer. Unsurprisingly, those who practice gratitude also tend to be more alert and have more energy the next day. So, the next time you’re tossing and turning, try counting the good things in your life to help you rest easier.

5 Simple Tips to Become More Thankful

If you’d like to reap the mental and physical benefits of gratitude, try incorporating thankful habits into your everyday lifestyle. Here are five ways to add gratitude to your life:

  1. Write it down. It might seem old-fashioned, but writing down expressions of gratitude helps you stay focused on the goodness at hand. Every day, try creating a gratitude journal—write down three things you’re grateful for and why. You can also send thank you notes, emails, text messages, or letters to those you’re thankful for.
  2. Set some time aside every day to reflect on things you’re thankful for. Even if you don’t take the time to write them down, thinking about or saying aloud what you appreciate will help foster a grateful attitude. This could include having your family members take turns expressing their gratitude at the dinner table, or recalling the good parts of your day while brushing your teeth at night.
  3. Be grateful for the hard times. Perhaps easier said than done, finding the silver lining in times of difficulty can help you cope. Search for a lesson, benefit, or blessing in disguise during a trial. Obstacles are an inevitable part of life, so try your best to find the bright side in everything.
  4. Meditate. Mindfully stay focused on what you have to be grateful for in the present moment and the people who deserve your gratitude. Keeping yourself in tune with the here and now will help you let go of the past and chase away anxieties about the future.
  5. Give compliments. Appreciate a friend’s sense of style? Admire a co-worker’s ability to inspire her teammates? Say so! You’ll feel better for having expressed your gratitude, and people who feel appreciated typically go the extra mile for those around them.

Fully embracing the best parts of life on a daily basis can help you maintain a positive outlook even during tough times. The more you practice looking for the bright spots, the easier it will be to find them. And in the long run, your mental and physical health will thank you for the attitude adjustment.

Hanger (a combination of hunger and anger) is a very real emotional response for some. It rears its ugly head when you’re hungry and food isn’t forthcoming. If you’ve ever experienced hanger, you know the power food has over your mood.

But the impact eating has on your attitude is about more than keeping your belly full. There are important ties between specific nutrients and mood. Those connections deserve exploration. That’s because nutritional remedies can pair well with healthy habits, self-care, professional recommendations, and lifestyle adjustment to help manage your mood.

You can design a diet that keeps you satisfied and helps your body maintain the conditions for a bright mood. And it will help you keep the hanger at bay.

The Basics of Food, Nutrients, and Mood

If you’re wondering why food is important to your mood, blame your brain—mostly. Your body’s command center deals with the demands of running your body. But it’s also pretty demanding, too.

Your brain churns through a lot of energy. It also is a bit of a hedonist—valuing pleasurable reward over almost anything. Food is the key to caloric contentment and also provides pleasure for your brain. Eating triggers the release of important brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters) with ties to mood—especially endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine.

It’s not just your brain, though. The nutritional needs of your whole body can impact how you feel. Even small nutrient insufficiencies can have major consequences. A lack of some micronutrients can start a chain reaction. Enzymes (helper proteins in your body) don’t work as well without vitamins and minerals to aid their activity. When enzymes aren’t in tip-top shape, your mood—and other aspects of your health—can suffer.

That’s probably why adequate nutrition (including supplementation) has been shown in many studies and meta-analyses to support your mood. One specific double-blind experiment tested large doses of nine vitamins against a placebo. After a year, males and females both reported being more agreeable.

Science backs up the ties between food, nutrients, and mood. So, how can you use this knowledge to your advantage? What nutrients and foods should you target? The answers await in this list of mood-supporting nutrients and compounds.

Magnesium for Your Mood

Your whole body needs magnesium. That’s why it’s an essential mineral. But it goes above and beyond, acting as a helper for over 300 enzyme systems in your body. With that widespread impact, there have to be some crossovers with mood management, right?

One such connection between magnesium and mood happens in your brain (no surprise). The mineral acts as a buffer for important receptors in nerve and brain cells. This protective action helps keep these cells healthy.

