You know that feeling you get when you feel nervous? A sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you know something is about to go wrong or butterflies before a public speaking event or a performance?
These are all perfect examples of how our gut and brain communicate with each other, and it’s definitely not a one-way street!
So, what’s the link between your gut and mental health?
Answer: the gut-brain axis.
A two-way communication channel where the entire system of bacteria and other microbes send signals to the brain, and the brain can also send signals to the gut. It may not come as a surprise to many, as nerves or stress can cause some disruptions to the gut, and poor gut function can most certainly affect your mood.
There are a number of ways that you can modify the communication between the gut and the brain. Here’s just a few.
Serotonin, is a neurotransmitter that is produced mostly in the gut! It’s made from an amino acid (or protein building block) tryptophan, found in dairy foods, nuts & seeds, legumes, poultry, meat & fish.
Serotonin impacts a number of different functions in the body including reducing depression and anxiety, wound healing and maintaining bone health.
Studies have shown reducing tryptophan-containing foods in the diets of people with a history of depression, was associated with higher rates of depressive symptoms. This shows the importance of dietary intake on the gut and mental health and how it may affect your mood.
How to boost serotonin?
- Include tryptophan-rich foods daily (think of your protein-containing foods)
- Use other techniques to improve mood such as meditation (yes, it’s another two-way street between mood & serotonin)
- Exposing yourself to bright light (preferably from the sun!)
- Move your body
Different types of microbes in the gut, feed on different nutrients. What the bacteria living in your large intestine love is fibre! Found in fruits, vegetables and grain foods, they are fermented and provide us (and the bugs) with energy. Generally, the gut microbes that feed off fibre offer more of a benefit to us, introducing more fibre into your diet will help feed the ones you want to keep hanging around.
The more fat and protein you eat, the numbers of microbes feeding off these nutrients increase, which often offer fewer benefits to us (the host), including contributing to poor mood!
Another reason to eat some more fruit and veggies!
Probiotics is the ingestion of beneficial live bacteria with the goal of increasing their numbers in the gut. Some studies in mice have shown that probiotics can reduce cortisol levels, also known as the “stress hormone”. Another reason to sip on some delicious Perkii to keep stress at bay!
We know that managing stress levels is one of the key strategies for managing gut symptoms in Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Finding a way to manage with stress whether that be: exercise, meditation or self-care activities can be a great way to keep your gut happy!
Gut health and the brain is most definitely an emerging field that requires more research. However, there’s definitely some simple ways you can help those positive vibes flowing between the gut and your brain, enjoy healthy doses of fibrous food daily, de-stress with physical activity, meditation or yoga or whatever works for you and adding probiotic rich food and drinks are sure to keep those tenants in your tummy happy!
Written by Stefanie Valakas, an Accredited Practicing Dietitian, known as The Dietologist. Stefanie looks beyond just nutrients and numbers to understand your personal food story, and works with you to help you get the most out of life. Available for face-to-face and virtual one-on-one consults, visit www.thedietologist.com for more information. Find me on Instagram & Facebook.