We’ve created a series of blogs that focus on the connection between nutrition, exercise, sleep and mental health. Knowing how to improve mental health through diet, exercise and healthy habits can go a long way. In this blog, we’ll go over the gut-brain connection and how the health of your digestive system can affect your mental health.
Have you ever felt “sick to your stomach” from anxiety or lost your appetite because you felt depressed? Your gut, which is comprised of every organ in your digestive system, is sensitive to feelings like anxiety, anger, sadness and joy. That gut-feeling is real. Your brain reacts to signals sent from your stomach. In fact, the lining of your gut is sometimes called the second brain. This means maintaining a healthy gut is key to good mental health.
How are the gut and brain connected?
Your gut is connected to your brain through the vagus nerve. This nerve sends messages from your heart, lungs and other vital organs to your brain. It’s through this nerve that the gut and brain are physically connected. The gut and brain are chemically connected as well through hormones and neurotransmitters that send messages from one to the other.
These messages can be influenced by bacteria, viruses and fungi in what’s called the gut microbiome. These bacteria, viruses and fungi can either be beneficial, harmless or harmful.
How does your gut affect mental health?
There is a link between mental health problems and gastrointestinal issues. Anxiety and depression can affect the gut microbiome because of how the body responds to stress. Studies show that animals that have experienced a change in the gut microbiome and inflammation of the gut have also been shown to experience changes in the brain. These changes can cause symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, autism, anxiety and depression to manifest.
How to improve gut health for good mental health
Following these tips will help improve your gut health and mental health.
- Eat a balanced, nutritious diet.
Include things like whole grains, fish, fruits and vegetables. Reduce your intake of sugary, fried or processed foods and soft drinks. A diet high in nutritious foods will help improve your mental health.
- Add prebiotic foods to your diet.
Prebiotic foods support the growth of healthy bacteria, viruses and fungi in your gut. Choose high-fiber foods and lightly-steamed or raw fruits and vegetables. Asparagus, bananas, garlic, onions, jicama, tomatoes, apples, berries and mangos are all prebiotic foods.
- Add live bacteria, or probiotics, to your diet.
Probiotics are live bacteria that are found in foods. Foods like yogurt (labeled as live or active cultures), unpasteurized sauerkraut, kimchi, miso soup, kefir, kombucha, tempeh and apple cider vinegar are all good sources of probiotics.
- Take a probiotic supplement.
When you’re trying to find the best probiotic supplement, make sure the label includes the type of bacteria and the number of colony forming units (CFUs). Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus are the most common bacteria in probiotics. The number of CFUs in a probiotic supplement should be in the billions. Always store probiotic supplements in your refrigerator or a cool, dry place.
- Avoid taking antibiotics unless your doctor says they are absolutely necessary.
Antibiotics kill harmful bacteria but also kill the good bacteria in your gut that keeps your digestive system working properly.
Improving your physical health benefits your mental health. Follow these tips to improve your gut health and brain health.