Magnesium also plays a role in stress responses. It acts as a triple-pronged check on stress responses in your body:

  • In the brain, it helps maintain normal stress-hormone levels.
  • Atop the kidneys, magnesium supports the adrenal glands’ normal response to a hormone that activates cortisol and adrenaline production, which helps support healthy levels of these stress hormones.
  • In the bloodstream, it can act as a blood-brain barrier to maintain a healthy interaction between stress hormones and the brain.

To top it all off, magnesium has ties to maintaining normal, healthy serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is your master mood maintainer and is tied to feelings of happiness.

Find magnesium in green leafy vegetables, whole grains, nuts, meats, and milk. Even some hard water contains variable amounts of this mineral.

Zinc is an Amazing Mood Metal

Like magnesium, zinc is a helper in over 300 enzymes. But the biggest stock of zinc is in your brain’s hippocampus—a major mood center.

Zinc also aids in brain health through its role in cell growth, differentiation, and neural function. It participates in fine-tuning stress responses in your brain and body. Zinc is even important to cell signaling and various brain chemicals.

Studies about memory, learning, and mood have found links between optimal zinc levels and supporting brain health and normal mood maintenance. Don’t miss out on this mineral. You can find zinc in meat, liver, eggs, oysters, and seafood.

In the Mood for B Vitamins

If you get overwhelmed trying to understand the differences between all the B vitamins, there’s a solution. Take a variety of these eight essential vitamins. It won’t help you keep them straight, but many of the B vitamins have been shown to support your mood. So, at least you’ll feel OK about it.

B vitamins are critical in the production of brain chemicals that impact your mood—particularly dopamine and serotonin. Both of those brain chemicals have ties to happiness and pleasure. If you don’t have enough B vitamins (especially B6 and B12) to make adequate amounts of the neurotransmitters, you can start to feel it.

Several B vitamins also help keep your nerves healthy. That’s important for good communication, which plays a role in your overall state of mind. Thiamin (B1) has also been show in studies to support mood.

The B vitamins are scattered throughout the dietary landscape. Find thiamin in brown rice and squash. Riboflavin is in dairy products, spinach, almonds, and broccoli. Beans, bananas, potatoes, meat, and nuts contain vitamin B6. For folate, turn to legumes, asparagus, fortified breakfast cereals, and spinach. And B12 is abundant in seafood, beef, fish, and eggs.

Omega-3s: In Mood, Fat is Your Friend

Your brain is about 60 percent fat. It’s just a fact, because fat—especially essential fatty acids like omega-3s—is what your brain is mainly made out of. And since your brain is largely responsible for your mood, fat has ties to how you feel.

The fatty makeup of your central nervous system is crucial to proper signaling. Omega-3s make up about 20 percent of your brain cell membranes and your nervous system is also composed of a lot of fat. So, keeping those membranes stocked with essential fatty acids help maintain healthy membranes, which helps promote healthy signaling and support a balanced mood.

Your body can’t make enough of the important omega-3s (DHA and EPA) you need. That’s why they’re so important. You’ll have to turn to your diet. Adding more fatty, cold-water fish (think mackerel, salmon, herring, and anchovies) to your meals is a great way to get more omega-3 DHA and EPA.

Caffeine Can Elevate More Than Energy

You don’t want to talk to some people before they’ve had their morning coffee. Blame caffeine.

The world’s most popular natural stimulant has big effects on energy and mood. It revs up the body’s central nervous system and has been doing so for centuries all around the world. The popularity and longevity of this mood-affecting substance says a lot about the power and effectiveness of caffeine. But how does it actually work?

The long explanation involves a lot of brain chemicals and receptors. The short answer is that caffeine supercharges your brain and nervous system. It supports your naturally stimulating chemicals, which helps you stay alert and feeling better about the day.

Make sure to manage your caffeine intake so it doesn’t overstimulate anxieties or throw your sleep schedule out of whack. You can find caffeine in coffee, green and black tea, and chocolate.

