Your gut microbiome probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think about mental health. While the two may seem to be completely unrelated, your gut microbiome (which refers to the bacteria that live in your gastrointestinal tract) and overall gut health actually plays a huge part in how you are feeling and your overall mental wellness. 

As the health community has been paying more attention to gut health, it has become increasingly clear how it can influence an individual’s mental state. Experts have discovered just how much gut health influences our overall wellness – many have gone so far as to call the gut a “second brain.” 

The Gut-Brain Axis

Our gut and our brain are in constant bidirectional communication. The term “gut-brain axis” is used to describe the communication network between the two nervous systems, which are connected physically through neurons, as well as chemically through neurotransmitters. Many neurotransmitters that are produced in the brain are also produced by microbes in the gut. For example, serotonin (associated with happiness) is produced in both the brain and the gut, as is gamma-aminobutyric acid (or GABA, associated with controlling fear and anxiety).     

How Does Gut Health Affect Mental Health?

Interestingly, while it was long believed that mental health issues could contribute to gut problems (such as IBS or bloating), in more recent years, researchers have found that irritation within the gut can actually lead to mood changes due to signals being sent by the gut to the brain. 

While experts are still investigating exactly how the gut microbiome affects mental wellbeing, many studies are showing fascinating and telling results. In one recent study, participants with anxiety and depression were given a probiotic (which has “good” bacteria) for six weeks. Over the course of the study, researchers found that 64% of the participants had fewer symptoms of depression or anxiety. By comparison, only 32% of the participants taking a placebo saw improvements. 

Another study of people with IBS and mild-to-moderate anxiety or depression saw similar results. To top that off, in an animal study, researchers found that probiotics stimulated the production of GABA, which lead to a reduction in behavior connected to anxiety and depression. 

Harnessing Gut Health for Better Mental Wellness

While mental health issues often require a multi-pronged approach, certain steps towards strengthening gut health and the gut microbiome may help alleviate symptoms of mental health disorders – or simply help people achieve a better mental state.  

So how do you maintain a healthy gut? Here are a few tips:

  • Take a probiotic: Probiotics introduce “good” bacteria into the gut, which promote a healthy gut microbiome by fighting against the bad bacteria in our body.
  • Eliminate stress: Of course, this is easier said than done. However, stress can take a toll on the gut – it’s been linked to IBS, constipation, ulcers, and other issues. Stress-reducing practices will go a long way in maintaining a healthy gut. 

Eat a balanced diet: Like stress, a bad diet can lead to digestive issues. Find ways to eat a balanced diet filled with foods that support digestive health. Focus on whole foods, fiber, and naturally probiotic foods. Avoid processed or artificially sweetened foods.