How Your Gut Health Affects Your Mental Health

Recent years have seen a growing awareness of mental health issues, and, thankfully, more open conversations about addressing psychological challenges.

Recent years have seen a growing awareness of mental health issues, and, thankfully, more open conversations about addressing psychological challenges. However, many people remain unaware of new, exciting research on the connection between gut health and mental health. The connection between your digestive system and your brain can have a profound influence on your mental health, thanks to the complex communication network that exists between the two.

 

The Gut-Brain Axis

It may initially seem like a stretch to say your gut health affects your mood. So, let’s take a step back to look at the key terms. Your body’s organs do not exist in isolation, but rather are connected through complex networks that enable communication. Neurons are central to this process. They facilitate the communication between your brain and the rest of your body, everything from muscle reflexes, digestion to thoughts and emotions.

Neurotransmitters are the body’s chemical messengers, responsible for transmitting messages from neuron to neuron. When it comes to our mood regulation, an imbalance of certain neurotransmitters can result in mood disorders. Serotonin is one of these powerful neurotransmitters that regulates your mood, and a shortfall of serotonin can lead to depression.

 

The vagus nerve

Your gut contains over 500 of these neurons, all sending messages to your brain via your nervous system. One of the largest connections within the nervous system is the vagus nerve (also called the pneumogastric nerve), which sends two-way messages between your brain and your digestive system. The vagus nerve is part of the Enteric Nervous System(ENS), which controls your basic bodily functions like digestion and breathing. The ENS consists of the parasympathetic nervous system, which works to slow them down, and the sympathetic nervous system, which kicks in when there’s a threat or crisis and speeds up bodily functions. A good way to remember the difference is that the sympathetic nervous system works for “flight or fight” responses, and the parasympathetic is “rest and digest” responses.

Disturbances in the balance between the two can lead to physical problems that are triggered by a psychological component - like stress triggering IBS symptoms. The vagus nerve helps with the “rest and digest” side, and helps to slow down the flight or fight responses that can wreak havoc on mental and physical health. Studies show that poor vagal tone can lead to difficulties regulating emotional responses.

 

The microbiome connection

Your gut is also a microbiome for trillions of microbes, which are bacteria, fungi and even viruses. These microbes play a large role in your health, including your mental health. They’re responsible for most of the production of the “happy” neurotransmitter, serotonin. The microbiome also helps produce gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is a neurotransmitter that regulates anxiety. Some studies have found that gut microbiomes can also activate the vagus nerve (more on activating the vagus nerve below!)

 

Gut Health And Your Mood

As you can see from all the “messengers” described above, your brain and your gut have constant bi-directional communication. That explains the queasy feelings that accompany nervousness (or even love!). But it’s important to remember that communication flows both ways. Disturbances in your gut can affect your brain, and as a result, there is a profound correlation between your gut bacteria and your mental health. Imbalances in the microbiome can reduce serotonin production.

 

3 Ways To Optimize Your Gut Health and Improve Mental Health

Eat a gut friendly diet

Optimum gut health depends on many different factors, but one thing we can control is the food we eat. Studies suggest that diversity of microbes offers the best protection, and your diet can play a role in creating this diversity. Unfortunately, the typical North American diet of processed foods doesn’t typically have a lot of diversity. The following foods can help increase bacteria.

●      Omega-3 fats aid in gut health and cognitive function. They are found in fatty fish, like salmon, nuts and seeds, like walnuts and chia seeds, and some plant oils, like flax seeds.

●      Foods high in polyphenols which include chocolate, coffee, and green tea. Polyphenols help by enhancing the growth of beneficial bacteria and inhibiting the growth of pathogens

●      Fermented foods contain high amounts of the beneficial bacteria lactobacilli which add to our gut microbiome. Good sources of fermented foods include kefir, yogurt (choose unsweetened when possible, and add fresh fruit), kimchi, miso and tempeh.

●      Whole grains can also increase bacteria. Although some studies have found this benefit only applies to gluten-free grains.

●      Focus on fiber. Dietary fiber is metabolized by bacteria in your gut, which helps stimulate good bacteria growth.

●      Probiotic supplements can increase the number of good bacteria in your gut. The quality of supplements sold varies quite widely, so work with a healthcare practitioner to find the right ones for you.

 

Slow down, stay hydrated and move your body

A few lifestyle changes to incorporate to help optimize your gut health and improve mental health include:

●      Mindful eating. Slow down when you eat to take a break from your day which will help ease stress and anxiety. Help your body digest these healthy foods by chewing slowly and savoring your meals in a relaxing environment. By chewing slower you are breaking foods down adequately before they reach the stomach.

