They say the gut is like your second brain, but what ideas contribute to that notion? According to Harvard Medical School, the gut contains a high density of nerve tissue that uses the same chemicals and cells as the brain to cue digestion while simultaneously alerting the body when something seems off.
“There is immense crosstalk between these two large nerve centers,” Braden Kuo, MD, MMSc, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and co-executive director of the Center for Neurointestinal Health at Massachusetts General Hospital shared with HMS. “This crosstalk affects how we feel and perceive gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms and impacts our quality of life.”
In other words, having a bad day isn’t always a simple justification for poor mental health. The way you treat your gut can have a significant impact on your overall quality of life.
To better understand the correlation between mental health and the gut microbiome, let’s take a look at how an unhealthy gut can impact your mentality, some of the existing research, and ways to encourage a healthy gut microbiome.
How Does The Gut Microbiome Affect Your Mentality?
Better understanding gut microbiome brain interactions and mental health go back to identifying the gut-brain axis.
The vagus nerve is a major component of the nervous system, controlling your ability to breathe, swallow, and digest food. It’s also what connects the gut to the brain. The vagus nerve helps get food to the digestive tract, releases digestive enzymes, and communicates to the brain that the body is satisfied.
While the vagus nerve is the connection between the gut and brain and has control over many of the digestive functions, Psychology Today explains that 80 to 90 percent of the nerve fibers in the vagus nerve go from the gut to the brain, but not the brain to the gut. This evidence shows us that the status of our gut can have a significant impact on our brain.
A gut that functions healthily releases positive hormones, neurotransmitters, and immunological factors right to the brain - but this also means that an unhealthy gut can communicate negatively as well. When you’re told to “trust your gut” when you have a strong feeling (whether that’s negative or positive) it’s because that’s where the feeling begins before traveling to the brain.
Gut Microbiome and Mental Health: The Research
In a review led by the Department of Psychiatry and APC Microbiome Institute, researchers discussed how beneficial a healthy gut microbiome can be for brain function and the central nervous system:
“Trillions of bacteria reside in the human gut and have been shown to play a crucial role in gut-brain communication through an influence on neural, immune, and endocrine pathways. … Enhancing beneficial bacteria in the gut, for example, through the use of probiotics, prebiotics, or dietary change, has the potential to improve mood and reduce anxiety in both healthy people and patient groups.”
The researchers found that those patients who paid closer attention to gut health saw a reduction in distressing psychological symptoms, but not a full conclusion. They concluded that there’s more research that needs to occur to come to a more complete understanding, but at its baseline: prioritizing nutrition can have a positive influence on gut health.
“Although much remains to be discovered about the mechanisms by which the gut microbiome influences the brain and mental functioning, the area of nutrition and gut health are beginning to represent an important component in holistic psychiatric care. “
In another study by the Department of Psychiatry at The First Affiliated Hospital of China Medical University, researchers found a significant correlation between the gut-brain axis and certain intestinal microbiota. They found that different intestinal microbiota can change the symptoms of mood disorders, but the mood disorder can also change the intestinal microbiota.
The key solution in their findings was prompting people to focus on creating a healthy gut microbiome, specifically with prebiotics, probiotics, and suitable antibiotics.
Another study shows us a connection between the gut microbiome, exercise, and the brain. Researchers found that the production of endocannabinoid metabolites in the gut can elevate dopamine levels during exercise and improve running performance. This indicates that the gut can influence the rewarding properties of exercise, showcasing a great example of the holistic connection between gut health, exercise, and general health and wellness.
How to Improve the Health of Your Gut Microbiome
Gut health and mental health go hand in hand. By prioritizing a healthy gut microbiome, you may notice differences in your mood and overall mental clarity. Here are some of the simple ways to nurture a healthy gut:
- Follow a diverse diet. If you want a diverse gut microbiome, diversify your diet. Incorporate more fruits, vegetables, beans, and legumes to get more fiber in your system. Whole grains can also promote the growth of bacteria strains like Bifidobacteria, Lactobacilli, and Bacteroidetes.
- Don’t forget about fermented foods. Most fermented foods are rich in Lactobacilli, a probiotic strain that has a positive impact on the gut. Add foods like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut to your diet.
- Start taking a probiotic. A probiotic supplement can offer a simplified way to get your gut microbiome in check.
- Consider a prebiotic, too. Probiotics feed off of prebiotics to thrive, so it might be worth considering a second supplement for your gut health.
In conclusion, taking better care of your mental health starts with prioritizing your gut. And the easiest way to ensure your gut is in great health is by focusing on the foods you eat, and supplementing when necessary.
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WRITTEN BY: Marina Santiago, PhD
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
|Dr. Santiago has a Ph.D. in Chemical Biology from the Microbiology and Immunobiology Department of Harvard Medical School, but she has been fascinated by microbes and microbial communities for as long as she can remember. She works as an independent R&D strategy consultant and helps companies create and use evidence-based frameworks for making strategy decisions as well as helping them launch new programs or initiatives. Dr. Santiago is also passionate about fitness and the outdoors. In her free time, she enjoys running, hiking, and backpacking very long distances, as well as slowly getting better at yoga, Muay Thai, and Jiu Jitsu.