How Gut Health and Mental Health are Interlinked
I hope we can all agree the probiotics craze has gone too far, particularly when traditional probiotic items like yogurt and kimchi were moved aside for items like probiotic-infused sparkling water or coffee. But there is one good thing that came from this recent probiotic fad, despite the oftentimes unnecessary marketing craze, and it was this: gut health and mental health are inextricably interlinked.
Though this is not a new idea—historically, scientists in the 19th and early 20th centuries claimed that inflammation of the gut led to anxiety, depression, and psychosis—there seems to be a newly heightened attention to this connection between our emotions and the status of our gut health. It seems this issue of diseases involving gut health is most prevalent in the West, and especially in the U.S. This could be a result of the highly-processed diets many of us may have had as children; think crackers, chips, soda, and more.
Scientists have even proven that eating too many of these processed foods can lead to leaky gut syndrome, which occurs when portions of the large intestine, which are typically tightly closed, open up to let harmful bacteria and toxins in, eventually leading to gut inflammation. Or worse, scientists have found that these diets may also erode the protective layer of mucus that prevents intestinal cells from coming into direct contact with gut microbes. All in all, both of these things lead to inflammation of the gut, and inflammation of the gut is linked to increased levels of negative mental health outcomes. So I suppose the trite and overused adage of ‘food as medicine’ is true.
The Basics Behind The Gut-Brain connection
The microbiota of the gut (microbiota is fancy speak for a population of bacteria that lives in the body) is important for our immunity and nutrition. It is also a key factor for proper balance within the human body. The normal organisms in the microbiota can be an array of both beneficial and harmful different bacteria. Short-term local infections of the gut, resulting from food poisoning or other gastrointestinal diseases, can cause immediate disruption in the form of diarrhea and vomiting.
But more chronic inflammation of the gut could lead to long-term health issues, such as leaky gut syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and other prolonged stomach and digestive problems. Prolonged inflammation of the gut, specifically chronic inflammation, can cause serious mental health imbalances over time, leading to anxiety and depression—this is a byproduct of the gut-brain axis.
The Gut-Brain Axis
The gut-brain axis is the signaling that happens between your brain and your gastrointestinal tract. This tract is basically the winding path your food takes going into the body, coming out of it, and everything in between. The tract’s main purpose is not only the transportation of food, but it is also responsible for the digestion and absorption of that food within the body.
The gut and brain experience “bidirectional communication” which is a scientific way of saying that the gut and the brain are constantly chatting. If that chatter becomes toxic or compromised, bad things can happen, especially to your feelings—think that ex you keep texting when you know it will only lead to drama and toxicity. That is why maintaining homeostasis or balance between the gut and the brain’s communication is vital to experiencing health from central nervous system health, to immune health, to hormonal health.
Disruptions to these systems are often responsible for our stress responses, and our stress responses impact our overall behavior. Examples of stress impacting our guts can be seen in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or irritable bowel disorder (IBD). Both show high levels of correlation between psychiatric stress-related symptoms such as anxiety, and gut inflammation (think upset stomach, gas, constipation, cramps, and diarrhea). That’s only one example of the gut and mental health connection, there are many other emerging examples.
Gut Inflammation and Impacts on Mental Health
The connection between the gut and mental health goes beyond just IBS and IBD. The idea of “I felt it in my gut” when it comes to a painful experience appears to be scientifically supported. Apparently, responses to visceral emotional experiences can indeed be felt in the gut as a result of the gut-brain axis discussed earlier.
The brain communicates with the gut through the nervous system and a variety of other pathways. Apparently, increased exposure to stress and the hormones released into the GI tract during stressful events may indeed contribute to the dysregulation of our guts. When this imbalance occurs we are more likely to be stressed, anxious, experience problems with sleep, and suffer from depression. All because our brain and gut are no longer on the same page, and their relationship has become toxic. How can we fix this relationship and help the gut and brain reach a harmonious place in their relationship?
How to Heal Your Gut
Healing my gut was a long and arduous personal process, and I still experience flare-ups every day. Based on conversations I’ve had and research I’ve done, everyone’s experience is very different as our guts have suffered in various ways and therefore cannot all be treated and healed in the same exact way.
If you’re experiencing gut problems, be sure to schedule an appointment with a doctor. If you would prefer a holistic approach, try meeting with a licensed nutritionist or visiting an acupuncturist. I’ve personally worked with a Chinese acupuncturist and have seen promising effects from holistic methods such as acupuncture, herbal medicines, and maintaining and controlling my diet (i.e. no dairy, no sugar, no spicy food, etc.).
It was a long process of experimenting with cutting out different foods and seeing what helped and what didn’t. Organic bone broth played a vital role in healing my gut, and weekly bone broth cleanses became a staple. You can make fresh bone broth at home, simply by simmering organic bones from your local butcher or grocery store.
Another key is not overdoing it with too many probiotic pills (or probiotic sparkling water or coffee). Sometimes adding too much bacteria in the form of an alternative probiotic can do more harm than good. Don’t give up probiotics altogether though, because research has shown probiotics do have beneficial effects on animals and humans, like reducing anxiety and improving nutritional status. Sticking to natural probiotics like yogurt or kimchi helped me.
All of these tips are a way to say that there is no one right answer or cure-all approach for healing your gut, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible to do. It simply takes time and finding what works for you. Start by speaking to a specialist, and going from there. You’re on your way to a healthy and happy gut!
Other Imbalances Created by Compromised Gut Health
Imbalances in our gut health can lead to more than anxiety and depression. Problems with our gut health may also lead to inflammation in other areas of our health, such as sleep, heightened risk of infection, and our skin. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms your gut-brain axis may be compromised:
- Change in mood – this can be characterized by stress, restlessness, anxiety, depression, etc.
- Sleep issues – this can be characterized by restlessness, grinding teeth, trouble sleeping, inconsistent sleep patterns. Ninety percent of serotonin, the hormone responsible for happiness and wellbeing, is located in the gut, and serotonin is responsible for producing the “sleep hormone” melatonin.
- Shifts in immune system – this can be characterized by more infections than usual due to decreased levels of immune system health.
- Skin troubles – this can be characterized by acne, psoriasis, and dermatitis. The gut does more than affect our mood and sleep patterns, it plays a pivotal part in our skin health. So if you’re breaking out more than usual it could be a result of an imbalance in your gut.
Author Bio Sara Shah is a freelance writer, holistic coach, and meditation teacher. She aims to help women establish self-care and self-compassion practices through mindfulness and meditation exercises. She can be reached at www.breathewithsara.com.