Supporting your body’s microbiome isn’t a new concept: you likely already know the importance of taking a probiotic while on antibiotics, or perhaps you’ve tried a fancy new probiotic skincare line. A growing area of research, however, is understanding the relationship between our gut microbiome and our mental health. Spoiler alert: it’s strong.
Over the last 20 years the link between the gut and the brain has been studied to both understand this relationship, and therapeutically harness the power of microbes in psychiatric care. In the journey towards health, how does our gut affect our mental health? And how can we support our brain function by supporting our gut’s microbiome?
What Is The Gut Microbiome?
Our gut encompasses every organ in our digestive tract, including the oesophagus, stomach, intestines, liver, gallbladder and pancreas. Within these organs is housed the gut microbiome: thousands of species of bacteria, fungi, archaea and viruses that altogether weigh over 2 kilograms. This varied gut flora contains a balance of beneficial, harmless and harmful microorganisms.
This ever-evolving landscape of microbiota comes with as many as 20 million genes that inform a range of our bodily systems. Often called the “second brain,” our gut communicates with our actual brain both physically and chemically. Physically, the vagus nerve connects the brain directly to our digestive tract, as well as other crucial organs such as the heart and lungs. Chemically, the microbiome sends messages to the brain through hormones and other chemical neurotransmitters.
How Does The Gut Affect Mental Health?
Over the years researchers have drawn parallels between various abnormalities of the gut (heartburn, indigestion, acid reflux, bloating, pain, constipation, diarrhoea) and the brain (Parkinson’s disease, autism, anxiety, depression). For example, many people with IBS suffer from depression, and people with Parkinson’s are more prone to constipation. Interestingly, there is an increased likelihood of depression among people taking antibiotics, though notably not with those taking antifungals or antivirals.
And it seems the relationship goes both ways: those with acute mental health issues will have observable changes in their gut microbiome, just as those with acute digestional issues may develop psychological or psychiatric symptoms.
The extent of this gut/brain relationship is at the centre of research around the world, but there is a general consensus that gut inflammation is a key factor in mental health issues. Gut bacteria is a crucial part of an effective immune system, and if this delicate balance is thrown off it may contribute to inflammation throughout the body. The specific microbes in the gut may also affect specific hormone function, insulin production, and serotonin release that go on to influence mood.
Ways To Support Healthy Gut Function For Mental Health
While mental health issues aren’t necessarily caused by the gut, the research is clear that taking steps to support your gut microbiome can be beneficial to your brain. The microbiome develops from before we are even born, so there is unfortunately no quick fix for healthy gut flora. While it’s a long game, here are our top tips to support a healthy, balanced gut microbiome:
The food we eat can have a drastic impact on the variety and balance of both beneficial and harmful bacteria in our digestive tract. It is important to maintain a varied diet full of vegetables, fruit, legumes and beans. Aim for a diet rich in prebiotic fibre and embrace fermented foods as a natural source of probiotics.
A high sugar diet has been shown to negatively impact gut flora, and even artificial sweeteners have been shown to affect insulin levels and blood sugar.
Looking at the effects of lifestyle on both mental health and the gut microbiome is where the link between the two becomes clear. Factors such as reducing stress and getting enough sleep are, of course, good for mental health issues, but they also promote balanced gut microflora.
Other factors to promote a healthy gut include not smoking, exercising regularly, and staying hydrated.
Take Probiotics And Avoid Antibiotics
While the gut microbiome can generally be supported through diet and lifestyle, antibiotics are the one factor that can quickly devastate this balance. They are designed to destroy any pathogenic bacteria in the body, though unfortunately can wipe out the gut’s beneficial bacteria in the process.
Of course, antibiotics can be a hero treatment for many acute health issues, though overuse can have a detrimental effect on gut health (and subsequently mental health). Care should be taken to not take them too often or for too long.
Taking probiotics as directed during and after a course of antibiotics (alongside a gut-friendly diet) is a recommended safeguard.