There has been a steadily increasing amount of research and interest in the human gut microbiome over the past decade as the scientific community continues to uncover intriguing and fascinating ways in which the gut microbiome impacts our daily life.
At a glance, the gut microbiome impacts:
- Immune function
- Skin quality & appearance
- Cognitive function
What you might not realize is the fun little microbes that colonize your GI tract also can have a tremendous impact on your mood and mental well-being.
How does this exactly happen?
The Gut-Brain Axis
If you’ve ever had a “gut feeling” then you’ve witnessed the gut-brain axis in action.
While these two entities couldn’t seem further apart in terms of function, the truth is that the gut and brain work together in a number of important ways.
The gut and brain are connected by the vagus nerve -- the longest of the 12 cranial nerves in the body. Information can pass back and forth (bi-directionally) giving status updates on the health and functioning of the body’s critical internal organs.
Furthermore, the vagus nerve also is responsible for several important functions, including:
- Heart rate
- Respiratory rate
To communicate with the brain, the gut releases various hormones, neurotransmitters and immunological factors. Included among the host of chemicals released by the gut include two huge neurotransmitters in:
- Serotonin: the “happy” hormone that’s impacts mood, reward, satiety, and even immune cell activation
- GABA: the primary inhibitory (“calming”) neurotransmitter that helps you relax
What’s even more interesting is that while serotonin is a major neurotransmitter, over 90% of our serotonin supply is found in the gut.
Other important chemicals generated by the good bacteria in your gut include butyrate -- a short-chain fatty acid that helps regulate appetite, support healthy blood sugar levels, and foster a strong gut barrier, thereby stopping harmful bacteria and other assorted toxins out of the brain and blood.
However, a poor diet as well as chronic lifestyle stress can lead to inflammation of the GI tract and increased permeability of the gut barrier. This can lead to the release of cytokines and neurotransmitters that can increase the permeability of the blood-brain barrier, enhancing the effects of renegade chemicals from the gut. The release of these molecules can adversely impact cognitive function, mood, and memory.
Moreover, inflammation of the gut and dysbiosis have been linked to causing several mental illnesses including anxiety and depression.
How to Support Gut Health & Mental Health
As is the case when it comes to getting results during a transformation challenge, a multi-pronged approach is best for supporting gut health and mental well-being.
Using a combination of diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management techniques is critical to promoting a healthy gut microbiome, and thus mental health.
What you eat has a direct and profound impact on your gut health and mental well-being. The nutrients you consume will be used by the body to create all sorts of signaling molecules, hormones, neurotransmitters, which impact the integrity of your gut barrier, mood, outlook, immune function, and much more.
As such, you want to prioritize whole foods (fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein, healthy fats, etc.) and minimize your intake of hyper-processed (“junk”) foods that offer little in the way of antioxidants, fiber, polyphenols, and protein.
Those of you looking to really optimize your diet for gut health, consider these standouts:
- Omega-3s: essential fatty acids found in fatty fish (e.g. salmon) that may help reduce inflammation and support brain health
- Fiber: found in plant foods, fiber serves as food for your gut bacteria, helping them to stay strong
- Antioxidant-rich foods: fruits, veggies, cocoa, tea, nuts & seeds supply all sorts of beneficial phytonutrients that combat oxidative stress and support health & wellness
- Fermented foods: pickles, sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir and the like are rich in probiotics which nourish the GI tract with good gut bacteria
- Curcumin: major bioactive compound found in turmeric that is utilized by the bacteria in the gut, where it acts as a prebiotic, antidepressant, and antioxidant.
Supplements will help fill in gaps that may develop in the diet and make it easier to consume extra nutrients that can support recovery and lean muscle growth.
A multivitamin is a good “everyday” supplement to make sure you’re getting enough of the essential micronutrients needed to support baseline function.
Even if you consume a healthy diet, a multivitamin can be beneficial as modern farming practices have reduced the nutritional quality of many foods common to the diet.
A dedicated gut health supplement, such as Greens & Reds Superfoods, Gut Health Plus or Fiber Plus, are also extremely useful, especially for those who struggle to consume enough prebiotics, probiotics, and fiber on a regular basis.
Interestingly, some research indicates that probiotics can help reduce cortisol levels and stress while supporting a happier mood.
The gut microbiome is a diverse and intriguing entity that we’re really just beginning to understand. As research continues to grow, so will our knowledge of how to best support the gut, thereby enhancing all other aspects of life.
At a base level, make sure to exercise regularly, get 7-9 hours of sleep each night, eat a nutritious diet, and manage stress (or your response to it) as best as possible.
- Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G. and Hasler, G., 2018. Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain–Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9.
- Banskota S, Ghia JE, Khan WI. Serotonin in the gut: Blessing or a curse. Biochimie. 2019 Jun;161:56-64. doi: 10.1016/j.biochi.2018.06.008. Epub 2018 Jun 14. PMID: 29909048.
- Clapp M, Aurora N, Herrera L, Bhatia M, Wilen E, Wakefield S. Gut microbiota's effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis. Clin Pract. 2017;7(4):987. Published 2017 Sep 15. doi:10.4081/cp.2017.987
- Kulkarni, S.K., Bhutani, M.K. & Bishnoi, M. Antidepressant activity of curcumin: involvement of serotonin and dopamine system. Psychopharmacology 201, 435 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-008-1300-y