The link between our gut and mental health
From butterflies in our stomachs to going with our gut instincts, the way we think and talk about our emotions is so often based around our gut, and evidence is increasingly showing there really is an intimate link between mental and gut health. Not only does it seem that our brains affect our gut health, but our guts may impact on our moods, too. Read on to discover some of the fascinating ways they appear to influence one another, and how we can help support a happy symbiotic relationship between the two.
Serotonin and gut health
Thought of as the “happy chemical”, it has long been known that low levels of serotonin can be linked to depression – but up to 90 per cent of this mood-regulating chemical is actually found in the gut. Serotonin is produced in our bodies as the result of a chemical reaction involving an essential amino acid called tryptophan, which our bodies do not naturally produce. This means we have to get tryptophan from our diets.
A small body of research has suggested that as well as having a knock-on effect on our mood by enabling serotonin production, tryptophan may also help to alleviate aggression. Research has shown one way to bolster the effects of tryptophan may be to consume a carbohydrate-rich meal – this may be because the carb-heavy meal triggers our body’s production of insulin, which makes it more difficult for other amino acids to compete with tryptophan in reaching our brains.
Inflammation in the gut
Not only can stress trigger inflammation and allergic reactions in the gut, but research has demonstrated that in some animals, chronic gastrointestinal inflammation may cause anxiety-like behaviour. Irritable Bowl Syndrome has been found to be closely linked to stress and anxiety, and this correlation is thought to be down to decreased microbial gut diversity. In a trial, IBS sufferers given a prebiotic mixture containing galacto-oligosaccharide for four weeks had significantly improved levels of anxiety and a higher quality of life.
Eating mindfully and chewing slowly may help our body to get into the rest-and-digest mode, which is when our levels of adrenaline and cortisol are lower and the body works on processes like digestion, detoxifying and building immunity. Taking deep breaths is a particularly effective way of alleviating our body’s stress response (stress can negatively affect digestion) by triggering rest-and-digest mode. A handy breathing exercise to get your body into rest-and-digest mode is to take a few breaths in for a count of four, and out for a count of six. To eat mindfully, focus entirely on the food you are eating: how it looks, smells, tastes and feels in your mouth. Try to chew 25 times before you swallow to help you slow down and give your stomach an easier job.
The magnificent microbiome
Our ‘microbiome’ is the term used to describe the trillions of microscopic organisms which live in our gut. The bacteria in our gut feed on what we eat and drink, using this to create essential enzymes and vitamins. There is an increasing volume of research being carried out to discover the effect our microbiome may have on numerous conditions, including autoimmune and mental health. A growing body of research is finding that certain probiotics and prebiotics may have a beneficial effect on our mental health. One study found that a three week supplementation of prebiotic B-GOS decreased the cortisol awakening response (the surge of cortisol our body produces when we wake up) and increased focus on positive stimuli. Another study found that patients with depression who took probiotic supplements had significantly reduced levels of depression compared to those taking a placebo. Drinking kefir, a fermented yoghurt-like drink, is a great way to increase the diversity of your microbiome as it is rich in probiotics. Kefir is really easy to make at home – you can follow Liz’s recipe here.
There are so many ways that our gut and mood can impact on one another, both negatively and positively. Keep a positive, low-stress attitude and your gut will thank you. Maintain a healthy, uninflamed gut – and your mood might benefit too!