Food & Mood: How Your Gut Impacts Mental Health
Ever get a “gut feeling?” Or feel sick to your stomach when you hear bad news? These are physical signs of the intricate connection you have between your brain and your gut!
This connection, called the gut-brain axis, does far more than trigger your instincts. It also has an impact on your energy, immunity, and mental health.
Here we’ll take a closer look at the gut-brain connection to better understand how digestive health impacts your mood - and what you can do to help restore your balance.
What is the Gut-Brain Axis?
The gut-brain axis (GBA) is a link that connects the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and the enteric nervous system (the over 500 million neurons in your gut).
The most direct link between them is the vagus nerve, which travels from the spinal cord to the digestive system. Branches innervate the entire digestive system which creates a vast web of connection. But, these two systems also communicate through fluids, neurotransmitters, hormones, immune cells, and more.
The GBA is bidirectional, which means signals, messages, and reactions occur both ways. As a result, the health of your gut can affect your brain and nervous system, and vice versa. While the enteric nervous system’s main job is to control digestion, recent research reveals that imbalances in the gut are closely linked to issues like anxiety and depression. Mental health issues like stress and anxiety can be at the root of digestive disorders like IBS, nausea, or constipation.
Your Microbiome and Mood
Stress, anxiety, depression… it’s not all in your head. Sometimes these mental health conditions have a root in your gut.
The microbiome is the entire community of bacteria that lives in your gut. These bacteria have co-evolved with humans in a mutually beneficial relationship - we give them a nice place to live, they help us digest our food and survive.
As you may have guessed, the microbiome plays a huge role in the gut-brain axis. These friendly bacteria communicate with the brain by producing chemicals that stimulate the nervous system, endocrine system, immune system, and body fluids.
The microbiome is also responsible for making a key neurotransmitter called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). GABA helps us feel calm by controlling excessive feelings of fear and anxiety in the brain. When GABA is plentiful, we are calm and responsive. When the microbiome is not making enough GABA, we feel worried and anxious.
What Causes Gut-Brain Imbalances?
While much of the gut flora works in our favor, the microbiome can easily become imbalanced or unhealthy. When that happens, signals between the gut and the brain are disrupted. This sets the stage for mood and autoimmune disorders to occur. These are the most common issues that disrupt the microbiome:
Presence of harmful bacteria Not all gut bacteria are good bacteria. Certain strains take over the gut and steal resources from the helpful bacteria. Overgrowth and dysbiosis ensue. Dysbiosis is linked to a wide range of health issues, including mood disorders.
Lack of diversity Just like we need a diverse culture to thrive as a society, we need diverse bacteria in the gut to thrive in life. Studies find that those with a less diverse microbiome are more likely to experience high stress, anxiety, or depression than those with a more diverse microbiome.
Inflammation Inflammation in the gut is directly linked to mental health and cognitive issues. Scientists believe the link comes from the hypothalamus; when the hypothalamus is overwhelmed with inflammation, it makes the hypothalamic-pituitary axis (HPA) more sensitive to stress. Over time, this develops into conditions like anxiety and depression.
Tips to Improve Your Gut & Brain Health
It’s clear that what we eat really does matter when it comes to a healthy gut and balanced mood. Thankfully, a few diet changes and healthy lifestyle habits are all it takes to significantly improve your gut and mental health. Here are a few tips to get you started:
Avoid gut-disrupting foods. Unfortunately, many of our favorite foods are not so good for our guts - or brains. The foods below are highly inflammatory and likely to contribute to gut dysbiosis. Limit them as much as possible:
Eat a wide range of anti-inflammatory foods. Once you eliminate harmful foods from your diet, it’s time to restore your gut health with nutritious whole foods. Focus on ingredients that are naturally anti-inflammatory, nourishing, and have antioxidant properties. Don’t forget to vary your diet. A healthy gut needs a wide variety of foods, so mix it up and try new things!
Fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, and anchovies
Fruits, especially berries, kiwi, and citrus
A wide range of colorful vegetables, (like broccoli, peppers, and tomatoes)
Nuts and seeds (especially walnuts and flax seeds)
A wide variety of spices and herbs (like rosemary, ginger, and turmeric)
Support your gut bacteria with probiotics. Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that help restore a healthy microbial balance in your gut. You can find them in pills or liquid supplements. Alternatively, eat more fermented foods that are naturally rich in these helpful microbes:
Kimchi and sauerkraut
Kefir and yogurt
Feed your microbiome with prebiotics. While probiotics replenish your gut with healthy bacteria, prebiotics provide nutritious fuel (in the form of dietary fiber) for the friendly bacteria already there. Feed them well with foods like:
Garlic, onions, and leeks
Get your exercise. You probably know that exercise is essential for staying fit, but did you know that it can also improve your gut health? Studies show that exercise can alter the gut microbiome in several positive ways, such as increasing the number of friendly microbiota and supporting a diverse microbiome overall. Not to mention, exercise is your body’s built-in antidote to stress and depression. Studies show that regular exercise works just as well - if not better than - antidepressant medications.
Prioritize your sleep. Sleep is often one of those things that we skimp on when life gets busy or stressful. The trouble is, we need sleep to repair the gut, restore our energy, and balance our moods. Unfortunately, losing sleep damages the microbiome. Studies show that just two days of poor sleep can cause negative changes to the gut flora. Over time, this leads to an abundance in the harmful bacteria associated with weight gain, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. Try to get an average of 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night to give your gut and brain the chance to function at their best.
Overcome Stress and Anxiety with the Power of Food
Whether you’re struggling with digestive disorders like IBS or constipation, or mental health conditions like anxiety or brain fog, it’s time to go deeper and heal your gut-brain axis from the root.
Use these tips to get started on your health journey, but remember: no two guts are the same! Every microbiome is different and requires slightly different foods and habits to help it thrive. As a naturopath, I recommend that you get a customized plan to address your unique imbalances naturally.
Moringa Natural Health Center is here to help! Call us at 623-266-0059, or request an appointment to learn how you can improve your gut health, mood, and overall wellbeing through a custom diet and individualized naturopathic treatment plan.
Dr. Lena Fernandez