Are Gut and Mental Health Related? Probiotics and the Gut-Brain Axis
6 minute read
The benefits of probiotics for gut health and immunity have been well documented, but can they also benefit your mental health? The discovery of the gut-brain axis has indicated that your brain and digestive system communicate.
This means they have the ability to influence each other as well. That being said, it is fairly certain that an unhealthy and unhappy gut can make you sad, anxious, or even depressed.
How Your Gut and Your Brain Are Linked
The trillions of bacteria living in your gut influence your physical health because of the direct link to your immune system. Under the same principle, it makes sense that your gut can influence your mental health via the direct communication via the gut-brain axis.
Your brain communicates with your gut by way of your autonomic nervous system. In turn, your gut can send messages to your brain via hormones that are stored in specialized gut cells. There is a constant exchange of messages between gut and brain similar to that of a two-way street.
Those butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous? Or how an upset stomach makes you feel a little down? You have already experienced the link and just didn’t realize it.
Your gut is responsible for the production of neurotransmitters that influence the brain, specifically dopamine and serotonin. These two neurotransmitters play central roles in mood regulation and the development of both anxiety and depressive disorders.
An unhealthy gut or imbalanced microbiome causes changes in the production of these neurotransmitters. Indirectly, you feel symptoms of depression and anxiety and would never know your gut was to blame.
Studies also found that your gut health influences brain molecules that impact gene expression. Any dysfunction in these molecules can cause anxiety and stress-related disorders.
When certain bacterial strains are added to a diet or introduced into the gut, the stress response in these individuals is decreased. Researchers started thinking that rather than antidepressants and other drugs, a bottle of probiotics is all you may need to help improve mental health.
How Your Gut Influences Your Brain
When it comes to mental health, you should always consult with a doctor before starting any self-treatments. The link between brain and gut can, however, help you promote overall gut health and perhaps prevent or minimize any mental health symptoms you may be at risk for. The health of your gut is strongly related to what you eat which means your mental health is impacted by food too.
There is a host of evidence supporting the link between the consumption of processed foods and depression. Too many fatty, sugary, and processed foods are associated with the typical Western diet as well as serious health problems like obesity, diabetes, heart disease.
The common thread is inflammation, which stems from an imbalanced and unhealthy gut, and this inflammation can have far-reaching effects.
Inflammation can travel through the body, causing damage to cells and tissues. When it reaches the brain, the delicate cells are damaged.
Inflammation has already been found to have links with both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, showing its negative effects on the brain. In addition to this, inflammatory compounds in the brain interfere with chemical balance, which can trigger episodes of anxiety and depression.
Not only can your gut send distress signals directly to the brain, but the release of inflammatory markers as a result of an unhealthy gut further compound the problem. Your mental health can potentially be impacted on two different fronts, making it essential to treat the source of the problem.
Medications and treatments can ease symptoms of mental health disorders, but if your gut remains unhappy, so will you.
Happy Gut Means Happy You
The silver lining to all this is that when you promote a happy gut environment, beneficial bacteria can thrive and so can your mental and overall health. Probiotics help to keep the balance in favor of beneficial bacteria, but you can also make changes to your diet to support their efforts.
Focus on a balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats.
Dietary fiber is also important as a source of food for your friendly gut flora. Because your body cannot digest fiber, it makes its way to your intestines, providing a nutritious meal for your gut microbes.
This is what is called a prebiotic. It is basically any substance that provides nutrients to gut bacteria.
In digesting dietary fiber, these bacteria produce beneficial fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals you need to stay healthy. A diet that is high in sugars and fats has the opposite effect, allowing bad bacteria to thrive, and gut health to deteriorate.
Promote gut health and mental health with probiotics and a gut-friendly diet. You can get probiotics naturally from foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and other fermented foods, or you can opt for a high-quality supplement.
| Related: The 5 Best Probiotic Foods You’ve Never Heard Of |
In addition to this you need to include foods that reduce inflammation and support the happiness of your gut microbes. Broccoli along with other cruciferous vegetables contains beneficial minerals as well as fiber to feed your gut bacteria and promote optimal intestinal health.
Seaweed may not seem like a popular choice, but it works wonders on your gut. Providing fuel for your gut microbes and slowing down digestion for optimal nutrient absorption, your gut and your brain get a real treat with seaweed on the menu.
Dandelion greens and asparagus are both rich in inulin, which promotes regularity and reduces bloat.
The Bottom Line
With an established link found between the brain and the gut, it makes sense that treating one problem can help with the other. Lifestyle choices influence the health of your gut so when you make choices to promote gut health, you can indirectly promote mental health too.
With probiotics you keep your gut happy, which will keep your brain and you happy too.