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Gut Health and Mental Health

Posted by Erin Fischer on

 

Trust your gut, listen to your gut, and what’s your gut feeling about this. These are all sayings that make no sense when you think about it. What kind of impact can the gut have on our thoughts and feelings? Well, a lot more than we realised with it being said that our digestive system is our second brain and can impact us more than we first thought. But how does our gut health impact our brain and can improving our gut health help our mental health?

When we’re anxious it’s not uncommon for us to have an upset stomach, have nausea and feel the urge to run to the bathroom. This is because our brains release hormones and chemicals that impact our gut and can cause gastrointestinal issues due to causing an imbalance of bacteria. While this is due to our brain impacting our gut, the relationship goes both ways. This is called the gut-brain axis and is because we have two thin layers of more than 100 million cells lining our gastrointestinal tract (from the esophagus to rectum) making up what is called the enteric nervous system (ENS). Some experts have taken to calling this our second brain and while it doesn’t think for us as such, it is consistently talking to your brain sending signals back and forth. The ENS has the same type of neurons and neurotransmitters as our central nervous system (CNS). If you’ve ever experienced butterflies in your stomach before a big event or made a gut decision, then your ENS was the thing behind it.

The ENS communicates with our brain through not only our CNS but also our hormones. Our gut also exchanges information with our immune system which affects our overall mental health. Because of this, studies are showing that our gut can contribute to conditions like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, autism, multiple sclerosis, and anxiety. 

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) impacts 3 in every 10 people and more women than men. While not life-threatening it is uncomfortable with symptoms including abdominal pain/discomfort, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. IBS has direct links with mental health with it not being uncommon that if you have IBS, you may also have anxiety or depression. It can be hard to tell which came first the mental illness or the IBS and there are people with anxiety who don’t have IBS and vice versa. Anxiety and other mental health issues may increase the risk of IBS and it’s something that many doctors are investigating. While there is no cure for IBS but diet (such as a low FODMAP diet) and supplements can help with the symptoms. Some doctors are now starting to use antidepressants to treat people with IBS because in some cases these medications may calm the nerve cells in the gut.

In order to have a healthy gut we need to eat a diet that includes fermented foods (like yogurt, kombucha, and kimchi) and possibly take probiotics (if we feel that we are not eating enough fermented foods). But will doing these things have an impact on our mental health and is it worth going out of our way to do these things? While it won’t hurt to take a probiotic or increase your fermented food intake, not enough is known about the exact types of bacteria needed in the gut to aid with mental health and if there’s a particular bacteria type that will have the greatest impact. More research needs to be done into this area but it’s not going to hurt, just be aware that you may not see any noticeable differences with your mental health.

There is also the argument that if you are experiencing regular stomach aches it will have an impact on your mental health (as will any chronic health condition) and taking a probiotic and including more fermented foods in your diet will most likely reduce the stomach aches making you happier overall.

As with a lot of supplements probiotics aren’t closely regulated so be sure to look at the label and following the storing instructions as if not correctly stored the probiotic may not be as active as it once was. There’s also the issue that everyone has different types and amounts of bacteria in their guts so what type works for one person may not work for another. The good news is that most probiotics are harmless but if you have any concerns, it’s best to talk with your doctor before taking them. Keeping your gut happy will have a roll-on effect on many aspects on your life not just your brain.

The next time you find yourself experiencing butterflies in your stomach due to excitement or you feel sick to your stomach before an anxiety inducing event just remind yourself that it is your second brain, and these feelings are perfectly normal. As with anything if these feelings are impacting your day-to-day life it’s worth talking to your doctor about it and seeing if there’s something going in the bigger picture.

Feel free to drop by, just say, ‘Hey Barty’ in strict confidence and you can be anonymous if you wish. Or, do not hesitate to leave a question in the comments below any time.

References:

Chang, H. (2019). Anxiety and IBS: Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg? [online] GoodRx. Available at: https://www.goodrx.com/blog/anxiety-ibs-irritable-bowel-syndrome-how-are-they-related/ [Accessed 16 Feb. 2022].

Clapp, M., Aurora, N., Herrera, L., Bhatia, M., Wilen, E. and Wakefield, S. (2017). Gut microbiota’s effect on mental health: the gut-brain axis. Clinics and Practice, [online] 7(4). Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5641835/.

Contributors, W.E. (2021). How to Improve Your Gut Health and Mental Health. [online] WebMD. Available at: https://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/how-to-improve-your-gut-health-and-mental-health.

Harvard Health Publishing (2019). The gut-brain connection - Harvard Health. [online] Harvard Health. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-gut-brain-connection.

Hopkins Medicine (n.d.). Can Probiotics Improve Your Mood? [online] www.hopkinsmedicine.org. Available at: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/can-probiotics-improve-your-mood.

Hopkins Medicine (2019). The Brain-Gut Connection. [online] John Hopkins Medicine. Available at: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-brain-gut-connection.

Jeanie Lerche Davis (2004). Stress, Anxiety and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. [online] WebMD. Available at: https://www.webmd.com/ibs/guide/stress-anxiety-ibs.

Luo, E.K. (2017). How Stress and Anxiety Can Aggravate IBS Symptoms. [online] Healthline. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/ibs-c/stress-and-anxiety.

McQuillan, S. (2016). The Gut Brain Connection: How Gut Health Affects Mental Health. [online] PsyCom.net - Mental Health Treatment Resource Since 1986. Available at: https://www.psycom.net/the-gut-brain-connection.

Selhub, E.M., Logan, A.C. and Bested, A.C. (2014). Fermented foods, microbiota, and mental health: ancient practice meets nutritional psychiatry. Journal of Physiological Anthropology, [online] 33(1). Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3904694/.

 


 

About Erin Fischer

Am the qualified mental health professional at Barty Single Origin. Write topical pieces with a focus on mental health. Always available on chat, Passionate about reducing the stigma surrounding mental health and letting people know it's A-OK to be not OK.


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