Did you know there’s a connection between gut health and mental health? It’s likely you’ve personally experienced the impact that an upset stomach or bowel issue can have on your mood and mental well-being. But it goes deeper than that, and science has documented some of the ways that gut health plays a vital role in mental and emotional health.
What Science Says About Gut Health and Mental Health
Doctors, researchers and scientists have long known about the relationship between the gut and the brain. Yet it was only in the past few decades that the link between the microbiome and mental health became clearer. In fact, it appears that your gut microbiota can help you feel calmer and less anxious.
The NIH helps us understand the connection with 4 Fast Facts:
- You acquired tens of trillions of microorganisms — microbiota — in your gut at birth that are unique to you
- Your emotions can impact your gut. But it turns out that your gut also affects your brain.
- Those gut-to-brain effects are caused by a neurotransmitter in your gut’s probiotic bacteria.
- You can alter your gut microbiota with diet and dietary supplements. These efforts may benefit your mood and could eventually have therapeutic benefits.
Probiotic supplements to enhance gut health are extremely popular in the US. A NHIS study in 2012 found that only vitamins and minerals are more widely used as dietary supplements. Recently, The British Medical Journal (BMJ) reviewed several years of research on how using probiotic supplements impacts gut health and mental health.
BMJ researchers looked specifically at studies that examined how prebiotics and probiotics may be helpful in alleviating depression and anxiety. Only 7 of the 71 studies they initially reviewed were ultimately included in their summary conclusion.
Their findings were encouraging, reflecting a beneficial impact on both depression and anxiety, though they explain that more research is needed with studies that include larger test groups. Suggestions include looking at the endurance of the effects, both with and without continued supplement use.
What Does the Emerging Evidence Mean for Some Common Mental Health Conditions?
The struggle with anxiety, depression and other mood disorders is often a long, difficult road. Therapy, medication and psychiatric intervention may be necessary to overcome or simply meet the challenges of living with a mental health condition. So, learning that the gut bacteria and mental health connection might help is good news.
Looking at the issue with the most positive spin, the latest science on gut health and mental health means there may be a new therapeutic option to consider. Additionally, those therapies involve a more natural approach than pharmaceutical methods. That’s a welcome advancement for many people who are plagued with the side effects of the prescription drugs they take for their mental health condition.
On the negative side, it’s possible that the latest information is more hype than reality. Researchers admit that more investigation is needed to determine how effective a modification in diet or the inclusion of probiotics and/or prebiotics can really be.
Are the improvements in mood the study participants experienced enduring, or will the effects fade over time? Who are the best candidates? What about the dangers of relying solely on an unproven treatment? These are just a few of the questions that must be answered before the mental health community can be confident in the efficacy of gut health therapies for improved mental well-being.
Understanding the Limitations of the Gut and Mental Health Link
While science shows a verifiable link between gut health and mental health, the full extent and impact of the connection is still unknown. Therefore, you must proceed with caution if you or a loved one is dealing with a mental health condition.
Review these potential dangers to avoid:
- Overdose: The consumption of too many probiotic supplements can cause gas, bloating, diarrhea and other gastric distress. For a person already dealing with a mood disorder, poor physical health can intensify their emotions and make things much worse.
- Harmful to Some Patients: The National Institutes of Health (NIH) warns that immunocompromised individuals and people with serious illnesses may be at risk of harmful effects. These patients should talk to their doctor before trying a probiotic regimen.
- Dosage Uncertainty: There isn’t yet enough research or evidence to identify the right amount of probiotics to consume for better mental health. Moreover, you may be getting varying doses or potencies from different supplement providers, since the market isn’t well regulated.
- Rejection of Proven Therapies: Patients should not stop their medication and/or therapy in favor of probiotics to treat their mental health conditions. The consequences can be devastating.
What Can You Do to Support Your Gut Health?
Whether or not probiotics can minimize your depression or anxiety through the gut and mental health link, supporting good gut health still has other benefits.
- Minimizes bloating and gastric discomfort
- May improve your quality of sleep
- Supports healthy skin
- Fights fatigue caused by too much Candida albicans bacteria due to excess sugar intake
- Can help people suffering from irritable bowels
In view of those advantages, it makes sense to take steps to support your gut health. Here are a few things you can do to keep your gut as healthy as possible.
- Embrace a well-balanced diet that includes fish, lean meats, whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Reduce your intake of sugar and sweeteners.
- Engage in moderate exercise, about 2.5 hours spread throughout each week.
- Eat high-fiber prebiotic foods — onions, asparagus, artichokes, bananas, oats, cabbage, leeks and garlic — to boost beneficial gut bacteria.
- Consume probiotic foods — yogurt labeled with live or active cultures, cottage cheese, kombucha, apple cider vinegar, fermented vegetables, tempeh and miso.
- Practice stress-reduction techniques.
- Avoid antibiotics when possible, as they damage your gut microbiota. Overuse can also cause resistance.
- Try to get at least 7 hours of sleep every night.
- Don’t smoke or vape.
- If you’re still experiencing gastric distress, consider scheduling a food allergy test with your doctor.
Follow as many of these recommendations as possible to help balance your gut’s microbiome. But don’t overdo it. Moderation is always best.
At FHE, our mental health professionals support a holistic approach to wellness, integrating medical, psychiatric and clinical approaches. With that in mind, we champion your proven personal efforts to help improve your mental and physical health. However, if you’ve been diagnosed with a troubling mental health condition, call us at 833-596-3502 to discuss receiving personalized, professional treatment that complements those efforts.