An estimated one in five American adults experiences bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses each year. And scientists warn that several years of pandemic-related stress and social upheaval have not done our mental health any favors, although the exact implications are still being explored.
Most Americans say that they significantly increased their use of alcohol and other substances to cope with the changing times. Changes in diet, nutrition, and alcohol intake are having an indirect effect on a surprising dimension of our mental health: our gut microbiome.
The average person has an estimated 39 trillion bacteria cells in his or her body, which is far more than the number of actual human cells. Much of these bacteria take up residence in the gut. Researchers collectively refer to that as your gut microbiome.
Although your gut and digestive tract might seem at nearly the opposite end of your body from your brain, there’s a powerful gut-brain connection that gives new credence to the phrase, “think with your gut.”
Your gut has an estimated 500 million neurons, which communicate with your brain via the vagus nerve. This is where the groundbreaking research on the gut microbiome and mental health really takes off.
Scientists have discovered that the bacteria in your gut produce chemicals and substances that impact your brain, your brain chemicals, and your mood and mental health thanks to the vagus nerve. For example, an imbalance in gut bacteria can lead to increased levels of lipopolysaccharide and other inflammatory toxins produced by your gut microbes.
If those inflammatory chemicals “leak” into your body from your intestines, it can lead to inflammation in your brain. It’s been well-established that this link between “leaky gut” and brain inflammation is associated with mental health and psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, depressive disorders, and anxiety disorders.
The neurotransmitters gamma-aminobutyric acid (your brain needs GABA to moderate anxiety, stress, fear, etc.) and serotonin (a mood regulator associated with positive feelings) are other prominent examples of how gut health matters for the brain and mental health.
Your gut microbiome produces a significant amount of the total serotonin and total GABA in your body. In other words, a healthy gut microbiome may support better mood regulation and better mental health. And, an unhealthy gut microbiome, or a microbiome that’s unbalanced and has too many toxic bacteria, may be one of the many factors that contribute to mental health disorders and higher rates of anxiety, stress, and other mood concerns.
So, ask yourself: what are you doing today that is supporting or sabotaging your gut health and thus significantly enhancing or impairing the state of your mental health?
Alcohol consumption—which has been increasing during the pandemic—has numerous adverse effects on your gut microbiome. Alcohol doesn’t just compromise the health of your actual digestive organs and gut structure, it also kills beneficial bacteria and encourages the flourishing of harmful bacteria.
Diet and nutrition are key. Food choices and lifestyle habits that may harm your gut microbiome include:
- Eating a diet high in saturated fats, trans fats, refined grains, or added sugars (artificial sweeteners don’t fare much better)
- Eating too many processed foods
- Smoking (many people don’t realize that smoking reduces blood flow to your gut)
If you want to support a healthier gut microbiome and enhance and support your mental health, consider the following:
- Eat prebiotic foods that help to “feed” your healthy gut microbes, such as garlic, onions, or berries
- Eat probiotic foods that contain diverse, naturally occurring beneficial bacteria, such as yogurt, kefir, and fermented vegetables
- Take a probiotic supplement
- Choose whole grains and whole plants whenever possible
- Avoid the unnecessary use of antibiotics, including topical antibiotics commonly found in hand soap, household cleaners, etc.
The gut-brain axis and how your gut microbiome influences your mood and mental health have been overlooked for too long. And many of our everyday routines and dietary choices inevitably hamper our gut health.
It’s yet another reminder of how our bodies are complex, interconnected systems and why it’s important to care for and support each dimension of wellness.
About the Author: Dan Murray-Serter has spent years unpacking and understanding his own mental health struggles, including depression, chronic anxiety, insomnia, bulimia, and burnout. Murray-Serter’s journey led him to co-found Heights, a research-driven supplements company led by some of Europe’s leading experts in the fields of mental health, neuroscience, wellness, nutrition, behavior change, and cognition. The Smart Supplement by Heights provides a top-rated formula of 20 key nutrients to support optimal mental health and brain health.
Photo by Ella Olsson on Unsplash
The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.
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