Ever heard the expression ‘go with your gut’ or experienced something so ‘gut wrenching’? It’s not uncommon for many people to experience a dodgy belly in times of stress or a ‘funny tummy’ before a big assignment or an interview but emotions and tummy troubles all seem too much of a coincidence, right? Well, you are not wrong! Research suggests that the connection between the gut and the brain is more influential on your mental health than we may have previously thought. One in four of us will experience mental health issues but scientists have found that by increasing the good bacteria in your gut you can mitigate the risk of suffering with certain mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.
The connection between the gut and brain
The gut-brain connection is a complex two-way network involving your nervous system, the immune system, and neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitter chemicals are produced in your brain and your gut. These are essential messengers in the gut-brain system and contain hormones such as serotonin (the happy hormone), responsible for your emotional well-being and mental health. As serotonin is produced in the gut (90% of it in fact), it’s important to look after your gut to increase serotonin production.
The gut is your gastrointestinal tract and is made up of approximately 400 to 500 types of bacteria (microbiome), both good and bad bacteria that are essential to our functioning as humans. These bacteria are crucial for the breakdown of food, absorption of vitamins and minerals, and production of hormones. The gut is responsible for the production of serotonin (that happy hormone) which influences our mood and sleep. Scientists have identified specific gut bacteria that are associated with certain mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. Gut bacteria also produces the neurotransmitter GABA which is proven to reduce stress, anxiety, and fear, therefore it is possible those suffering from chronic anxiety may have lower levels of GABA due to a lack of the specific bacteria. A study found in the Nature Microbiome Article found that people who suffer from depression had fewer types of gut bacteria Dialister and Coprococcus in their guts. Highly processed foods that produce bad bacteria can cause an inflammatory response in the body, leading to an increase in the stress hormone, cortisol, which can trigger anxiety, depression, and panic disorder. Therefore, it is essential to find balance and moderation of your beloved maccies and KFC in your diets as they might be the culprits for bad mental health.
How to look after your gut:
1. Eat a range of foods including all of the food groups – cutting out a food group such as carbs can cause an imbalance in the gut.
2. Increase fruit, vegetable, and legume intake – this acts as fuel for the bacteria to break down
4. Eat foods rich in polyphenols – polyphenols are antioxidant chemicals found in foods such as dark chocolate, blueberries, or green tea which reduce stress and inflammation in the body, allowing for maximum serotonin production to boost your mood.
5. Increase prebiotic consumption – most prebiotics are found in fruit and vegetables however a prebiotic supplements can help sustain a healthy gut.
6. Increase probiotic consumption – most probiotics are found in fermented foods such as Kefir, Sauerkraut, Kimchi, Yogurt. These foods contain millions of good bacteria for the gut.
7. Reduce artificial sweetener consumption – the body struggles to digest these types of products as the body does not have the enzymes to breakdown these types of chemicals .
8. Try to reduce high levels of stress in your everyday life- unfortunately, stress is an inevitable part of life however long-term and frequent stress disrupts the gut which prohibits the production of neurotransmitters, pro-longing low mental state.
Effects of looking after your gut
By taking those steps to improve your gut health by reducing your consumption of highly processed foods or adding a yogurt to your breakfast it is possible to notice improved mental health. By improving gut health bacteria can thrive in a happy and diverse microbiome. Good gut health can level out the imbalance of good and bacteria and restore the imbalance of specific bacteria associated with anxiety and depression. This will maximise the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin. By maximising the production of neurotransmitters, it is possible that an individual can experience a higher and more stable moods. Not only does good gut health reduce the risk of the development of mental health conditions but increases the absorption of vitamins. Vitamin D, this mighty little vitamin, known as the sunshine vitamin, has been found to reduce chronic fatigue, depression, seasonal affective disorder, and lethargic low mood.
There is still a long road to fully understanding the relationship between gut health and mental health as it is a relatively new area of science however it is certain that the connection is there and by making small changes in our diets, we can see big changes in our mental health.