June 19, 2023 7 min read

In this article

    Much has been written in recent years about the importance of maintaining a healthy gut. And no, we’re not talking about scoring a killer set of six pack abs (because we don’t have those and are a little salty about it). We’re referring to what’s happening on the inside, and how it can impact a person’s overall health and well-being.

    Thanks to the recent outpour of research and studies, we now have a clearer picture of why a healthy gut is such a key part of mental health, too. Understanding the connections that take place across this internal information superhighway will shed light on how you can take steps to boost your mental health by taking care of your gut, too!

    Read on to learn everything you need to know about the connections between gut health and mental health, as well as how you can boost your own physical and emotional well-being by improving your routine of diet and nutritional supplements.

    Your Gut: The Center of it All

    You may have heard the gut be referred to as the "second brain," but do you know why? Your gut contains millions of neurons and is home to a complex community of microorganisms known as the gut microbiota. This intricate ecosystem plays a crucial role in regulating physiological processes, including direct communication with our brains.  

    The gut-brain axis is a vast, bidirectional communication network that connects the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal tract. This connection is facilitated through various pathways, including the vagus nerve, immune system signaling, and the release of neurotransmitters and hormones. 

    Your Gut: The Center of it All

    Because this network goes both ways, the health of one system has a direct impact on the health of the other. Think of it like this: your brain and your gut work in tandem, sharing information and activity that help boost both systems in a reciprocal way. When the brain is happy and healthy, so is your gut, and vice versa! 

    However, the stresses of our modern lifestyle often put both of these systems on high alert. From sedentary habits that have us hyper-connected to screens (rather than outside communing with fresh air and nature) to on-the-go lifestyles that prioritize ultra processed foods (and way too much caffeine) and minimal sleep, it’s no wonder that our guts have gone absolutely bonkers!

    Disturbance of the healthy intestinal flora has been associated with numerous pathological conditions including neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, ADHD, depression, anxiety, and autism.

    You or other people you know might suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease, leaky gut, or other digestive disorders. Managing these conditions can greatly impact a person’s quality of life as they struggle to receive accurate diagnoses, determine which diet offers the best support, and live with the physical and psychological discomfort that they bring about. 

    Though it might seem like a gargantuan task, this is why it’s so important to understand our gut and incorporate or establish lifestyle habits that foster an environment where health and well-being abound. 

    How Gut Health Impacts Your Mood & Brain 

    Now that you know all about your gut and brain being besties, let’s dive into how this is related to mental health and cognitive well-being. Disruptions to the gut microbiota and gut-brain communication can have profound effects on both. 

    We’ve all talked about “having a gut feeling,” getting butterflies in our stomach as a response to a stressful or anxiety-inducing situation. Sometimes the feeling is so overwhelming we even experience nausea or digestive upset. After all, the digestive tract is extremely sensitive to emotional triggers. Emotions such as sadness, anxiety, and excitement can trigger direct responses in our gut. 

    One key mechanism linking gut health to mood and anxiety is through the production of neurotransmitters. Your gut microbiota can synthesize neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). They play essential roles in regulating mood, emotions, and stress responses. 

    How Gut Health Impacts Your Mood & Brain

    Now that you know all about your gut and brain being besties, let’s dive into how this is related to mental health and cognitive well-being. Disruptions to the gut microbiota and gut-brain communication can have profound effects on both. 

    We’ve all talked about “having a gut feeling,” getting butterflies in our stomach as a response to a stressful or anxiety-inducing situation. Sometimes the feeling is so overwhelming we even experience nausea or digestive upset. After all, the digestive tract is extremely sensitive to emotional triggers. Emotions such as sadness, anxiety, and excitement can trigger direct responses in our gut. 

    One key mechanism linking gut health to mood and anxiety is through the production of neurotransmitters. Your gut microbiota can synthesize neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). They play essential roles in regulating mood, emotions, and stress responses. 

    Imbalances in their production due to gut dysbiosis (an unhealthy gut microbial composition) have been associated with increased risk of mood disorders like depression and anxiety. 

    Neurotransmitters Synthesized by the Gut

    Serotonin: Often referred to as the "feel-good" neurotransmitter, serotonin is involved in regulating mood, happiness, and well-being. It’s synthesized in both the brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Did you know? 90% of serotonin is found in the cells that line your GI tract, compared to about 10% that is produced in the brain.

    Serotonin helps regulate emotions, sleep, appetite, and pain perception. Low levels of serotonin have been associated with depression, anxiety, and mood disorders. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a class of antidepressant medications, work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain.


    Dopamine: Known as the "reward" neurotransmitter and is associated with motivation, pleasure, and reinforcement. Dopamine plays a crucial role in the brain's reward system, which is responsible for reinforcing behaviors related to survival and pleasure. It’s also involved in regulating motivation, movement, attention, and learning. Over 50% of the dopamine in your body is produced in the gut.

