How Your Gut Health Affects Your Mental Health

Shandra Martinez

| 3 min read

Think about how often you and your best friend text each other. If something great happens and you want to share it, she’s probably the first person you’re going to tell. If you’re having a rough day, that’s the person you reach out to so you can share your feelings. The relationship between your brain and your gut is a lot like that. It’s a close connection. These two areas of our bodies stay in touch constantly. This means our big feelings are linked to our digestive and intestinal tract. It’s also why your gut health affects your mental health.

The mind-gut connection

This mind-gut connection has been the target of increasing study in recent years. Not only has research shown the connection, but there’s been more awareness by people who battle depression and anxiety that they often have to deal with gastrointestinal conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, abdominal pain and stomach upset.
In a recent article exploring the connection and associated research, National Public Radio interviewed a medicine and psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins University. He explained that the microbes found in our gut - there are actually more than 100 trillion microbial cells in our intestinal system - make certain types of chemicals that impact our brain. These gut chemicals can be carried by our blood to our brains. They can also be carried by nerves that connect to our brains. Once our brains receive these chemical messages, they can produce a response that makes our intestines work faster, work slower, or actually change the microbial composition in our guts. 

Signals go both ways

Because these chemical signals can race both ways between the mind and the gut, these two areas of the body can impact each other. It’s why if someone is upset, they may then feel tummy trouble coming on. Ditto for someone with intestinal discomfort, who then finds it affecting their mood. In this way, gut issues can be the cause or the after-effect of a person’s stress or anxiety, according to an article explaining the mind-gut connection published by Harvard Medical School.
This is similar to the way we talk about emotions affecting our abdominal area. Feeling nervous gives us the sensation of having “butterflies” in our stomach. Panic or fear is often something we say we can feel “in our gut.” And we may have a “gut feeling” that something isn’t right. What we’re talking about in all these cases is really the brain-gut connection.

How to improve gut health

Our gut health is tied closely to what we eat and drink, and our lifestyle. The digestive and intestinal system is made up of a hugely diverse microbiome, full of bacteria and fungi that live there and help our body function. Our gut health is also closely tied to our level of immunity to everything from diseases and viruses. So improving and maintaining our gut health should always be on our to-do list. Here are some ways to keep it in top form:
Get enough sleep. Why is sleep important to gut health? Because if you constantly short-change yourself on sleep, it can affect your weight and obesity comes with digestive issues.
Go easy on foods with added sugar and highly-processed ingredients. Digesting these kinds of foods mean there could be less of the “good” bacteria sticking around in your gut. Research has shown this could trigger inflammation in the body, which is a set-up for different kinds of chronic disease.
Stay hydrated. Drinking enough water each day and not letting yourself get thirsty is a big benefit for your whole body. It also helps your digestive system function better and will reduce the chances of constipation.
Photo credit: Getty Images

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