Go with your Gut: How Gut Health Affects Mental Health
Did you know your gut health can be directly linked to the state of your mental health? Think about it: if eating your fruits and veggies makes you feel healthier, happier, and stronger, it only makes sense that constantly putting bad food into your body will have the opposite effect. This is because what you eat impacts how your digestive system functions, and, if your digestive system is unhappy, it signals to the brain that something is wrong. Dr. Nisha Loganantharaj and Dr. John Hutchings with LSU Health provide more information on what we can do to help our guts.
What is gut health?
Your gut health consists of the microbiome, which is a collection of microorganisms that can be bacteria, viruses, and fungi, all of which live together to keep your gut healthy. The microbiome can affect your mental health as well, as it affects the whole body.
“The medical term for gut health is ‘homeostasis,’ which is a state of balance,” says Dr. Hutchings, a gastroenterology (GI) physician at LSU Health who also specializes in psychiatry. His specialized clinic focuses on disorders of brain-gut interaction, which emphasizes the overlap in the GI system with one’s emotional wellbeing.
“Your body is constantly searching for that balance, and we have to be in the position to try and support our bodies with healthy living,” he adds. He describes the microbiota of the GI system as a galaxy within our bodies; that mass of organisms is responsible for keeping the balance, and, if anything gets out of balance, that imbalance can have an impact on your emotional wellbeing.
What are some signs of poor gut health?
“Poor gut health symptoms could be bloating, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, and vomiting,” lists Dr. Loganantharaj, who specializes in inflammatory bowel diseases. “Having functional bowel problems can also contribute to anxiety and depression. These problems are linked to diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.”
Things that can harm the microbiome include antibiotics, toxins, poor diet, high sugar and high carbohydrate intake, and chemicals in your food supply. So, if you’re feeling particularly sluggish, it may be time to check what you’ve been putting into your body. Getting lab work done will help your doctor pinpoint what may be wrong, as there may be nutrient deficiencies that need to be addressed.
How does gut health affect mental health?
“Both the brain and the enteric nervous system come from the same tissue, so they are connected,” says Dr. Hutchings. “As you develop, there is only one direct connection to the GI tract, which is the vagus nerve. Everything else is connected by the same neurotransmitters.”
Your GI tract, therefore, is its separate nervous system. If a doctor were to take out your GI tract, it would continue doing what it’s supposed to do without the brain! That’s why your gut is referred to as the “second brain,” according to Dr. Loganantharaj.
“[The gut] has the same synapses, neurons, and neurotransmitters that are found in the central nervous system, so the connection between our brain and gut really affects our digestion and mood,” she notes. “It’s like how we get butterflies in our stomach–the brain and gut are tightly linked together.”
Additionally, if you are stressed, nervous, or anxious, those feelings can affect your digestive system by causing indigestion, bloating, nausea, or loss of appetite. When there is an interruption in the nervous system, there is a reciprocal problem in the GI tract, and vice versa. So, dysbiosis, or an imbalance of the gut, is linked to anxiety and depression. This is why the same neurons that contribute to one’s mental wellbeing, such as serotonin, are very important in balancing your GI tract.
What can someone do to improve their gut health?
One of the most important pillars of good gut health is by eating well. If you feed your microbiome well, it responds by making more good bacteria and controlling your weight, bowel movements, and daily energy.
“We recommend eating cleaner, so less processed foods, less fried foods, eating more fruits and vegetables, and having a colorful plate.” says Dr. Loganantharaj. “Also, it’s crucial to digest your food properly, like taking small bites, taking your time while eating, and drinking plenty of water.”
That being said, make sure to include the entire family in a cleaner diet. As Dr. Hutchings notes, “A family that eats well together feels well together. In our busy lifestyles, we lose that time spent with one another at the dinner table where we can decompress from the day, make strong connections, and celebrate with good food and good times.”
Another pillar is good exercise. We all know exercise is an instant mood-booster because it releases endorphins, but it can improve your gut health as well. Whether you’re taking a walk around the neighborhood every day or doing at-home workouts, moving your body is one of the best things you can do for your gut.
“For the GI tract, you have to train it to function properly, and by exercising you are strengthening the muscles around the GI tract,” says Dr. Hutchings.
The third point is to sleep well. “A lot of people feel like we don’t need as much sleep as we actually do, but recent research shows that if you sleep properly, about 8-8.5 hours per night, you actually end up burning more calories overnight, which makes you feel better the next day,” Dr. Hutchings adds. “The better you sleep, the longer your GI system has a chance to quiet down and be ready for the next day.”
Finally, it’s important to do what we love. As we get older, it’s typical to get caught in a rut and forget about the things that bring us joy. Doing something every day that makes you happy will have a positive effect on your physical and emotional wellbeing. Once you’ve reached this fourth pillar of gastrointestinal health, your body, mind, and gut will thank you.