Millions of people around the world suffer from mental disorders like anxiety and depression, and the general understanding of mental wellbeing as a whole continues to improve by the day. Although mental illness is largely understood to be rooted in genetics and brain chemistry, research is finding that there is also a connection between mental health and something seemingly unrelated: the gut.
The gut and brain “talk” to each other through both physical nerves and chemical interactions, including hormones and neurotransmitters. For this reason, the gut is often considered your “second brain.”
But how can the gut alter the way things like anxiety affect your daily life, and vice versa? Experts say the answer is rooted in the bacteria that live in the gut and the complex system of microorganisms, called the microbiota, found there.
Understanding the gut microbiota
Inside your intestines resides the microbiota, an ecosystem of microorganisms like bacteria, viruses and fungi. Although bacteria often get a bad rap, certain types of bacteria are necessary for the health of your gut and, by extension, your body as a whole.
Microbial imbalances can have a variety of negative effects, including gastrointestinal issues like IBS, skin infections, reduced immunity and more. These imbalances often occur due to antibiotics, which remove all types of bacteria, not just the harmful ones; stress, which can kill off bacteria; and poor diet, which allows harmful bacteria and other microorganisms to thrive.
Recent research has uncovered that the bacteria inside your gut may also play a role in the symptoms of mental disorders. It is believed that by keeping your gut healthy, you may be able to improve your mental health. Researchers refer to this phenomenon as the “gut-brain axis.”
The connection between brain and gut
When your microbiome is disrupted, whether due to medications, stress, poor diet or another cause, harmful bacteria have the opportunity to flourish, potentially overgrowing and throwing off the delicate balance inside the gut. This can lead to a number of problems, including inflammation throughout the body and “leaky gut,” or intestinal permeability. These issues disrupt the messages sent between the brain and the gut.
Additionally, studies have shown that certain types of beneficial bacteria can help create neurotransmitters that are instrumental for mental wellbeing. If the gut microbiota is disrupted and these beneficial bacteria are few in numbers, the body and brain may not be producing adequate chemicals to allow for stable mental health.
Disruptions in the gut microflora may not only lead to worsened symptoms of depression and anxiety, either. The problem could also be linked to disorders like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and more.
Similarly, mental health can also affect the gut! Chronic stress is one common factor in microbial death and gut imbalances, and anxiety and depression can create this symptom. Stress and mental distress can also send signals to the gut, leading to the notorious stress-induced stomachache, nausea or bowel distress.
Improving gut and mental health in one
Taking good care of your gut health is important to minimize symptoms of mental disorders, as well as promote total-body wellness. Improving the health of your gut microbiome is not as difficult as it sounds—it mostly consists of paying attention to what you eat and incorporating probiotic foods into your diet.
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that help restore balance to the gut and help it perform optimally. Live probiotics can be found in a variety of fermented foods like kimchi and yogurt, as well as in supplement powders and capsules.
Eating prebiotic foods or supplements can also help. Prebiotics include fiber that helps probiotics thrive in the gut.
Maintaining a healthy diet is also crucial for both gut and mental health. Processed and sugary junk foods are known to reduce gut health and allow for the overgrowth of harmful bacteria. They can also cause direct problems with mental health and mood, aside from the indirect symptoms caused by gut bacteria disruption.
Aim to eat balanced meals that incorporate lean protein, leafy vegetables, complex carbohydrates and ancient grains. Try to incorporate probiotic and prebiotics foods, as well.
Additionally, people experiencing chronic stress, anxiety or depression should seek direct treatment for their mental health ailments in order to promote a healthier gut. Stress relief methods like yoga and meditation, as well as anxiety-reducing supplements or medication may help reduce distress in the colon and lead to a happier and more comfortable life.