The gut, also known as the digestive system, isn’t popularly associated with mental health and emotions. This should be surprising since the gut is commonly referred to as our ‘second-brain’, yet still masses of the population forget to take care or reflect on their digestive health.
The gut is full of trillions of natural bacteria, many of which – argues Julia Calderone from Business Insider UK – “play essential roles in digestion and in bolstering the immune system.” These bacteria help to break down foods and release important nutrients into your body.
Everyone’s gut bacteria are individualised, hence why metabolisms and immune systems function at different rates across the population.
If gut bacteria becomes imbalanced, typically due to antibiotic overuse or illness, it can lead to detrimental digestive and mental health effects.
Recently it has come to the attention of biologists and mental health professionals that the gut is actually synced with the brain and can in fact impact anxiety and depression, along with general emotions and mental health.
According to WebMD, since the “gut is packed with nerve endings that communicate with the brain,” when gut bacteria are imbalanced, negative messages can be sent to the brain via the central nervous system.
Nutritionist Rebecca Pilkington has argued that “if your gut is out of whack, this can lead to inflammation, believed to be one of the biggest causes of depression.”
Since the digestive system is working incredibly hard to resolve the matter of unbalanced bacteria, the pressure is inevitably put onto the nervous system which is in turn sent straight up to the brain, potentially triggering anxious emotions.
The human brain and gut are connected by the vagus nerve, which is simultaneously linked to stress. Hence, increased levels of stress are more likely to cause “inflammation and low mood,” contends Tor Cardona in ‘Culture Trip’.
Furthermore, the majority of the body’s serotonin (around 95%) is made in the gut. Therefore, if the gut bacteria are unhappy, emotions are likely to follow suit.
It is also key to note that when we are anxious our bodies react by tensing up or overly releasing within the gut, leading to either constipation or diarrhoea. This explains why Irritable Bowel Syndrome – an illness related to gut health and the digestive system – can be worsened by stress and anxiety.
Psychiatrist Kelly Brogan has since argued that “not one valid study has proven that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain,” instead citing gut health as a key component for mental health conditions.
As the links between the brain and the gut become more clear, maintaining a healthy gut is paramount.
Diet is crucial in keeping gut bacteria happy. Eating processed foods and refined sugary foods in excess makes it harder for the stomach to digest, slowing down the digestion process and in turn encouraging bad gut bacteria to colonise. Once this gut bacteria colonises the reaction in the brain is that of stress and unease.
Reducing processed foods and refined sugars from your diet is a great way to start healing your gut. But the key, “holy grail” (according to Tor Cardona) of gut health is probiotics.
Whether in the form of capsules or fermented foods like kimchi or sauerkraut, consuming probiotics makes digestion easier for your gut. This puts less strain on the nervous system and the brain.
Probiotics are also found in natural yoghurt (those with live bacteria), kefir and even in pickles.
Including such foods in your diet may seem daunting, but pickles can easily be eaten in lunch wraps, and kefir or yoghurt can be added simply to breakfast or as an afternoon smoothie.
Antioxidant rich foods are also crucial in maintaining good gut health. Including oily fish (particularly mackerel) twice a week into your diet can aid metabolism, and as it is rich in omega-3 and magnesium it supports the nervous system.
Pure green tea is also great for supporting digestion and encouraging regular bowel movements to avoid constipation from refined and processed foods.
While there is still much more research to be done about whether the relationship between the gut and the brain is symbiotic, studies are still presently able to show a strong correlation between gut bacteria and mood.
The happier your gut bacteria are, the happier your emotions may be. Including probiotic and prebiotic (garlic, onions and asparagus) rich foods into your diet are one of many ways to support your gut health, and in turn, your mental health.