Dark Chocolate, Lighter Moods

Reaching for chocolate when you feel down is natural. That’s because it’s the king of mood foods. And turning to dark chocolate has well-studied mood benefits, and is much better for you than milk chocolate.

The more cacao (or cocoa) in the chocolate, the more mood-supporting compounds you’ll find. Anandamide is one. This fatty acid acts as a neurotransmitter that can affect mood. Another, phenylethylamine, is an organic compound that acts like a mood-supporting brain and nervous system chemical.

Be careful with this semi-sweet treat. You’ll still get sugar and lots of fat. But darker chocolate (the higher the percent of cacao or cocoa, the darker the product) has a better balance of beneficial and unhealthy components.

Nutrients and Mood: Other Emerging Compounds

Researchers are constantly evaluating new connections between specific nutrients and mood. They’re picking out different plant compounds found in the diet and throughout world history to explore how they support a healthy, normal mood.

Here’s just a few compounds that have been around for a long time, but have new, emerging research about mood maintenance:

  • Saffron: a vibrant spice made from the saffron crocus flower.
  • Ashwagandha: an important herb used as an herbal preparation in India for thousands of years.
  • Lemon Balm: a common herb in the mint family.

Feed Your Mood

Take charge of your temperament. Pack your diet with foods containing these mood-supporting nutrients. And see how diet decisions can do more than stave off the hanger monster. If you struggle fitting these nutrients in your meals, supplementation is a good alternative—especially for those who may have dietary restraints. Whether through a meal or supplementation, it’s time to give “eating your feelings” a new meaning.

Things seem to pile up, don’t they? And they seem to do so way too often. You’re plugged in, always ready to hear the ding of an email or the vibration of a text message signaling the next task to tackle. This is the new normal.

You’ve found ways to be productive. Mostly because there’s no alternative. But productivity doesn’t always equal happiness. Churning through task after task can allow stress to build up without release. And constantly being “on” can become overwhelming.

If that sounds familiar, you aren’t alone. The World Health Organization has called stress the “epidemic of the 21st century.” Research has shown that mismanaged or ignored stress can lead to serious issues.

But that doesn’t have to be your life.

Learning ways to decompress and finding stress-free moments in everyday life is important for long-term health. So how do you maneuver what’s next on the to-do list and discover ways to sneak a few necessary deep breaths?

There are plenty of avenues that have shown to be effective. And science backs them up in more ways than one. The slideshow below has eight stress management tips to help you decompress — because it’s vital to your everyday well-being.

1. Take a Break

In the moment, taking a break might seem like the last thing you want to do. You’re hardwired to power through the rigors of your responsibilities. But stopping and stepping away is crucial. That’s because even brief gaps are known to be stress-reducers.

So, lock your phone. Close your laptop. Get up from your desk. Take a walk outside. Dive into something else during your break. And “getting fresh air” isn’t just a catchphrase—taking some time outdoors is proven to help you decompress in your most needed moments.

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2. Hear the Keys: Classical Music Helps

At first, it might seem a bit odd, but listening to classical music in times of stress helps soothe the mind. The tinkling piano keys and sweeping strings may help manage stress.

An experiment in 2000 in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine measured the effects of classical music on attention, relaxation, and stress responses. Those who listened to music after stress exposure reported more relaxation.

Another study showed that those who listen to classical music had significantly lower blood pressure levels than those who did not. The calming sounds aided in stress management and led directly to what everyone seeks: a bit of tranquility.

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3. Limit Screen Time

Sounds impossible to break away from your screen, right? For most, it is. Your life is ingrained into every screen you own and operate.

It’s been shown that too much time staring at screens can lead to headaches and sleep issues. One report blames the light from backlit screens for interfering with the body’s natural ability to wind down before sleep. If your sleep is disturbed, it leads to more issues and can make it harder to deal with your everyday stressors.

Here’s a tip to help out: At night—at least two hours before bedtime—put the phone or tablet away.

