When it comes to your mental wellbeing, your gut may play a much bigger role than you think. Research is now suggesting that there can be a very strong link between your gut and your brain, to the extent that your chances of developing anxiety or depression may be heavily influenced by the health of your gut. Here’s what to know about the connection between your mental health and what’s going on in your gut.
Stress and Your Gut
The gut is heavily linked to your emotions and no doubt you have personal experience of this. We’ve all felt sensations such as nervous butterflies in the stomach or feeling sick when we’re anxious, which is physical evidence of the connection between your mind and your gut.
Stress can physically affect the gut in other ways too, including how it works. It can encourage the walls of the gut to contract, which can be a factor in bowel movements – especially diarrhoea. Stress can cause food to move through the digestive system more quickly than it would otherwise do and this can result in loose stools and frequent bowel movements.
Studies have also suggested that people with GI disorders are sometimes able to improve their symptoms if they receive psychological therapies to help them to manage stress and anxiety, and often see a better response compared to people who are only receiving “conventional” treatment.
What Science Says
Studies on mice carried out by University College Cork showed a strong connection between gut microbes and mental health. In particular, low levels of microbes in the gut were linked to depression and anxiety. The mice who were bred to be “microbe free” were a lot more anxious than the mice who had higher levels of microbes in their gut.
The theory is that microbes in the gut have an impact on key areas of the brain, notably the pre-frontal cortex and amygdala. Both of these areas are linked to anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions.
Probiotics have also been the focus of some studies, with research suggesting that probiotics could even work as well as Diazepam and Citalopram in improving mental health and reducing anxiety.
How to Improve Your Gut Health
So, what can you do to get a healthier gut environment and help to improve your mental health?
Probiotics are a great place to start. According to some studies, they can reduce anxiety so it’s definitely worth increasing your intake or starting to take them for the first time if you suffer from anxiety. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kefir and yogurt are examples of how you can add probiotics to your diet or you can try probiotic drinks if you prefer.
Prebiotics are another smart move. They aren’t quite the same as probiotics but they’re just as important – perhaps more so given that they help probiotics to work more effectively.
There is still a lot for us to know about the gut-brain connection but the evidence so far strongly suggests that your gut health can have an effect on how likely you are to experience anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. Improving your gut health can potentially do more than just improve your digestive health and can also have a knock on effect for your mental health too!