In recent years, two areas of wellness have (rightfully) gained substantial media attention: gut health and mental health. At first glance, these two topics may seem unrelated. However, a growing body of evidence proves gut health and mental health are directly and intricately connected through a pathway known as the gut-brain axis. This connection not only reinforces the idea that our body’s systems are interdependent, but it also provides insight into how our gut significantly influences our mental state, cognitive function, and overall well-being. Knowing this, it’s easy to understand why optimizing our gut health is more important than ever. So, to support your gut health journey, we’re sharing simple tips and tricks on how to support your microbiome, and consequently, enhance your mental health.
The Impact of Gut Health on Mental Health
The gut, often referred to as our “second brain,” plays a vital role in many processes beyond digestion. It’s important for immune function, nutrient absorption, metabolism, hormone regulation, and, of course, mood and mental health. With so many important functions, optimizing gut functionality is crucial. However, the gut microbiome can become easily disrupted by factors such as poor diet, stress, and lack of sleep. If chronic, this can lead to gut dysbiosis, an imbalanced state linked to inflammation and mental health issues.
And the thing is, the relationship between gut health and mental health is a two-way street. Just as an imbalanced gut can influence mental health, poor mental health can affect gut health. To better understand this, let’s look at the gut-brain axis.
What is The Gut-Brain Axis?
But first, what is the gut-brain axis? And how does this pathway work?
The gut-brain axis is a bidirectional pathway that connects the gut and the brain. This intricate network allows for a continuous exchange of communication between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system with involvement from nerves, hormones, and various biochemical reactions. To put it simply, changes in the gut can influence brain function, just as changes in brain activity can impact gut health.
First, let’s take a look at mental health. Chronic stress, for example, has been shown to alter intestinal mucosa permeability and cytokine secretion leading to gut dysbiosis and conditions like leaky gut. And when chronically stressed, our cortisol remains elevated, which can deplete neurotransmitters primarily produced in the gut, like serotonin (our happy hormone). This can contribute to feelings of anxiety, depression, and various mood disorders. There’s even research to suggest stressful life events and personality traits like perfectionism are associated with IBD and various GI disorders.
The same holds true for changes in gut bacteria. According to research, patients with GI disorders like irritable bowel syndrome are more likely to experience conditions like anxiety and depression. Additionally, recent 2023 data suggests gut dysbiosis is linked to an increased risk of cognitive decline.
Foods that Support Gut Health
According to 2023 data, an estimated 1,000 species and 40 trillion bacteria reside in the gut microbiota. And just like us humans, in order to survive and thrive, these gut microbiota need to be fed! Thus, the best way to nourish our gut is through our diet — specifically, a diet rich in a wide variety of whole food sources of prebiotics, probiotics, and fiber.
Prebiotics act as the primary source of food and nutrition for our microbiome. Prebiotic-rich foods, such as garlic and asparagus, contain a certain type of fiber that helps to feed and promote the growth and diversity of the good bacteria in our gut. According to research, prebiotics not only help to nourish and protect our gut microbiome and GI system, but they also benefit our nervous system, heart health, immune system, and skin.
And while boosting your intake of these indigestible fiber sources is undoubtedly beneficial, not consuming enough can be equally detrimental. The absence of prebiotic fiber has been shown to increase the risk for inflammation and chronic conditions such as heart disease and hypertension.
Prebiotic foods include: asparagus, garlic, onion, chicory, Jerusalem artichoke, banana, barley, tomato, rye, peas, and beans.
Probiotics are the live microorganisms (i.e., the “good” bacteria) that inhabit our gut and help maintain a balanced and diverse microbiome. They play a crucial role in various aspects of health, including digestion, immune function, heart health, and mental health. Research suggests that incorporating probiotic-rich foods into your diet, such as yogurt and kimchi, can aid the breakdown and absorption of nutrients, reduce inflammation, boost mood and cognitive health, reduce symptoms of depression, support weight loss, and benefit overall well-being.