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4. Exercise to Change Things Up

If you’re having a tough time managing your stress, get your brain fixated on something else. And exercise is a great escape. That could be mean time spent on the elliptical machine or playing recreational sports with friends. Running for an allotted time gives you a break and produces endorphins (helpful hormones in your brain), too.

One study found exercise can reduce short-term stresses. It also helps you decompress ahead of the normal everyday life responsibilities you have after leaving the gym or field.

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5. Talk it Out—But Listen, Too

Finding a way to clear the mind is a crucial part of everyday life. That’s because it’s a very important way to limit stress. And sometimes the best way to clear your mind is to let those stressful feelings spill out of your mouth. It’s a much better alternative than letting the stress and tension build up to unhealthy levels.

Talking it out is great, but focusing outside of yourself is important, too. Listening and helping others solve problems focuses your energy away from your stresses onto solutions. You’ll also get perspective on your life and the satisfaction of doing good. That’s why helping out a friend or loved one is a solid plan. Being a sounding board for those in your life who need a little guidance can go a long way—for you, and for them.

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6. Eat Right, Feel Great

Mom was right. Less candy, more veggies. All the sugary or fatty, carb-filled comfort foods aren’t a long-term solution. But a well-balanced diet supports a healthy immune system, stable energy levels, and more pleasant overall demeanor.

One report declares that roughly 95 percent of receptors for serotonin (a chemical tied to happiness) are found in the lining of your gut. So, feed them. Don’t skip meals and treat yourself to healthy foods.

Also, if you’re looking for ways to decompress, cut back on caffeine. Limit coffee, energy drinks, and tea. Too much caffeine can spur anxious feelings and restlessness. Staying hydrated—6-to-8 glasses of water each day—is key, too.

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7. Laugh it Up

Movies, shows, or jokes that get you chuckling go further than the initial gut-buster. That kind of joyful reaction is proven to be a positive for those battling various stresses. There’s no better way to decompress than laughing, or even smiling, for that matter.

A study showed that positive facial expressions influenced the body’s response to stress. Laughter has proven to shrink stress responses and stimulates your heart, lungs and body muscles.

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8. Chew Gum. No, Seriously

A stick of gum can make a world of difference. And not just to mask what you ate for lunch.

An intervention study examined the effects of gum and work-related stress. It found that chewing gum at work and outside the workplace reduced anxious or down feelings, fatigue, and actually put people in a better mood. How about that? There’s no data yet on also blowing bubbles.

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Start Using These Stress Management Tips

There are clearly plenty of ways to manage stress. You’ve just seen eight good ones. So, when you have those familiar stressful moments, remember that there are a number of different solutions. Bookmark this list so you have quick access to routine fixes—backed by scientific evidence—that can bring your everyday stress down a notch.

Mood can be hard to predict. It may seem like the product of circumstance or experience. But your mood and mood triggers are much more complex. Stressors spark an emotional response in the body with the help of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals that carry messages) and hormones. So, brain chemistry is just as responsible for your emotions and types of mood as life events.

Learn how emotions are created in your brain. And give yourself the tools you need to master your mood.

Memory and Mood Triggers: The Anatomy of the Limbic System

The brain is a powerful, multi-functional organ. It has a lot of work to do all at once because it’s your body’s command center. Each area houses specialized brain cells (neurons) that perform certain tasks. The section of brain in charge of mood is located at the core—right in the middle of all the activity. It’s called the limbic system.

This network of neurons houses your emotional center and is responsible for managing your mood. The location of the limbic system is essential to its function. Many pieces of the brain work together in the limbic system. Most notable are the hippocampus and amygdala.

Hippocampus

The hippocampus is located at the center of the brain and branches into both hemispheres. The word hippocampus means “sea horse” in Greek and is thought to refer to its unique shape. While its shape may have little to do with its function, your memory has everything to do with the hippocampus. That’s because long-term memories are stored there.

The tie to long-term memory makes the hippocampus crucial to learning. In this part of the brain, bits and pieces of short-term memory are consolidated and stored away. Sensory information, like taste and smell, is bound to long-term memory in the hippocampus. This link is strengthened as the events associated with taste or smell are repeated.