●      Don’t forget to drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated is important for all bodily functions, helps protect the microbiome, and aids in digestion. Aim for 2 - 3L a day of fresh, filtered water and consume fruit and vegetables to stay adequately hydrated throughout the day.

●      Get moving! Exercise will aid digestion and stimulate peristalsis, the action of food moving through the digestive tract. This stimulation will help prevent constipation and improve elimination to keep you regular. Studies show that engaging in regular exercise may help improve mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function.

 

Stimulate the vagus nerve

New research is being done regarding natural vagus nerve stimulation (without the electronic impulses done in a clinical setting). This helps to “tone” the vagus nerve to improve its function, and, therefore, your ability to slow the fight or flight response. Studies have shown that people with a strong vagus respond better to stress.

To activate your vagus nerve:

●      Practice deep breathing. Slow, deep breathing (about six breaths per minute) can condition the vagus nerve and the rest of the parasympathetic nervous system.

●      Sing, hum, or gargle to strengthen your vocal chords, which are connected to the vagus nerve. Laughing has a similar effect.

●      Immerse your face in cold water. It might seem counterintuitive, but this can slow your sympathetic nervous system’s flight-or-fight response and tone your vagus nerve.

Protecting your mental health is best approached with a multifaceted approach that includes optimizing your gut health. If you’d like some help putting together a plan, call us and let’s talk! 734-779-1650

 

Sources:

BreitSigrid, Kupferberg Aleksandra, Rogler Gerhard, Hasler Gregor, Vagus Nerve asModulator of the Brain–Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders ,Frontiers in Psychiatry, volume 9, DOI=10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044

MayerEA. Gut feelings: the emerging biology of gut-brain communication. Nat RevNeurosci. 2011;12(8):453-466. Published 2011 Jul 13. doi:10.1038/nrn3071  ForsytheP, Bienenstock J, Kunze WA. Vagal pathways for microbiome-brain-gut axiscommunication. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2014;817:115-33. doi:10.1007/978-1-4939-0897-4_5. PMID: 24997031.

SunLJ, Li JN, Nie YZ. Gut hormones in microbiota-gut-brain cross-talk. Chin Med J(Engl). 2020;133(7):826-833. doi:10.1097/CM9.0000000000000706

LimbanaT, Khan F, Eskander N. Gut Microbiome and Depression: How Microbes Affect theWay We Think. Cureus. 2020;12(8):e9966. Published 2020 Aug 23.doi:10.7759/cureus.9966

MenniC, Zierer J, Pallister T, et al. Omega-3 fatty acids correlate with gutmicrobiome diversity and production of N-carbamylglutamate in middle aged andelderly women. Sci Rep. 2017;7(1):11079. Published 2017 Sep 11.doi:10.1038/s41598-017-10382-2

HansenLBS, Roager HM, Søndertoft NB, et al. A low-gluten diet induces changes in theintestinal microbiome of healthy Danish adults. Nat Commun. 2018;9(1):4630.Published 2018 Nov 13. doi:10.1038/s41467-018-07019-x

McLaughlin KA,Rith-Najarian L, Dirks MA, Sheridan MA. Low vagal tone magnifies theassociation between psychosocial stress exposure and internalizingpsychopathology in adolescents. J Clin ChildAdolesc Psychol. 2015;44(2):314-328.doi:10.1080/15374416.2013.843464

Related Posts

Instant Online Health Evaluation

76%

Adrenals

67%

Thyroid

60%

Sex Hormones

Take the Test
Mindset
Brain Health- ADD, Depression, Anxiety and Stress
A Drug Free Approach to Improve Your Brain Health- Reverse The Affects of Depression, Anxiety and Stress. Book your FREE 30-minute consult today! Learn How We Have Helped Patients Regain Their Brain Health *You are about to watch several testimonials regarding patient results.
Read More

Instant Online Health Evaluation

76%

Adrenals

67%

Thyroid

60%

Sex Hormones

Take the Test
Mindset
What’s Your Story?
Learn how to become empowered, not defeated, by your life experiences and traumas. Re-write your story to one that cultivates you to becoming a happier and healthier human.
Read More

Instant Online Health Evaluation

76%

Adrenals

67%

Thyroid

60%

Sex Hormones

Take the Test
Mindset
Mantras for a Better Life
Healing has to take place in the mind before it can ever take place in the body. These mantras will help you make the switch from an unhealthy mindset to a healthier mindset, to help you live a better life!
Read More

"Dr. Shields is a Doctor on a Mission to Transform the Way We Think About Health Care."

Hour Magazine

Learn More

Instant Online Hormone Evaluation

76%

Adrenals

67%

Thyroid

60%

Sex Hormones

Online Female Hormone EvaluationOnline Male Hormone Evaluation

Stay In The Know & Get Free Access

Start Living Your Best Life Today!
734.779.1650