If you’re interested in health and wellness, you may have heard that there’s a connection between gut health and mental health. At first, it seems difficult to understand how the brain and the gut could be closely connected, but the fact is that all body systems are intricately connected and affect each other in various ways. Understanding the connection between gut health and mental health can help to clarify why both are essential for overall well-being.
Recent research has found that bacteria in the gut can affect people’s mental state, impacting mood, cognition, and even behavioral problems. But in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the link between the gut and all of the body’s organs has been recognized for thousands of years.
What is Gut Health?
Gut health refers to the general state of your digestive system. It is the balance of microorganisms in our gut, the integrity of our gut lining, and the proper functioning of our digestive organs. The gut microbiome, (the environment in the gut made up of trillions of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms) plays a crucial role in our overall health. A healthy gut microbiome helps to digest food, absorb nutrients, produce vitamins, and maintain a healthy immune system.
What is Mental Health?
Mental health refers to our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and behave. Mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, can have a significant impact on our daily lives. A variety of factors, including genetics, environment, and lifestyle influence mental health. Poor mental health can have detrimental effects on physical health in general, and often leads to improper care of one’s health and body systems.
The Link Between Gut Health and Mental Health
Research has shown that there is a two-way relationship between gut health and mental health – the gut-brain axis is a communication pathway between the gut and the brain, with each organ sending and receiving signals constantly.
The gut microbiome communicates with the brain through the enteric nervous system, the vagus nerve, and other signaling pathways. The gut microbiome produces neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that send messages throughout the body. In the gut, these include serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). These neurotransmitters greatly affect our mood and behavior.
For example, serotonin is a neurotransmitter associated with mood – and your gut stores 95 percent of your body’s serotonin. These messages between the gut and the brain not only coordinate our basic digestive function, but also regulate mood, stress, sleep patterns, mental functioning and other essential body processes.
Did you know?
- Immune Cells in your gut make up the largest part of your body’s immune system.
- Your gut is often referred to as the “second brain” because it has between 200-600 million nerve cells – the same number as in your spinal cord.
- Gut microbiome is made up of the trillions of microorganisms living in your intestinal tract. Spread out, it would cover these microorganisms would cover the size of a basketball court.
The Chinese Medicine perspective
In Western medicine, gut health typically refers to the gastrointestinal system as a whole: from the throat all the way down to the rectum. Essentially, it is where food and drink enter and leave your body, and every other involved organ in between.
However, the Eastern concept of the gut is a bit different. TCM refers to the gut as the Spleen and Stomach. The body isn’t viewed as separate parts, rather as a whole. Everything is connected, so if the gut is healthy, that tends to open the road to complete and balanced health overall.
Though the brain-gut axis has recently emerged in medical science, TCM recognized the connection between emotions and digestive health thousands of years earlier.
According to TCM, the Earth element, associated with the Stomach and Spleen, represents the digestive system. It helps us properly digest and assimilate food, converting the nutrients into blood, Qi or energy, and fluids of the body. TCM also sees the digestive system as responsible for processing our emotions. It is most affected by chronic worry, anxiety, or overthinking. Excessive or unbalanced emotions and stress weaken the Spleen and Stomach, and therefore the gut.
A healthy spleen and digestive system in general, will result in clear thoughts. Ideas can be taken in and easily processed and dealt with. A deficient or burdened spleen will change that healthy thought process into worry, overthinking, or worse. The spleen is unable to “digest” the thoughts and they become stagnant and linger. Constant worry knots spleen Qi and a weak spleen creates more worry. By treating the spleen (digestion) you are able to correct this unhealthy emotional imbalance.
How does Gut Health Affect Mental Health?
Medical science and TCM are in agreement that the gut, and even the spleen, impact mental health. As mentioned above, the gut produces many neurotransmitters known to affect mood. Imbalances in the gut microbiome can also lead to inflammation, which has been linked to mental health disorders. Chronic inflammation can also lead to a leaky gut, which allows harmful substances to enter the bloodstream and trigger an immune response. This immune response can then affect the brain and lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.