Smells are the most effective at recalling information from long-term memory. Distinctive scents can remind you of places you’ve visited or people you know. Experiencing smells linked to positive memories can even elevate your mood.

Take, for instance, the smell of your mother’s perfume. After a hug or a kiss from your mom you can smell her perfume strongly. You also feel her love when she shows you how much she cares for you.

The next time you go shopping at a department store, you walk passed a vendor selling the same fragrance your mother wears. Just a whiff of that perfume can be enough to evoke the memory of the last time you were with your mom. That is because your brain has tied the scent of her perfume to your memory of her.

Remembering your mother and how much she loves you puts you in a better mood. All thanks to your hippocampus and the inner workings of your limbic system.

Neurogenesis (creation of brain cells from stem cells) also takes place in the hippocampus. New brain cells maintain brain plasticity and help you learn new things. As brain cells are formed, so are opportunities for your hippocampus to link sensory information to what you learn.

Amygdala

The amygdala sits next to the hippocampus and also influences memory. But the amygdala doesn’t tie sensory information to memories. It links emotions.

The amygdala gauges how memories are stored based on the strength of emotions attached to the memory. Memories filled with strong emotion are easily recalled, while experiences with little emotion or excitement fade away.

Imagine competing in a spelling bee at school. You and the other participants are asked to spell a series of words until a mistake is made. Mistakes in spelling bees result in elimination from the competition. At the beginning, the words you need to spell are simple and familiar. As you advance, the words you are given become more complex.

If you advance far in the spelling bee, you may have a difficult time recalling what words you were asked to spell in the beginning. But if you are eliminated late in the game or even win, you are certain to remember your last word. The excitement of making it far in the competition will ensure it stays locked in your memory for a long time.

This is similar to how the amygdala works in the limbic system. Events with little emotional significance like the easy words in the spelling bee aren’t kept in memory. But moments woven with powerful emotion (like the last word you completed before winning the spelling bee) stick out.

The next time you hear or see that winning word, you might experience a rush of pride and excitement. That is your amygdala working full force.

The Chemistry of Mood

Hormones and neurotransmitters (those important chemical messengers) work in the limbic system and throughout the body. They generate the emotions you experience throughout the day. These compounds work in tandem with the events in your life to trigger your many types of mood.

Serotonin

This neurotransmitter is the master mood regulator. Serotonin works with receptors in the brain to elevate mood, sharpen memory, and promote healthy sleep habits.

Serotonin is produced in the brain and all along the digestive tract. The precursor to serotonin is tryptophan. This amino acid is commonly found in high-protein foods like turkey, eggs, and cheese.

Serotonin works to regulate your mood. It functions in the body to elicit feelings of happiness and well-being. The master mood regulator facilitates communication between neurons and controls the intensity of signals.

Some physiological circumstances may alter the hormone’s availability to your brain. Low availability of serotonin may cause feelings of sadness, lethargy, and sleepiness. When plenty of serotonin is available to the brain, you feel alert and content.

There is evidence to suggest a relationship between serotonin and appetite. Healthy levels of serotonin may help your body recognize when it is full and prevent overeating. Serotonin can also minimize cravings for sweet and starchy foods.

To make serotonin more available in your body, try eating foods rich in tryptophan and get a good amount of exercise. Physical activity is thought to increase the function of serotonin in your brain and can reduce stress.

Cortisol

To understand how the hormone cortisol affects mood, it’s important to learn about stress. The first thing to know debunks a common misconception. Not all stress is bad. In fact, stress drives you to eat and sleep. Stress keeps your brain goal-oriented and motivated to complete tasks.

Eustress (good stress) and distress (bad stress) both trigger the release of cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol initiates an urgent fight-or-flight emotional reaction in the wake of stressful events. When circumstances of eustress cause cortisol levels to rise, you may feel invigorated, alert, and determined. As the stressor passes, cortisol levels return to normal and your mood adjusts accordingly.

