July 11, 2020 at 10:06AM
It makes sense that an unhealthy gut might lead to an upset stomach and digestion issues. What’s less obvious, though, is how an unhealthy gut could affect your mood.
To better understand the gut-brain connection, mbg spoke with internal medicine physician Austin Perlmutter, M.D. Here’s what he has to say about the link between gut health and mental health.
What is the gut-brain connection?
The gut microbiome refers to the viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms living within the gastrointestinal tract, including the stomach and intestines. Research has indicated that the gut directly affects the brain, via the gut-brain connection or gut-brain axis.
“The gut-brain connection is a bidirectional highway that transmits critical data between the GI tract and the brain,” Perlmutter tells mbg. The gut and the brain physically connect through the vagus nerve, Perlmutter explains, as well as neurotransmitters, immune chemicals, and products of the gut microbiome.
This channel allows the gut and the brain to communicate back and forth, and signal to each other when something feels off.
How the microbiome affects mood.
“Scientists have known about the connection between our microbiome and our mood for a long time,” Perlmutter says. “In fact, they were actually testing out probiotics as a treatment for melancholy back in 1910.” Today, an entire field, known as psychobiotics, is dedicated to understanding how specific microbes may alter the microbiome and improve mood.
There are several factors within the gut that can directly affect the brain and influence mood. These include a disruption to the vagus nerve, poor immune function, and the creation of short-chain fatty acids (SCFA).
“One of the biggest links between gut health and mood is inflammation,” Perlmutter says. “That’s because our gut health plays a big role in determining levels of inflammation in our bodies, and inflammation may, in fact, cause some forms of depression.”
Along with depression, an unhealthy gut microbiome may be associated with anxiety. When looking at some cases of anxiety, “studies have shown changes in the makeup of the microbiome’s bacterial populations compared to healthy controls,” Perlmutter says.
How to support your microbiome and mood.
To support a healthy gut microbiome and, therefore, mood, here’s what Perlmutter recommends:
1. Eat gut-friendly foods.
“The best fuel for keeping our gut in top shape is prebiotic fiber,” he says, “ideally from eating whole foods like fruits and vegetables like garlic, jicama, and leeks.” Other foods high in prebiotic fibers, like inulin, include chicory root, Jerusalem artichokes, onions, raw asparagus, and yams. According to Perlmutter, polyphenols may also help. “These can be found in high concentrations in coffee, dark chocolate, and teas,” he says.
2. Take probiotics.
While eating a healthy, nutrient-rich diet is the first step of getting a healthy gut, adding a probiotic supplement can also be beneficial. “Early research has indicated that certain strains of probiotics may help alleviate symptoms of depression.* Other strains may help with metabolic issues or immune dysfunction,” Perlmutter says.* As far as the specific probiotic strains go, some studies note that Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium seem to show the most beneficial effects on mental health.
More recent research continues to support those suggestions. A 2020 study says the combination of prebiotics and probiotics can help manage anxious and depressed feelings, especially in adults with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).*
3. Avoid gut offenders.
Unnecessary use of antibiotics, as well as over-the-counter drugs, may disrupt gut health. In the right context, these drugs can be good for our health, Perlmutter says. However, over time, and when used inappropriately, they may disrupt the microbiome and gut barrier.
4. Manage stress.
Chronic stress has been shown to disrupt the intestinal barrier and lead to inflammation, Perlmutter explains. To help manage stress, and therefore enhance gut health, he suggests spending time in nature, exercising, meditating, or connecting with loved ones. There are plenty of healthy ways to manage stress, and everyone should take a personalized approach.
The gut and the brain communicate directly through the gut-brain axis. When the gut microbiome is in dysbiosis, it can affect mood and may even result in symptoms of anxiety and depression. Thankfully, there are many ways to support gut health, such as eating a healthy diet, taking probiotics, avoiding gut offenders, and managing stress.
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