Gut and Mental Health
The gut brain axis is an area getting more attention in the last few years and
rightly so, with very compelling studies demonstrating just how much of a
connection there is between our gut and our brain, and consequently our mood
and behaviour. Scientists have even coined the gut our ‘second brain’. The gut is
a vast system and though it can’t solve a crossword or write a blog and is busy
with all things digestion, it is also communicating with that big brain in our heads,
with significant effects.
The young science of psychology has progressed in research and subsequent
theories around what mental health is and we have started to move away from the
old idea of mental health being predominantly in the head. There is now a
greater appreciation of the holistic nature of our health and how it is all linked
within the body and mind. The gut brain axis, this communication system between
gut and brain, is one of those areas that demonstrates this well.
Researchers explain how when the signals between the two are off this can trigger
gut or other health issues. Maybe you can remember a time when your mood
and/or stress and gut or digestive issues converged? Perhaps you remember
feeling nausea before a stressful speaking event or intestinal distress during a
period of anxiety. This is a good example of that two way communication between
belly and brain.
Researchers have described the continuous battle of the good and not so good
bacteria in our gut. Which side is winning this gut war at any one time
significantly affects how our ‘second brain’ or enteric nervous system is
functioning all the way around the body to the brain, therefore affecting mood
and behaviour amongst many other aspects. We now know that the brain and gut
make the same chemicals that keep us ticking over in terms of mood, such as
serotonin and other vital chemicals like GABA and dopamine. Therefore, we can
see how giving more attention to treating our gut well could go a long way for our
overall health and wellness.
And so when we feel we want to explore issues we typically associate with our
heads such as low mood or anxiety one obvious step is to reach out to a therapist
for support to do so but how can we also support this second brain?
Well firstly researchers suggest that prolonged stress can impact the trillions of
gut bacteria inside us, which in turn can affect that communication with the
brain. Therefore, just another reason to look after ourselves when stress is rising
and to find support when stress becomes acute or prolonged in nature. This may
be in the form of therapy, regular exercise, attending to sleep needs and self care
in all its forms.
And how we can positively direct change for the gut is all about diversity! Eating a
diet based largely around fibre rich wholefoods is a key piece, while reducing our
intake of processed foods and sugars. The gut loves probiotics (live healthy
bacteria) which can be found in fermented foods such as kefir and kimchi or
through a supplement. These probiotics can be especially helpful after taking a
necessary antibiotic, to repopulate the good bacteria. Experts say even small
changes in these ways can lead to significant positive changes!