The mental health benefits of minding your gut

There’s a reason we are told to “follow our gut” or use phrases like “gut-wrenching” in highly stressful situations. Our guts and our brains are interconnected. They are in constant communication with each other – and, the state of one affects the other.

How the gut impacts our mood, cognition, and more

After years of research to help her clients, Certified Wellness Consultant, Davina Baptiste from St. Kitts, breaks down the interplay between our moods and our gut health.

“The brain and gut connection is referred to as the ‘brain-gut axis. There is a nerve in your brain that creates a pathway for the brain and gut to communicate called the vagus nerve. This nerve runs from the brain down to the spine and acts as a highway for information. The vagus nerve oversees an array of crucial bodily functions and communicates with every organ in your body.

When this nerve senses inflammation in your body, it alerts your brain, then proceeds with an anti-inflammatory response, it also helps in the creation of your memories and is even responsible for controlling your heart rate, as well as your relaxation response. Your gut communicates with your vagus nerve and tells your brain how you’re even feeling via electrical impulses,” Wellness Consultant, Davina Baptiste.

Recent research suggests that your stomach can be the cause or product of mental health challenges like anxiety, depression, and even stress. For example, the gamma-aminobutyric acid found in the gut helps control feelings of anxiety while cells in the stomach stimulate serotonin production which helps with feelings of happiness.

With such a connection, it is understandable why there is a growing body of research that looks into how mood is linked to the gut and vice versa.

“Let us consider stress – when you remain in a perpetual state of stress, your brain enters into a survival mode and the body’s stress response takes priority over all other metabolic functions including your digestion. Blood flow to the gut is also reduced.

Over time, long periods of remaining in this state can cause good bacteria in your gut to be weakened or damaged. This enables bad bacteria to multiply in this region of your body. The result of this is the weakening of your intestinal lining, which makes you more susceptible to illness and nutrient deficiency,” Wellness Consultant, Davina Baptiste.

Signs or symptoms

Most people while they acknowledge the importance of consuming foods that support a healthy gut and by extension their mental health, may not know what signs to be mindful of.

“Signs and symptoms of poor gut health can include constant upset stomach, diarrhea, fatigue, trouble sleeping, constipation, food intolerances, sugar cravings, changes in mood, migraines, and esophageal spasms that can lead to nausea, and vomiting,” Wellness Consultant Davina Baptiste.

For both men and women, poor gut health can also be seen through hormonal imbalance.

“Hormones are important chemical messengers that affect every aspect of our health. Hormone imbalances can affect not just a woman’s physical health, but also her mental and emotional health. One example of this is low progesterone seen in women with PCOS. Low progesterone levels can cause mood swings and even depressive states. Pairing this with the distress of being diagnosed with a disorder that has no cure and the other issues including trouble conceiving, excess hair growth (on the face, back, or chest), fatigue, and more, carries a heavy mental and emotional toll” .

Hormonal imbalance in men can affect several body processes like sleep, sexual function, and mood.

Davina shares that “hormonal imbalances in men can include low libido, fatigue, low sperm count, low muscle tone/mass, trouble sleeping, hair loss, and reduced cognitive function.”

Gut Health Food List

So how do we support our gut health?

Cuthbert Sebastian, MD, Kittitian and medical doctor at the University Hospitals Sussex NHS Foundation recommends foods that we can consume to support our gut and in return our mental health.

“From research over time, it’s clear that poor diet plays a role in worsening mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. This is what I say to my patients – just take care of your gut and it will take care of you.”

Quantity Matters

“We need to eat just the right amount of food – not too much or too little. If you get a feeling of bloating after a meal, chances are you’ve eaten too much; while on the other hand, if you’re still hungry after eating a meal you’ve most likely eaten too little. Once you have the feeling of satisfaction, that’s the perfect amount. Straddling either of these extremes may lead to fatigue or irritation.

For best results, I recommend affordable food options with fats such as olive oil, rapeseed oil, nuts, seeds, oily fish, avocados, milk, and eggs which allow your brain to function well. Foods high in protein contain amino acids which directly regulate your mood,” Cuthbert Sebastian, MD.

For Davina, seasonal foods that support gut health include “pumpkin, plantain, papaya, cassava, sweet potato, mango, tomatoes, peppers, almonds, lentils, beans, apples, brown rice, and leafy greens like spinach and kale, and fermented foods like unsweetened yogurt.”

Some great herbs for gut health include ginger, turmeric, peppermint, cinnamon, and chamomile.

“There are a variety of foods you can look at, just remember that the goal is to keep a balance between proteins, carbohydrates fats, and food with high fiber. If you also buy nutrient-rich foods in bulk, it further adds to savings. Integrating inexpensive yet nutrient-rich foods into your daily routine will help you save money and eat well,” Cuthbert Sebastian, MD.

Antibiotics, prebiotics, and probiotics

You can also take care of your gut by adding probiotics and prebiotic-rich foods to your diet.

“Probiotics are living bacteria that can be taken to increase the population of already existing good bacteria. Prebiotics help feed the good bacteria in the gut,” Wellness Consultant, Davina Baptiste.

Examples of probiotic foods include yogurt, kefir, and kombucha. Foods like garlic, onion, and asparagus are prebiotic-rich foods that we can find in our communities.

Antibiotics, on the other hand, slow down the growth of bacteria that are causing an infection, however, antibiotics cannot tell the difference between good and bad bacteria, therefore a lot of good bacteria needed for gut health are killed in the process.

Acting on what we do know

There’s still a lot to learn about both gut health and mental health, but what we do know is that they are intertwined and lifestyle considerations such as a nourishing, balanced diet, movement, and stress management can support a healthy gut and our mental health.

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