How to optimize your gut-brain axis
TCM has always embraced a holistic healing approach. Acupuncture and herbal medicine can support digestion, absorption, and elimination, while the dietary decisions you make can shape, populate, and cultivate beneficial bacteria. Probiotics and prebiotics support gut health and can be a supplement or found naturally in the foods we eat.
A healthy diet rich in fermented foods, omega fatty acids, leafy green vegetables and limited complex carbohydrates will also help to develop a healthy gut microbiome. And let’s not forget that self-care is also essential to supporting the digestive system. Receiving regular acupuncture treatments and taking time for exercise and stress-reducing practices such as yoga will help to regulate both the nervous and digestive systems.
Evidence supports that TCM methods can positively help those struggling with anxiety and depression.
Factors that Affect Gut Health and Mental Health
Several factors can affect gut health and mental health. These include:
A diet high in processed foods, sugar, and unhealthy fats can lead to an imbalance in the gut microbiome. On the other hand, a diet rich in fiber, fruits, vegetables, and fermented foods can promote a healthy gut microbiome.
Chronic stress can lead to inflammation and a dysfunctional or weakened immune system, which can affect gut health and mental health. Weakened immunity can cause overgrowth of unwanted bacteria and viruses in the gut, resulting in illness and a dysregulated gut microbiome.
Antibiotics can disrupt the balance of the gut microbiome by killing off “good” bacteria in the gut. This can lead to an overgrowth of harmful bacteria, making it difficult for the good bacteria to increase and flourish after a course of antibiotics is finished.
Poor sleep can lead to inflammation and a dysregulated immune system, which can affect gut health and mental health. Alternatively, a healthy gut microbiome can positively affect sleep patterns and regulate circadian rhythms, which is our natural sleep-wake cycle.
How to Improve Gut Health for Better Mental Health
There are several ways to improve gut health for better mental health. These include foods, lifestyle changes and supplements.
Foods that promote gut health and mental health:
- Probiotic foods – Probiotic foods contain live bacteria and/or other organisms naturally found in your gut. These include foods like yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut, and they can promote a healthy gut microbiome by increasing or replacing “good” bacteria or fungi populations.
- Prebiotic foods – These foods feed and promote the growth of organisms like bacteria and fungi in the gut. Unlike probiotic foods, prebiotic foods do not contain organisms or introduce more into your system. Instead, they are food for the existing organisms and therefore support the growth of microbiome organisms. Prebiotic foods include onions, garlic, bananas, and artichokes.
- Fiber-rich foods – Many prebiotic foods are also high in fiber, which acts as food for gut bacteria, viruses, and fungi. However fiber-rich foods can also reduce inflammation and therefore promote mental health. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are typically high in fiber and are essential for a mental-health-friendly diet.
Lifestyle changes to improve gut health and mental health:
- Stress management techniques, such as meditation, yoga, and deep breathing, can reduce stress and improve gut health, mental health, immunity, and sleep patterns.
- Regular exercise can reduce inflammation and help to regulate hormones, promoting mental wellbeing and creating a gut-microbiome-friendly environment.
- Getting enough sleep can improve gut health and mental health by boosting immunity and encouraging healing and recovery of body systems.
Supplements for gut health and mental health:
- Probiotic supplements support a balance of the gut microbiome.
- Prebiotic supplements support beneficial bacteria in the gut.
- Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish oil and flaxseed oil supplements, support reduced inflammation and improved mental health.
Connecting Gut Health, Mental Health, and Wellness
The gut-brain connection is complex, and the link between gut health and mental health is becoming increasingly clear through health research. It is important to take steps to improve gut health for better mental health. By making dietary and lifestyle changes, and supporting overall health and wellness with appropriate supplements, you can promote a healthy gut microbiome and potentially reduce the risk of mental health problems.
Although mental health can be supported through gut health and physical health, these remedies are long-term solutions for overall well-being. If you are struggling with mental health, its important to seek professional help in addition to making dietary and lifestyle changes.
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