When you think about your gut health, you might be thinking about what’s going on in your stomach. However, the ‘gut’ actually represents the interactions of the entire digestive system, including the mouth, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine, colon, and rectum. The gastrointestinal tract is a thirty-foot-long muscular tube that transports food from your mouth all the way down to your anus. These organs work together with trillions of microbes to break down and absorb nutrients into the bloodstream. This energy fuels all the cells of your body. This is not the end of the gut story, though. The gut not only plays a major role in getting our bodies nutrients but also in keeping our minds healthy. In fact, the gut microbiome is involved in virtually all aspects of human health.
It follows that when your gut is unhealthy, your mental health can also be affected. Some general signs of an unhealthy gut can include:
- Excessive gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea
- Heartburn and indigestion
- Unintentional weight loss or gain
- Skin conditions like eczema, acne, and psoriasis
- Insomnia or poor sleeping patterns
- Persistent fatigue
- Vitamin deficiencies
- Difficulty digesting certain foods
- Anxiety and depressive symptoms
Prebiotics vs. Probiotics
You may have an unhealthy gut due to poor eating habits. Some questions you might want to consider are “do you eat too fast or too much at one time?” or “what do you eat, and when?” Preservatives, processed foods, and refined sugars are all commonplace in American grocery stores. Though they may be tempting, these foods can reduce the concentrations of good bacteria working in your gut, causing you to crave more sugar but resulting in more damage. Sugars like high-fructose corn syrup have been found to cause inflammation, which is troubling, considering its role in cancer and other illnesses. Foods like ginger, turmeric, and green tea are better options, as they can help reduce inflammation instead of cause it. Stress and inherited conditions also inhibit the gut microbiome from working effectively.
You can try managing your digestive problems with pre-and probiotics. Prebiotics are foods that feed the good bacteria that live in your gut. Some examples of foods with prebiotics include honey, bananas, legumes, asparagus, and oatmeal. Probiotics are a little different: these foods contain live bacteria. Some classic examples you might be familiar with are yogurt, sourdough bread, and kombucha. If you don’t like those options, you can try sauerkraut, miso soup, kefir, acidophilus milk, buttermilk, sour pickles, and tempeh. You could even make your own fermented foods in a simple process that uses only salt, water, and a vegetable. Eating smaller meals slowly and around the same time every day, limiting meals after dark, and managing your stress levels via exercise and deep breathing can also be effective tips for gut health management.
The Connection to Mental Health
You might be wondering what exactly your gut health has to do with your mental health. Well, believe it or not, the brain and the digestive system interact closely in what scientists call the gut-brain axis (GBA). GBA describes how the gut microbiota, which is literally trillions of bacteria, archaea, fungi, viruses, and protozoa, send messages to the brain, influencing various mental and physical processes. Some scientists call this the gut-brain because it can work without the brain’s instructions and it has a central role in regulating human behavior and cognition.
For example, the gut is responsible for producing over 90% of the body’s serotonin. Serotonin is a key neurotransmitter for mood regulation and is the main component of some antidepressants (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, or SSRIs). Imagine what might happen if the gut just stopped making serotonin. The poor absorption of nutrients can also compromise dopamine production. This neurotransmitter is best known for its role in how humans feel pleasure. The dysfunction of both neurotransmitters has been found to play a central role in anxiety and depression.
Further research shows that disruptions and inflammation of this vital ‘organ’ can cause anxiety and depression, although it has been effectively mitigated by the use of probiotics. Research on fermented foods has also demonstrated gastrointestinal and cognitive benefits. However, more studies are required for them to use fermented foods as reliable treatments for mental disorders like anxiety and depression. Nevertheless, you may want to take a look at your diet and symptoms and talk to your doctor about whether your gut is contributing to your anxiety or depression.
The digestive system plays a central role in getting the body essential nutrients for physical and mental functioning. The gut microbiota, made of trillions of microorganisms like bacteria and yeast, works almost like a gut-brain, regulating human behavior and cognition without any directive from the brain itself. Damaging this vital ‘organ’ by experiencing stress or eating processed foods with lots of sugar and preservatives can cause microbiota disruptions and inflammation. This has been linked to anxiety and depression. With that in mind, a person’s lifestyle and the role that prebiotics and probiotics may play in their treatment should be examined. If you’ve been struggling with anxiety and/or depression, it might be time to talk to a clinician. Underlying conditions, like an unhealthy gut, may be contributing to your mental discomfort. There may also be other factors at play that are not as easy to address. At Oceanfront Recovery, we are dedicated to identifying the underlying causes of your mental disorder so that your treatment will truly be effective in the long run. Call (877) 279-1777 for more information.