Why You Should Improve Your Gut Health to Help Your Mental Health

If you’ve been feeling a little more blah or blue than usual these days, you may want to try making some improvements to your diet to see if those changes could put you in a better mood.

“One of the first things I talk about with patients that come in experiencing stress and anxiety is the role of food in mood,” says Dr. Tiffany Caplan, Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner, Caplan Health Institute

One way dietary choices play a very important role in our mood is via the gut-brain connection. “We think of the gut as our second brain but really it can have more control over our mental health than our actual brain,” says Dr. Caplan. 

The gut is often at the root of why someone is producing lower or abnormal amounts of the feel-good brain chemical, serotonin. “That’s because the gut is responsible for producing about 80 percent of the body’s serotonin! It does this with the help of essential amino acids—like tryptophan which is the building block for serotonin—and with the help of our microbiome, the different good bacterial species that live in our gut.” Therefore, when your gut isn’t healthy due to a poor diet and an imbalanced microbiome, your body may struggle to produce these necessary brain chemicals.

Could inflammation be causing your bad mood?

Along with producing neurotransmitters, the gut also houses the majority of our immune cells. When the gut lining is inflamed or unhealthy we may develop something called “leaky gut”, says Dr. Caplan. Leaky gut is a simplistic term used to describe increased intestinal permeability that allows for your immune system to get a higher exposure to substances it wouldn’t normally be exposed to.

When you eat, food gets digested and broken down into tiny particles that are small enough to be absorbed in the gut lining. If a gut lining is “leaky”, it means particles of food that aren’t well digested or other big particles like toxins and bacteria can move from the gut into the bloodstream. This may trigger inflammation which may contribute to chronic conditions like obesity and even mental illness. However, more human research is needed. 

Depression and fatigue have frequently been associated with inflammation that’s activated by the immune system. And while it seems like a feel-good option to grab a cookie when you’re in a bad mood, beware of sugar consumption when you’re feeling down. Some studies found associations between high sugar consumption and mental disorders and depression. That may also be due to sugar’s direct impact on inflammation. Finding ways to reduce sugar in your diet, and instead turn to fresh fruits and veggies might result in a mood boost.

How to build a healthier gut and stronger immune system

“Poor gut health can lead to nutrient deficiencies which can directly impact how our immune systems are able to function,” says Dr. Caplan. One of the key “ingredients” to a healthy immune system is vitamin D.

“Having a diverse microbiome helps promote the good, beneficial species and crowds out the potential ‘bad species,’” says Dr. Caplan.

Probiotics and fermented foods can sometimes be helpful for people with depression as it can help support a better overall balance of the good bacteria in the gut, says Dr. Caplan. Eating a rich, varied diet full of variety with lots of phytonutrients and fiber from fruits and vegetables helps feed and support a healthy balance of bacteria in our guts which then help neurotransmitter production, says Dr. Caplan.

Having a diverse, healthy gut microbiome is often found in populations where people eat more high-fiber and plant-based foods compared to a typical Western diet  that consists of processed and low-fiber foods. Quite a few studies have noted associations between increased fruit and vegetable consumption and reduced odds of having depressive symptoms.

If you have one takeaway from this article, it’s this—find more ways to incorporate fruits and vegetables into every meal and eat more fiber-rich whole grains.

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