How does mental health relate to gut health?
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re partnering with our friends at Pacific Solstice, an integrative psychiatry clinic as we both recognize how important the gut-brain connection is!
So just how does the gut affect the brain and brain affect the gut? You have probably experienced first-hand how our mental state can affect our gut, and vice versa. Maybe you’ve had the feelings of “butterflies in your stomach” during moments of excitement or anticipation. Perhaps very stressful times in your life have led to constipation or diarrhea. And I’m sure you can recall a time when you’ve felt the need to rely on a “Gut feeling” when making a difficult decision or experiencing an anxiety provoking situation. Additionally, there is a strong association between changes in mental health and gastrointestinal symptoms, such as indigestion, acid reflux, and bloating.
The connection between the two is made both at a physical and chemical level. The physical messages are connected via the vagus nerve, while the chemical messages travel via hormones and neurotransmitters from the gut to the brain and vice versa.
What do chemical messages do?
Cytokines are chemical messengers that send signals to cells throughout the body, including the brain! These messengers promote inflammation and can affect different hormone responses. When the gut is inflamed, it will produce a high amount of cytokines which travel through the lining of the gut, into the bloodstream, where it will then make its way to the brain causing inflammation. Cytokines also bind to hormone receptors (such as dopamine, serotonin etc.) and can either mimic or turn off these receptors. This can result in brain fog, depression, anxiety, irritability, and other negative moods. This whole process can be further stimulated from stress in the brain due to underlying mood disorders which will promote the release of cytokines in the gut, keeping the cycle going. A balanced gut microbiome is vital to regulating how cytokines are released, stress, and hormones in the brain. A happy microbiome is also responsible for managing inflammation and stress responses within the gut itself.
What is the gut?
Our gut is the system of organs responsible for food digestion and absorption, hormone, vitamin, and neurotransmitter production, and so much more! The gut is made up of: the esophagus, stomach, both the small and large intestine, gallbladder, liver, and the pancreas. Though we can live without a majority of components in the gut, the small intestine is invaluable as the main site of nutrient absorption, neurotransmitter production, vitamin synthesis, and more. Although this system of organs is most commonly referred to as the gut, it is also often called “the second brain” because of its ability to operate on its own.
What is the gut microbiome and its relation to Mental Health?
The gut consists of bacteria, viruses, archaea, and fungi, and is collectively known as the gut microbiome. This gut microbiome can affect the chemical messages that are sent between the gut and the brain, for better or worse. Anxiety and depression are two common mental health illnesses that release stress responses in the human body. These stress responses can create harmful changes in the gut microbiome. So always try to remember, if your mental health is struggling, it’s likely your gut is as well.
Many functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorders are related to problems occurring between gut-brain interactions. A very prevalent GI disorder, IBS or Irritable Bowel Syndrome, is heavily prominent among those experiencing depression, anxiety and somatic symptom disorders. Many patients with IBS may have also experienced a stressful or difficult event early in their lives, which experts believe is a major contributing factor to IBS development. Recent advances in functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI, have furthered our understanding of the gut-brain connection and its effects on IBS. It has been noted that the brains of people with IBS are better able to activate pain inhibition areas which may represent a genetic predisposition to IBS!
How do I help my mental health and my #GoodGut?
With all this in mind, it is clear that working on mental health is important to supporting a #GoodGut. To do this, work toward minimizing stress levels and finding healthy coping mechanisms to build better mental health practices. Eating a balanced and nutritious diet that supports #goodgut health is also key. Studies have shown that a fiber-rich diet can greatly contribute to optimal mental health. Not only is our body a reflection of our diet and well-being, but our diet can also be a reflection of our mental health status!
Incorporating more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables into one’s diet is a significant first step towards eating a healthy and balanced diet. Another tip to taking care of your mental health and gut is feeding your body foods that have good bacteria and fungi, which is referred to as probiotic foods. Fibrous foods are also an important element of a nutritious diet that have the ability to fight against the risk of poor mental health. Recent studies have found that dietary fiber intake and the risk of depression have a dose-dependent relationship. Some prebiotic fiber-rich foods that are easy to add to one’s diet are fruits and vegetables such as, apples, strawberries, broccoli, sweet corn, and so much more.
What should I do to reclaim my #GoodGut and mental health?
Mental health is interconnected with gut health, and there are many ways for you to begin reclaiming your #GoodGut. Mindful eating is a great practice to create enjoyable experiences, reduce overeating, improve digestion, reduce anxiety, and improve your psychological relationship with food. Some ways to practice mindful eating are:
Focusing on the food as you eat by chewing slowly.
Minimizing the distractions around you and appreciating the flavors and details of the food/meal.
Doing a body scan and taking inventory of how your body feels. Practicing this 3-5x per day can help you be more in tune with your body's needs and help you feel more calm.
Practicing pre-meal meditations or reciting pre-meal mantras that help you get in a headspace and parasympathetic nervous system space to ‘rest & digest’ or ‘feed & breed’
In the long term, it may be helpful to envision your health goals to create motivation for yourself.
During your mindful eating, be sure to introduce probiotic foods into your diet! Some probiotic foods that you can consider incorporating into your diet are yogurt, unpasteurized kimchi, kombucha, and apple cider vinegar. Additionally, prebiotic foods that are rich in fiber when raw are bananas, garlic, onions, and jicama. All of these foods can be incorporated into meals that you already eat. If these foods are not an option for you, probiotic supplements that contain active bacteria, such as Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, may be a great alternative.
Another great option to reclaim your gut health is gut-based hypnotherapy. This can help address the “miscommunication” that has occurred in the gut and brain. An app that we recommend is called Nerva and it focuses on helping people with IBS self manage their symptoms through a combination of hypnosis and psychological therapy. During a session with Nerva, you will be guided through visualization using audio that trains the unconscious mind how to self regulate your symptoms.
A couple of ways to stimulate and reset that Vagus nerve connecting the gut to brain and the brain to gut are,
Taking a piece of ice and placing it against your wrist, behind your earlobes, or on your temples. This helps to interrupt the stress response in your body
Practicing diaphragmatic breathing and engaging your whole core. This helps you take deeper breaths, increase oxygen to the brain, and also resets your vagus nerve's stress response
While all these tips are great to remember and be mindful of, it is also important to remember that we are a reflection of the foods we eat. So whatever is good for the body, is good for the brain as well!
Need more help with supporting your gut-brain connection?
Connect with Pacific Solstice to learn more about the incredible integrative in-patient and outpatient services they offer to support those with autism, depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, psychosis, trauma and much more.
Work with one of our Registered Dietitians to provide you with valuable tools and expertise along your journey!
Heal with Each Meal!
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