Relying on our ‘gut instincts’ is a familiar saying but recent research is suggesting there may be some truth to this. The state of our gut affects how we are feeling and thinking as the gut has an intimate relationship with the brain which is why the gut is also known as the ‘second brain’.
How mental health impacts the gut.
A troubled brain sends signals to the gut and a troubled gut sends signals to the brain. For example, when feeling stressed, anxious, depressed this can trigger physical symptoms in the gut such as:
* loose stools
* loss of appetite
* heart burn
* stomach pains
The link between the gut and brain has been taken further by recent studies showing that mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder and autism can also be linked to gut health and imbalances in gut bacteria. When gut bacteria gets out of balance, this can lead to gastrointestinal conditions such as IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), IBS (inflammatory bowel syndrome), and manifestations in the wider system such as Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and other problems.
Improving ‘gut health’.
To maintain and restore health of the gut it is important to encourage beneficial bacteria in your digestive tract. One way to do this is to eat a well-balanced diet that includes foods with probiotic or prebiotic ingredients that support microbial health by helping to restore balance to the gut. Studies have shown the effects of probiotics on symptoms of depression in humans such as mood, anxiety, and cognition. A review of 10 ten studies by Wallace and Milev (2017) found the following;
- Five of the ten studies assessed mood symptoms and all but two reported improvements after treatment with a probiotic.
- In the seven of ten studies assessing anxiety and stress, all but two reported improvements after treatment with a probiotic.
- Three of the studies evaluated some aspect of cognition, and two of them reported positive effects when a probiotic was consumed
Some other ways to support mental health through gut health are;
- Avoid the overuse of antibiotics. The overuse of antibiotics can disrupt and destroy a healthy balance of good bacteria in the gut. Only use antibiotics when necessary.
- Stress management. When stressed, stress hormones are realised in the body, which can affect the balance of bacteria in the gut.
- Foods known to encourage the growth of good bacteria and restoring gut health are;
- Prebiotic foods (radishes, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, asparagus, carrots, sweet potato, onions and garlic)
- Probiotic foods (fermented foods such as kefir, yoghurt, kombucha and fermented vegetables)
- Limit processed sugar and processed foods and have natural sugars from fresh vegetables and fruits instead.