If anything has taught us in recent years, it is important to prioritize our mental health in any way we can, either through self-care practices or an occasional mental health day. Surprisingly, another great way to support mental health is to implement habits that support gut health and the production of good gut bacteria.
Supporting our gut health is important for many reasons. First, our gut contains the intestinal nervous system commonly referred to as the “second brain.” Our gut is also responsible for producing 90 percent of serotonin, a mood-stabilizing hormone commonly referred to as the “happiness hormone.” Don’t Stop There — Uma Naidoo, MD, Harvard-trained nutrition psychiatrist, professional chef, nutritionist and national bestselling author, This is your mind about food shares that the bacteria in our gut can support the production of vitamins, the production of hormones, sleep and circadian rhythm, the control of infections, our mental health and much more.
But how exactly can bacteria in the gut get to the brain and affect cognitive function? We can thank the gut-brain axis (or gut-brain connection) —a two-way communication network that connects the gut and the brain — for that. “The gut and the brain come from the same cells of the human fetus to later divide to form two separate organs connected to the pneumogastric nerve,” says Dr. Naidoo.
The pneumogastric nerve represents the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is what helps us manage our mood, immune response and digestion. “The gut-brain axis is an evolutionary phenomenon that connects the microbiome and the brain and occurs in the nerve pathway, the endocrine pathway and the immune pathway,” says Ali Rezaie, MD, a gastroenterologist in California and author of The microbiome connection. Simply put, the gut-brain connection can be thought of as a two-way highway that sends text messages between gut and brain 24/7, 365 days a year.
The gut-brain connection has, of course, left many experts wondering what gut health, especially gut bacteria, can teach us about mental health. We sat down with Dr. Naidoo and Dr.
How gut bacteria and mental health affect each other
“There have been studies linking depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, [and] “All of these disorders of the central nervous system and psychiatry with the gut microbiome,” says Dr. Rezaie. For example, research shows that those who have low diversity in gut bacteria or altered microbiome composition are more likely to experience depression and anxiety.
Research has also shed light on the complex ways in which the consumption of certain foods affects the composition of our gut microbiome, which in turn can affect our mental health. “When healthy, nutrient-rich foods are broken down during the digestive process and their by-products interact with your gut bacteria, you get short-chain fatty acids, which are great for supporting gut health,” he said. Dr. Naidoo. Some foods, such as probiotics and prebiotics, can also help produce metabiotics, which are essential for supporting gut health.
But both Dr. Rezaie and Dr. Naidoo emphasize the fact that not all foods have a positive effect on your gut. In fact, some can make us feel worse mentally over time. “Certain fast foods, highly processed foods, foods high in added sugars and artificial sugars and / or processed oils can damage the lining of the gut, [which can] “They cause more chronic and severe inflammation in the gut that has been linked to depression, anxiety, cognitive impairment and more,” says Dr. Naidoo. The same goes for alcohol.
Dr. Naidoo adds that the by-products that result from the breakdown of these foods can be harmful to the gut, which can damage the lining of the gut and cause inflammation in the cells. “Instead of acting at their peak, gut bacteria interact with nutrient-free foods in the gut environment, which feeds bad bacteria more than good ones. “This can lead to dysbiosis,” he says. Dysbiosis is an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the gut that has been shown to contribute to various health problems. “I always say that inflammation of the intestine is inflammation of the brain [due to the gut-brain connection], so when the gut is inflamed over time, it will return to the connection to the brain. “Unfortunately, neuroinflammation can be associated with cognitive impairment,” adds Dr. Naidoo.
While it is clear that whatever we put in our bodies can affect the gut microbiome (and brain function), diet is only part of the puzzle of understanding how gut bacteria affect our mental health. says Dr. Rezaie. Both experts agree that more research is needed to understand exactly how the gut plays a role in mental health, but the future holds great promise.
6 ways to balance the composition of the gut microbiome for the benefit of mental health
Diet alone can not affect mental health, but there are still ways to balance the composition of your gut microbiome to support your mental and emotional well-being. Here are six tips from experts that are worth checking out.
1. Eat fermented foods
“Fermented foods have been shown to help with inflammation in the gut and boost a variety of good gut bacteria,” says Dr. Naidoo. Fermented foods undergo a process in which bacteria and yeast break down sugars that can boost the number of probiotics in the food. Examples of fermented foods are kefir, kombucha, apple cider vinegar, fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and kimchi, miso and tempeh.
2. Add spices to the dishes
“Many spices have rich antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can support gut health, such as turmeric and saffron,” says Dr. Naidoo. It also suggests spices such as ginger, cinnamon, bay leaves, cardamom and oregano to add to your dishes for a gut-toned touch.
3. Eat leafy greens
“Eating leafy vegetables is extremely important, as they are rich in folic acid, fiber, iron and other nutrients,” says Dr. Naidoo. Leafy greens such as spinach, chard, collard greens, arugula and dandelion are excellent sources of folic acid, which is an important vitamin that has been linked to reducing the symptoms of depression and improving cognitive ability.
4. Eat omega-3 fatty acids
“Eating omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to help with stress and can be found in fatty fish such as wild salmon, anchovies, sardines, nuts, flaxseed and hemp seeds,” says Dr. Naidoo. You can also explore supplements, but consult your doctor in advance.
5. Eat foods rich in vitamin D.
“Foods rich in vitamin D can help with stress and mood swings,” says Dr. Naidoo. Not getting enough vitamin D can contribute to symptoms similar to depression and anxiety. Whether you know it or not, vitamin D deficiency is much more common than you think, so you may need to eat more foods rich in vitamin D. Some examples are salmon, herring, sardines, cod liver oil, tuna. canned, egg yolks, and mushrooms.
6. Differentiate the foods you eat
While focusing on certain foods can be a great way to balance the composition of your gut microbiome, Dr. tofu and so on — to keep your gut microbiome working as well as possible and to differentiate the bacteria in your gut. “The more diverse [gut bacteria]”so much the better for healthy bowel function, heart function, kidney function and now psychiatry issues.”
Dr. Naidoo agrees, saying that the more varied the food we eat, the more diversity we bring back to the bacteria in our gut to help them thrive. “Eating a variety of plant-rich foods and prebiotic foods that contain plant polyphenols, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties can positively affect our gut health as well as mental health.” Nourishing your body with foods rich in nutrients and fiber can also help with stress by stabilizing blood sugar levels and reducing inflammation in the gut. (FYI: Dr. Rezaie warns that it is wise to consult a gastroenterologist, registered dietitian or primary care physician before adding new foods to your diet if you have irritable bowel syndrome [IBS] or overgrowth of small intestinal bacteria [SIBO] to avoid eating foods that may worsen your symptoms.)
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