Have you ever had a ‘gut feeling’ or been told to ‘go with your gut’? You might have thought this is just an expression but research suggests that there is a connection between the gut and the brain: the gut can send signals to the brain, just as well as the brain can communicate with the gut. In this article we will explore how the health of your gut can influence your mental wellbeing and the steps you can take to improve your gut health.
How is gut health related to mental health
Your gut and brain are connected physically through a nerve called the vagus nerve. This connection is known as the gut brain axis. Similarly, your gut and brain are also connected through chemicals known as neurotransmitters. These chemicals are produced in the brain and control emotions such as happiness, tiredness, anxiety and fear. When the gut is in poor health, these neurotransmitters interfere with the body’s production of serotonin (the chemical which makes us feel happy) along with dopamine and norepinephrine, resulting in potential low mood or anxiety.
Gut microbiome imbalance
Thousands of different types of bacteria (referred to as your microbiome) live within your gastrointestinal tract. These are made up of both good and bad bacteria, with the balance in favour of good gut bacteria. Studies suggest that mental health problems such as depression and anxiety may be associated with a change in balance within the microbiome in the gut, causing health issues not just in the body, but also within the brain.
Mental health and pre-existing gastro health conditions
When you feel anxious, worried or stressed, you may experience pain or discomfort in your gut. There is evidence to suggest that anxiety aggravates symptoms of conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or contributes to flare ups in Crohn’s Disease and Colitis. Moreover, the emotional stress caused by these conditions can cause symptoms such as abdominal pain and this can become a vicious circle.
In a large-scale study exploring the gut-brain connection carried out by the University of Southampton and King’s College London, it was shown that mental health therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can provide relief for symptoms associated with IBS. This signifies that there are connections between the brain and the gut and looking after your mental health could improve your gut health.
How to improve gut health
A healthy and balanced diet is one of the most important things we can do for our gut health. You can achieve this by including a variety of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds in your diet.
Consuming foods which contain prebiotics can feed the good bacteria in your gut and help them to grow. Bananas, asparagus, onions and garlic are a great natural source of prebiotic. Similarly, prebiotics can also be added to processed foods to increase their nutritional value.
There is still a long way to go before we fully understand the relationship between gut health and mental health. While there is no conclusive or definite evidence, it is generally accepted that a strong relationship exists between gut and mental health. As research continues, we may eventually see the development of treatments such as nutritional psychiatry in the future.
Disclaimer: The content of this website is provided for informational purposes only and does not substitute the medical advice from a healthcare professional.