While prebiotic foods (such as garlic and green banana) are a source of fiber, not all fiber sources are prebiotics! To be classified as a prebiotic fiber source, the fiber must nourish and feed our gut microbiome. Therefore, dietary fiber is not limited to prebiotic fiber. Outside of prebiotic sources, it can be found in a broad range of foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. However, while it may not directly feed our gut bacteria, it has proven to be equally beneficial for gut health! In fact, a high-fiber diet has been shown to regulate metabolism, reduce the risk of chronic disease (such as obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes), and even positively alter our microbiota, resulting in a more diverse and robust population.
Fiber-rich food sources include: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
Lifestyle Changes to Improve Gut Health
When it comes to improving gut health, your diet is just one piece of the puzzle — lifestyle habits matter too! Based on research, here are the top three healthy habits for gut health:
#1 Regular Exercise
According to recent research, physical activity has been linked to a more diverse gut microbiota, potentially enhancing its positive effects on mental health and overall well-being. When comparing athletes to non-athletes, athletes appear to have a more diverse and robust microbiome. However, the duration and type of exercise matters. Moderate exercise has been shown to enhance the population of gut microbiota, reduce inflammation, and improve body composition, whereas long-duration high-intensity exercise may cause damage and harm to the gut by increasing gut wall permeability. The takeaway? more is not always more. Finding a balanced, sustainable approach to exercise has proven to be most beneficial!
#2 Adequate Sleep
Travel, shift work, and insomnia can throw your circadian rhythm out of whack, leading to gut health damage and increased risk for chronic disease. But, what about minor sleep disturbances? According to new 2023 research, even 90 minutes of disrupted sleep (in otherwise healthy individuals) can harm gut health. Known as “social jetlag,” the difference in sleep during weekends (with irregular sleep times) versus weeknights (with regular bedtimes) can result in gut damage, showing an increased risk for inflammation, cardiovascular disease, and poor lifestyle choices.
To support gut health, aim to keep your sleep habits consistent with a regular sleep schedule and a healthy evening routine.
#3 Stress Management
Chronic stress can wreak havoc on our overall health, not to mention negatively impact our gut health. It’s been shown to contribute to leaky gut, inflammation, and increased risk for serious diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Supplements & Gut Health
While supplements can be beneficial for some individuals, they should be viewed as just that: a supplement. No matter how useful or trendy, supplements are not a substitute for a healthy diet and lifestyle. Plus, there’s certainly no one-size-fits-all approach — especially when it comes to gut health. However, based on research, there are some standout supplements (like probiotics and digestive enzymes) that have been shown to benefit gut health and support digestion.
That said, it’s important to remember that these supplements are most effective when integrated into a healthy lifestyle that incorporates regular movement, stress management, healthy eating habits, and sufficient sleep. Always consult a healthcare professional before introducing supplements into your routine to ensure they align with your individual health needs and goals.
Seek a Professional When Needed
While there are many lifestyle factors that can support and improve both gut health and mental health, there’s no replacement for professional help when it’s warranted. If you’re experiencing serious gut health issues or mental health concerns, seeking professional guidance from a medical doctor or healthcare physician is crucial. Remember, there is no symptom too small — it’s better to be cautious and rule out any concerns or red-flag symptoms. Plus, with deeper insight into your mental and physical health, you can come up with a wellness plan better suited to you and your needs.
Healthy Habits That Are Good For Your Brain & Your Gut
With more and more research shedding light on the intricate relationship between the gut and brain, we can see that nurturing our gut health isn’t just about digestion — it’s about cultivating a thriving ecosystem that supports our mental health, digestive health, and overall well-being. And the good news is that supporting this relationship is as simple as prioritizing healthy lifestyle behaviors like eating a gut-healthy diet, prioritizing sleep, managing stress, and mindfully moving. So, if you’re feeling like your microbiome could use a little love, use this guide to help support your gut health journey!