The Connection Between Your Gut Health and Your Mind
Whether or not you’re involved in the world of functional medicine, you’ve probably heard people talking about gut health lately. But did you know your gut health can affect your mental health as well?
The Gut-Brain Connection
The nerves in your gut are called the enteric nervous system (ENS), or your “second brain.” The ENS controls digestion, but it can also trigger significant emotional and psychological shifts. Researchers are now even finding evidence that irritation in the gastrointestinal system can trigger mood changes in the brain. Just like we sometimes say we experience anxiety as a feeling “in our gut,” anxiety has now been linked to stomach problems (and vice versa).
The Gut-Brain Axis
Inflammation in your body and the health of your gut (or microbiome) are connected to your mental health. There’s a strong relationship between your digestive tract and your brain. Recent research has been exploding with new information about the microbiota (bacteria in our gut) and how that transforms gut function and creates different molecules (peptides, neuropeptides, neurotransmitters, inflammatory molecules, cytokines, and more) that travel to the brain and affect how the brain functions.
One important aspect of this is the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve monitors much of the brain activity that goes on in the gut, sending signals to the brain that can cause changes in the brain over time. There’s a bi-directional relationship between what happens in the brain and what happens in your gut.
If there’s a lot of inflammation in the digestive tract, that will in turn affect brain function – including in the amygdala (your fear center) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (your immune system, nervous system, and hormonal system, which all communicate with each other). Your brain then makes decisions from there about what to do in the body.
This means that when you help your digestion, you can improve your mood over time. And when your digestion is out of whack, your mood can follow suit. This can manifest itself through symptoms like:
- Stomach upset
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Appetite changes
- Food intolerances (not to be confused with food allergies)
- Unintentional weight changes
- Getting sick more often
- Constant fatigue
- Skin irritation
In turn, these symptoms can add to existing stress, depression, or attention issues you may already be dealing with. It can be frustrating, to say the least.
Ways to Improve Your Gut Health
The good news is that your gut health can be improved over time through small, doable measures. And you can improve it by doing things that will boost your mental health in other ways as well.
Chewing Your Food Enough
This can improve your digestion, prevent digestive upset, and help your body get the full benefit from the foods you eat. It also makes it easier for your digestive system to fully break down the foods you eat, which in turn gives the critters in your microbiome plenty to munch on.
Sticking to a Healthy Diet
More specifically, a diet rich in fiber, vitamin D, protein, and omega-3s can improve your gut health – and your mood.
Most Americans don’t get nearly enough fiber in their diets. But fiber helps healthy gut bacteria flourish.
If you’re looking to make some manageable changes to your diet to help your gut health without a complete dietary overhaul, try incorporating more vegetables, legumes, beans, and fruits into your snacks and meals. The benefits for your physical, mental, and gut health are abundant. It can also help you get enough fiber in your diet without having to think too much about tracking what you eat.
While we all know that a healthy diet impacts your body, maintaining that diet is much easier said than done. That said, try incorporating a few microbiome-loving foods into your routine instead of trying to completely overhaul your food choices overnight. You don’t have to eat like a wellness influencer to reap the benefits from your food!
Getting Plenty of Fresh Air
Even the air you breathe impacts your gut health! This includes the air in your home and throughout the rest of your day. If the area where you live has poor air quality, it might be worth using an air purifier in your house.
But the best thing to do is to actually spend time outdoors. If you exercise regularly, try moving your workout outside once in a while to enjoy the fresh air while you get your heart beating. When you take breaks away throughout the day, try taking a walk around the block instead of scrolling social media at your desk.
Take this as an excuse to read a book in the shade, go on an impromptu picnic in the park, or enjoy your next afternoon cup of coffee in the open air.
There are plenty of other mental health benefits to getting more fresh air and sunshine, so this is one of the easiest, cheapest, and most rewarding ways to improve your gut health without it feeling like a chore.
Incorporating Regular Movement into Your Routine
Getting regular exercise is great for your gut health (and your overall health). If hitting the gym isn’t your thing, try incorporating a walk around the block or stretching. Even gentle, short exercise sessions count.
Drinking plenty of fluids helps digestion and can regulate other processes in your body. And it’s one of the easiest ways to support your microbiome.
Managing Chronic Stress
This can include meditation, mindfulness techniques, taking enough breaks from work, and seeking therapy to help you handle bigger issues. Long-term stress wears us down, body and soul.
Eating a Variety of Foods
Hundreds of kinds of bacteria live in your intestines. Each variety plays a specific role in your health and needs different nutrients to thrive. That’s why a diverse microbiome is healthier than a monolithic one.
Eating a lot of different foods in your regular diet can help you develop a more varied microbiome. As a side benefit, it also helps keep your diet interesting and makes it easy for you to get a wider range of nutrients – both of which can help you feel your best.
If you struggle to eat a varied diet because of cost, preferences, or just because you’re not sure how to branch out, consider talking to a nutritionist. They can recommend recipes, suggest foods you might like, and take other measures to make switching up your diet feasible.
Eating Fermented Foods
Fermentation is a process where a food’s natural sugars are broken down by yeast or bacteria. Thanks to this process, fermented foods are a real treat for your microbiome.
This includes foods like:
- Kimchi (from the refrigerated section of your grocery store)
- Sauerkraut (from the refrigerated section of your grocery store)
The good news about fermented foods is you don’t need to eat a lot of them to get their benefits.
- If you love kimchi or sauerkraut, you can easily use it as a topping on your usual meals – the equivalent of a few bites is plenty.
- Tempeh is a great source of protein, so you can use it to replace meat in your favorite recipes.
- Kefir or yogurt can be a great snack, since it’s easy to store in the fridge and reach for when you’re feeling hungry.
- Kombucha can be a great afternoon drink. It comes in tons of flavors, so it’s easy to switch it up and get some variety as long as you enjoy the taste.
How to Incorporate Gut Healthy Habits Into Your Lifestyle
You’ve probably noticed that a lot of these changes align with general advice for improving your health. While that may seem intimidating because it can seem like it takes a full health and lifestyle overhaul to see benefits, try to think of it as yet another motivator to make small, incremental changes for your health. These can be great conversation starters in talks with your health care providers (mental and physical) to see if they have tailored advice for you and your lifestyle.
Start by picking a change that sounds easy to incorporate and, preferably, is rewarding in some other way. This can help you stay motivated, rather than seeing it as a chore. This can look as simple as:
- Taking a probiotic while you enjoy your morning cup of coffee
- Adding a small serving of fermented foods to your lunch or dinner every day
- Finding a water bottle you like to help you drink more water, or stocking up on herbal teas to make staying hydrated more enjoyable
- Stepping outside more often throughout your day to get a little burst of fresh air
This is still an emerging science, so there’s still plenty to learn on this topic. But it can be a great conversation to have with your mental health care provider.
Knowing more about supporting your gut health gives you even more tools to take care of yourself and show your body and mind some love.