But in times of distress, cortisol levels rise and stay high—even after the distress passes. This increase in stress hormone can be triggered by the loss of a loved one, illness, sudden unemployment, etc. Feelings of uneasiness, tension, and anxiety accompany a rise in cortisol.

Luckily, there are measures you can take to keep cortisol from dampening your mood. Exercise provides an outlet for pent up feelings of fight-or-flight. Talking with loved ones and socializing with friends can help the amount of cortisol in the blood return to normal. These activities can combat the anxiety and fatigue caused by distress and help you move forward. 

Oxytocin

Known as the “love hormone,” oxytocin is a powerful player in your mood. Oxytocin is produced in the brain by the hypothalamus. Not to be confused with the hippocampus, the hypothalamus is another portion of the brain that works in the limbic system. Hormone regulation takes place in the hypothalamus.

The love hormone is distributed throughout the body by the pituitary gland. Blood levels of oxytocin rise after experiences like the birth of a child, the beginning of a relationship, and physical touch.

Oxytocin creates feelings of love and trust. That’s where the name “love hormone” comes from. The presence of this hormone in your blood helps you form emotional attachments to loved ones—friends, family, even pets. Oxytocin can also relieve physical discomfort by helping your body maintain a sense of calm and well-being during times of physical stress.

Activities that increase the amount of available oxytocin in your body can help elevate your mood. Singing to your children, embracing a loved one, breastfeeding, intimacy with a partner, and social interactions all contribute to increased oxytocin. Understanding how to supply your body with the love hormone helps you take advantage of its calming and peaceful benefits.

Creating a Positive Mood

Awareness of how mood is managed by your brain can help you take steps to improve your mood daily. That’s because a lot of emotional balance and types of mood are determined by brain chemistry. So, look for ways to reduce stress hormones, like cortisol, and increase the availability of serotonin and oxytocin. Research suggests that meditation, physical activity, and laughter can all boost your mood.

Here’s how each of these activities work scientifically as mood triggers:

Meditation

When stressors arise (as they always do), your body shifts into fight-or-flight territory. It prepares you to battle the stressor or run from it. The heightened cortisol levels associated with this response lead to feelings of anxiety and nervousness. You may notice your heart pounding and palms beginning to sweat. To quell the nerves brought on by stress, consider meditating.

Meditation is different for everyone, but one goal is common—stress reduction. Start by taking slow, steady, deep breaths. Forcing your body to regain composure after a stressful event can keep cortisol levels from rising out of control. Concentrate on positive thinking and fill your mind with thoughts that will lift your spirits.

Exercise

Physical activity is extremely effective in elevating mood. Regular exercise provides you with the opportunity to unplug for a good chunk of time and achieve health and fitness goals. Improvements in physical fitness over time boost self-esteem and increase confidence.

Serotonin levels may also be linked to exercise. Daily activity is believed to increase serotonin in the brain and elevate mood. In addition, sleep improves with exercise. This could be due to the fact that exercise makes your body tired, thus helping you sleep more soundly.  And many people enjoy a happier mood after a good night’s sleep.

Laughter

It’s been said that laughter is the best medicine. And it does wonders for mood, too. A good laugh eases physical tension by increasing oxygen flow to the brain and body. Humor can help alleviate discomfort by sending a surge of endorphins (hormones that act as natural pain killers) into your blood stream. As a result, your mood improves.

Like exercise, laughter releases built-up muscle tension. Relaxing tight muscle groups can alleviate some of the physical signs of stress and focus you on creating a positive mood.

Applying the Science of Mood

Your mood is multifaceted and influenced by a variety of factors. The combination of circumstance and biochemistry make your emotions vary from day to day. Learning how your brain works to regulate your mood can make you more equipped to tackle stress without taking an emotional roller coaster ride. And by understanding how to maintain a healthy balance of hormones and neurotransmitters, you can take steps each day to manage your mood.