    Imbalances in dopamine levels have been associated with various mental health conditions, such as depression, schizophrenia, and addiction. Certain medications, such as dopamine agonists, can stimulate dopamine receptors and are used in the treatment of Parkinson's disease and other conditions.

    Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA): GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. It works by reducing the activity of neurons, helping to balance and regulate brain activity. GABA has a calming effect on the brain and is involved in reducing anxiety, promoting relaxation, and improving sleep.

     

    Low levels of GABA have been associated with anxiety disorders, epilepsy, and insomnia. Certain medications, such as benzodiazepines, enhance GABA activity and are used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders.

    The gut microbiota influences the immune system, which can also impact mental health. An imbalanced gut microbiota can trigger symptoms typically associated with what’s recognized as chronic inflammation, leading to neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration. Inflammation in the brain has been linked to mood disorders and cognitive decline. Conversely, a healthy gut microbiota promotes anti-inflammatory responses, which can help protect against these conditions.

    Food & Supplements that Support Gut Health

    It’s very unsexy advice, but maintaining a balanced diet of healthy, whole foods that’s complemented by other sustainable lifestyle habits is core to supporting gut health, which in turn will boost your mental health. What’s more, studies have shown that diet can influence the gut microbiome’s impact on cognitive function. 

    To support gut health and boost mood and cognitive well-being, different foods and nutritional supplements can prove beneficial. 

    Foods that Boost Gut Health

    There are plenty of nutrient-dense foods that nourish your body and support a general state of healthy well-being. If you’re looking to take extra special care of your gut, be sure you include the following in your dietary rotation:

    • High-fiber foods: Whole grains, such as oats, beans and legumes, and plenty of fruits and vegetables
    • Probiotic foods: Containing beneficial live bacteria, these help to promote gut microbiota. Next time you’re at the market, stock up on fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, kefir, and sauerkraut.
    • Prebiotic foods: These are higher in fiber and fuel the production and development of healthy gut bacteria. Asparagus, garlic, onions, artichokes, and bananas are good sources of prebiotics
    • Foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids: Fatty fish like salmon, seeds, nuts, and fruit help promote gut health by reducing what’s often described as inflammation throughout the body. 

     Gut-Friendly Foods

    While you incorporate the above into your diet, take special care to reduce your intake of red meat, alcohol, caffeine, and fried foods. These put extra stress on your GI tract and can have a negative effect on the development of beneficial gut bacteria. 

    Nutritional Supplements that Boost Gut Health

    In addition to eating a colorful and varied diet of gut-friendly foods, certain supplements are excellent allies to add into the mix. 

    • Vitamin D3: This type of Vitamin D is particularly good for boosting gut barrier function by modulating the gut microbiota. It also supports immune system modulation and reduces symptoms that are typically associated with inflammation.
    • Magnesium: By supporting overall muscle function, magnesium aids in digestion and boosting gut motility, key elements of gut health. Magnesium also modulates gut microbiota. Take care, however, as ingesting too much of this essential mineral can be associated with diarrhea. We recommend you take Magnesium L-Threonate, the only type of magnesium that has been scientifically proven to cross the blood-brain barrier and support cognitive function. 

    • Omega-3s: These fatty acids, particularly DHA, boost brain health and can reduce symptoms associated with inflammation. Omega-3s have also been linked to improved mood and cognitive function. 
    • Collagen Protein: Proteins with long-chain amino acids, like glycine, glutamine, and proline, can also serve to boost gut health. You'll find these in bone broth or gelatin powder supplements. Collagen protects the lining of the gut wall, which can also boost digestion and nutrient absorption.

    Conclusion

    If you take away one thing from this article, let it be this: Gut health is brain health, and brain health is gut health. 

    By protecting and supporting your gut, you’re protecting and supporting your nervous system and cognitive function as well. This helps mitigate the risk and impact of conditions ranging from anxiety and depression to Alzheimer’s. A properly functioning gut also helps keep digestive disorders like IBS at bay by managing symptoms and flare ups. 

    There are many things you can do to help promote a healthy gut and balanced microbiota. Remember that there’s no such thing as an overnight hack or silver bullet quick fix. True wellness is based on sustainable lifestyle habits and changes that are rooted in research and scientific evidence. Don’t fall for just anything you see on TikTok! 

    A combination of a healthy lifestyle, well-rounded diet of nutrient-dense foods, and high-quality nutritional supplements can do wonders for your well-being. Always consult a licensed healthcare professional before making any changes to your routine or trying something new. 

    Curious to know how your gut health measures up? Learn how you cantest your own microbiome from the comfort of your own home. 

    Discover the Superhuman in you!

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