There’s something emotionally calming about sitting down with a slice of pizza or a bowl of mac and cheese (and science actually proves that comfort food can soothe feelings of loneliness). But, those classic comfort foods are full of refined grains, and. usually aren’t giving your body the antioxidants, B vitamins, and fiber that it needs. That’s what whole grains are for.
Research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that eating whole grains may help balance levels of serotonin — the feel-good, mood-stabilizing hormone — in your body. These are all of the ways in which your body can thrive off of whole grains, plus how they can help regulate your gut health, blood sugar, and mood (and how to eat more of them).
What Are the Benefits of Whole Grains in Your Meal Plan?
Nourishing the Gut
Eating whole grains is actually associated with lower levels of serotonin in the gut, study author Pekka Keski-Rahkonen, Ph.D., explains. And even though the hormone is commonly associated with mental well-being, 95% of it is said to be produced in the gut, and just five percent in the brain.
“The role of serotonin in the brain has been studied a lot, but its signaling roles in the peripheral tissues are not clear yet,” Dr. Keski-Rahkonen explains.
We know from this research that thanks to whole grains, less serotonin in the gut can help keep your metabolism going at regular speed and can even help prevent type 2 diabetes. Studies have also shown that normal levels of serotonin in the gut contribute especially to immune health by reducing inflammation, but it’s unclear if there’s a connection between the serotonin produced in the gut and that produced in the brain, Keski-Rahkonen says.
The Mystery of the Gut-Brain Connection
“When it comes to the gut-brain connection, it is more likely that a number of factors influence mental health, with the production of serotonin being just one of them,” Maggie Luther, ND and Care/of’s medical director and formulator, says.
The brain and digestive system are connected by a nerve called the vagus nerve, and that’s most likely how serotonin travels between the brain and gut, Luther explains.
“When serotonin is released into the gut, the vagus nerve can be stimulated through serotonin receptors, and the brain can respond accordingly in regard to mood, appetite cravings, fullness, and more,” she explains.
It’s not necessarily more serotonin that’s better for the gut or for the brain, Luther says, but it’s a balance that’s key for stable mental health. From this research, it’s actually better to keep your blood sugar balanced with less serotonin in the gut. Too much serotonin in the gut could alter communication with the vagus nerve and cause either mood imbalances or food cravings, Luther adds.
Though research is still being done on the gut-brain connection, it’s likely that a healthy gut (which whole grains can help produce) contributes to a healthy mental state.
How to Incorporate More Whole Grains Into Your Diet
Serotonin production is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to mental health. It turns out that whole grains on their own may stabilize your mood in other ways, too.
“Whole grains like oat bran, wild rice, and bulgur are gluten-free sources of tyrosine, another neurotransmitter that can help regulate mood,” Kristin Koskinen, RDN, LD, CD, and the owner of Eat Well, Live Well, says.
They also contain an array of B vitamins, which are notorious for boosting energy and mood. Eating a wide variety of whole grains will provide you with more B vitamins, Koskinen adds.
One gluten-free grain to keep on your radar is buckwheat.
“It’s rich in the antioxidants rutin and quercetin, the latter of which has been shown to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress,” Koskinen says.
Plus, in just one cup of buckwheat, there are 17 grams of fiber and 23 grams of protein, along with a solid amount of magnesium, iron, and B vitamins. You probably won’t eat it plain, but you can grind it into flour to use for gluten-free baked goods, pancakes, or waffles, Koskinen suggests. Or, if you’re a fan of cold noodle bowls or pho, you can add soba noodles, which are made from buckwheat, to your bowl.
Another heart-healthy whole grain you should be eating more of is oats.
“Old-fashioned oats can be used to make homemade granola, ground into flour for muffins, used to make overnight oats, or added into smoothies for easy breakfast options,” Koskinen says.
But if you want to experiment beyond the typical oats and quinoa (perhaps with bulgur or farro), go for it. You can buy many whole grains in bulk at your local market and serve them as a warm side in lieu of white rice, or as a cold side salad (with fresh herbs, chopped red onion, and cucumber).
If you decide to cook them, remember that a grain-to-water ratio of about one to two is ideal so ensure that they’re not soggy. Koskinen advises cooking the grains in bone broth for extra immune system, gut health, and collagen perks. Regardless of which whole grain you’re choosing or how you prepare it, it’s contributing to your good digestive health, and hopefully your mental health as well.