About the Author

Sydney Sprouse is a freelance science writer based out of Forest Grove, Oregon. She holds a bachelor of science in human biology from Utah State University, where she worked as an undergraduate researcher and writing fellow. Sydney is a lifelong student of science and makes it her goal to translate current scientific research as effectively as possible. She writes with particular interest in human biology, health, and nutrition.

As the sun recedes, nighttime approaches. The light fades and the darkness crawls in. It welcomes you to do the same: crawl into your bed and retire for the night. The darkness is like a blanket. Tuck into its warmth and the outside world quiets, allowing your internal world to do the same.

If you’re like many these days, though, turning in for the night is not so simple. It’s become increasingly difficult to put the phone (or other tech device) away when the nighttime beckons. And the next morning is no different. Modern life is built around technology. It’s likely become integral to how you work and interact with others. And unfortunately, even bedtime and morning routines are no longer exempt from technology’s touch.

Phone to Bed, Phone to Rise

Whether it’s morning, noon, or night, it seems the smart phone or another tech device isn’t far. Many rely on phones to tell them when to wake up and even remind them when to go to bed. Many doing desk jobs find that work revolves around a screen. Computers keep people connected to colleagues, provide easy communication, and keep schedules organized.

It doesn’t stop at the office exit doors. Recreation and relaxation have come to center around technology. Increasing internet speeds, accessibility of streaming video, and game consoles have started to monopolize how people choose to spend their downtime.

Completely freeing yourself from screens would be hard—and unnecessary. There’s nothing inherently wrong with enjoying screen-based entertainment. But indulging for hours, especially at night, could harm your body’s natural circadian rhythm.

This disruption can throw off your sleep schedule. Turning in later not only decreases the quantity of sleep, but likely the quality, too. But why? How is ticking away the hours with your phone different than curling up with a book (a paperback, not an e-book)? Let’s find out how technology affects sleep. Dive into the science behind blue light, the body’s sleep process, and how they interact.

The Blues of Blue Light

Your ancestors lived by the sun. As it rose, they awoke. As it set, they turned in and slept. Before electricity, the world went dark with the disappearance of the sun, save for some candlelight. This means the human body became accustomed to the rhythms of light and dark. Internal processes adapted to match what was happening in the external world.

When lightbulbs lit up the world stage, things began to change. Humans no longer had a reason to turn in early, because light could be created at will. But the lightbulb’s glow was different than the blue light emitted by digital screens.

But what exactly is blue light? Natural sunlight is white light. But if broken down into its components, you’ll find the rainbow: violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. Each of these types of light have a different energy and wavelength. Light on the bluer end of the spectrum carries higher energy in shorter wavelengths.

Sunlight is blue-heavy, so this energetic light keeps you awake and alert. In fact, blue light actually suppresses your body’s secretion of melatonin, the sleep hormone. This is why your body naturally wants to wake up in the morning. Dusk is the opposite. As the sun recedes, the residual light is steeped in red (lower energy, longer wavelength). This means red light has the opposite effect of blue, and doesn’t suppress melatonin. So, it doesn’t interfere with your natural circadian rhythm.

Screens are the Key to How Technology Affects Sleep

Now that you have an understanding of blue light as it relates to natural sunlight, it’s time to shift the focus to artificial, screen-based lights.

Screens (your phone, tablet, computer, or television) emit blue light that interact with cells deep behind the eyes. In simplest terms, when your eyes take in blue light, a couple of things happen. These cells express a protein that goes on to communicate with a specific part of the brain. Together, these events help synchronize your circadian rhythm with the sun.

Basically, when you take in blue light, your brain tells you it’s time to wake up or stay awake. With this knowledge, the impact of screens on the quality and cycles of your sleep starts to become clear. And the question of whether time with a screen or behind a book is better is no longer a mystery.

Let’s drive this point home with some scientific research.

In a small study, researchers divided individuals into three groups and asked them to interact with a digital tablet for two hours before bed. Group 1 wore goggles fitted with blue-emitted LEDs. This was known as the “true positive” group, since blue light is known to suppress melatonin. Group 2 wore orange-tinted glasses to filter out blue light (the “dark control” group). Group 3 weren’t given goggles or glasses.

The findings were enlightening.

After two hours of light exposure, participants in groups 1 and 3 experienced significant reduction in melatonin levels compared to the dark control group. Compare this experiment to a real-life example, like a two-hour long feature film. If you go to a late evening showing (without your orange-tinted goggles), the movie will likely affect your melatonin levels and discourage your body from readying itself for sleep.

Does Blue Light Mean a Blue Mood?

Perhaps this isn’t news to you. You may already intuitively understand that excessive time behind a screen isn’t natural or especially healthy. But are you aware of the emotional effects blue light—both too much and too little—can have? Getting the right amount of light, at the right time is key for maintaining your mood.

Shift work (graveyard shifts) and jet lag give glimpses into the effect of light (or lack thereof) on mood. Those who work late and sleep during the day often experience shifts in mood or irritability. Likewise, those who travel across time zones struggle adjusting to a new sleeping schedule. Temporary insomnia imposed by travel can leave you feeling edgy, exhausted, and emotionally off kilter.

Additionally, those who experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) struggle with shorter days with shorter periods of natural light. Some find comfort with SAD lamps, or light therapy. Light therapy is a possible treatment for SAD.

Light therapy is simple and can be done at home. A light therapy box (or SAD lamp) emits bright light that mimics the wavelength of natural light. Flooding the face and eyes with this bright light can help offset some of the mood shifts that come with the lack of natural light in the winter months. It can also help those who struggle with some sleep disorders, or adjusting to a graveyard shift.

Animal studies have offered additional clues. Researchers have noticed anxious and depressive symptoms in mice forced to live in constant light or constant darkness. While “constant light” might sound uplifting, consider your newfound knowledge. It also means constant blue light. That means that the eyes and brain are constantly stimulated, making rest hard to come by.

When you extrapolate similar conditions to humans, it’s not hard to imagine similar consequences. Humans experience the same affects under constant blue light. You need light to play and you seek darkness for rest.

Loosening Blue Light’s Grip on Your Sleep

Technology is the future, and screens are not going away anytime soon—if ever. It’s a fair assumption that most don’t want to risk social isolation by foregoing screens completely. Luckily, you can stay plugged in without damaging your physical and emotional wellness. Take a look at some ideas for finding a healthy balance:

  • Limit or eliminate your screen usage at a certain time. Remember the two-hour tablet study. Try turning off (or putting away) your devices more than two hours before bed. Going cold turkey might be hard. Try doing this in 30-minute increments, increasing the time before bed as you get more comfortable.
  • Swap out your wind-down activities. Opt for something that soothes, rather than excites your brain. This could be reading, journaling, or walking. Any activity that doesn’t involve, or at least doesn’t depend on, a screen to function, will do.
  • Add a blue-light filter to all of your devices. If you use Apple products, open the control center from your home screen. You might be familiar with the brightness icon, which allows you to control the intensity of light coming out of your screen. However, if you firmly hold down on the button, a new view will appear. Tap the button below the brightness meter (the image is a moon inside a sun). Turning this on will filter out most of the blue light. If you’re using a laptop or desktop, look up applications that provide the same function. Google Chrome has various extension options (like “Screen Shader”). You can also download an app like “f.lux.”

Screens might be here to stay, but that doesn’t mean they must rule the entirety of your days and nights. Armed with this new information about how technology affects sleep, all you need is a little bit of forethought and planning to reclaim a regular, restful routine. Maybe a tip from the list above resonates with you. Or you can find something better that integrates to your life. Either way, it’s possible to balance your screen usage and limit your exposure to blue light.

About the Author

Jenna Templeton is a health educator and freelance science writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. After receiving a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Virginia Tech, Jenna spent five years as a research scientist in the nutritional industry. This work fueled her interest in personal wellness, leading her to pursue a graduate degree in Health Promotion & Education from the University of Utah. Outside of work, Jenna enjoys live music, gardening, all things food, and playing in the Wasatch mountains.