The gut is known as the second brain due to over 100 million nerve cells that line the digestive tract, the vagus nerve that runs from the brain through to the gut and the microbiome that plays a role in our happy hormone, serotonin.
Krista, Nutritional Therapist at the clinic, shares her tips on how to keep the gut happy so your mood is happy too.
How do our gut bacteria affect our mood?
How we look after our mental health will be different for everyone. It may involve talking to family, friends or a psychologist when things are getting on top of you. You might book a holiday, take time out for self-care which can help you de-stress. Maybe you find exercise helps, or you take medication to address the symptoms. Whatever your answer is, the food you eat needs to be considered too.
But why? How exactly does diet play a role in our mood and mental health?
How can eating certain foods – like protein, fat, fibre and vegetables – help?
The food we eat also feeds the bacteria in our gut. These bacteria, if fed well, help produce chemicals that send messages to the brain which influence our hormones such as serotonin, our happy hormone, and dopamine which allows us to feel motivated and helps us to focus.
However, if we don’t feed our gut bacteria with healthy, colourful foods, it can be a very different picture. High fat, salt and sugar foods feed less beneficial bacteria in our gut and increase inflammation (hello bloating, pain, a rush to the loo). This has an impact on the body’s ability to produce positive hormones and has a knock-on effect on how we feel – mentally but also physically.
What should you eat to feed the good gut bacteria
‘Eat the rainbow’ – Vegetables contain specific nutrients called phytonutrients which you will only find in plants. They are rich in fibre and antioxidants which help keep our gut bacteria well fed and inflammation down. Other foods which contain fibre include lentils, beans, potatoes (skin!) and whole grains.
Probiotic-rich foods – these foods contain live beneficial bacteria that can help to improve and restore healthy gut bacteria. Probiotics foods have been shown to directly support the gut-brain connection. Think of fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefirm kombucha, live yoghurt and miso.
Prebiotic-rich foods – these are foods that feed the good gut bacteria and help to encourage growth of the beneficial species (which can help crowd out the not so beneficial ones). Easy to include in meals, prebiotic foods include onions, garlic, keels, asparagus, cold sweet potato and Jerusalem artichoke.
Anti-inflammatory foods – we mentioned how inflammation can result in an unhappy gut. Specific anti-inflammatory foods have also been shown to enhance the concentration of brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. Eat foods such as oily fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, rainbow trout), olive oil, olives, nuts and seeds.
Signs your gut health may need support
In order for the gut and the brain to communicate with one another, you need to have a healthy functioning gut.
Certain foods and lifestyle factors can affect your gut function which can lead to mood changes, anxiety and depression. These include:
- Processed food
- Long term medication use
- Bacteria overgrowth (where the bad guys overcrowd the beneficial ones)
Our body has a clever way of telling us when something is wrong. We should see symptoms as a sign to investigate what’s going on within our bodies. Your gut may need some support if you’re experiencing:
- Persistent bloating
- Food sensitivities/intolerances
- Abdominal pain
There are also the not so obvious symptoms which can be a result of poor gut health:
- Brain fog
- Mood changes
- Histamine issues (hayfever anyone?)
- Hormonal imbalances such as PCOS
Balance is key when it comes to the bacteria within our gut. Having too much or too little of the beneficial bacteria can lead to issues absorbing the nutrients from your food and be driving your symptoms. You can have the most amazing diet in the world, but you need to be absorbing those nutrients to see the benefits in your energy, skin, hormones and mood.
So if you do have any of the gut symptoms previously mentioned, it’s imperative to correct those imbalances which can be achieved through dietary and lifestyle changes.
The issue with stress…
Stress is vital in our everyday life, it drives us to perform better, it can even help save lives! But stress is only ever supposed to be short-lived. Long term stress can lead to disruptions in the way our brain receives messages from our gut to help make our hormones. Over time, that can lead to low mood and lack of motivation.
In order to support and improve our mental health, we have to take a look at how stressed we are and how we are managing that stress.
Stress affects us all in many ways; you may find that it impacts your sleep, energy or skin. It can also affect us physically as it can impact gut health, causing bowel changes, bloating, cramping and inflammation. All of these factors can impact our mood and long term this can be a huge driver of depression and anxiety.
Tips on managing stress
- Balanced meals – full of protein, fat and fibre (don’t forget that list above)
- Meditation, yoga, mindfulness
- Reading a book, journaling
- Cold showers or cold water exposure
- 8 hours of sleep per night (check out our sleep blog for tips on achieving that!)
- Having clear boundaries. There’s nothing wrong with prioritising yourself. Making time for self-care means you can be more present for those around you.
- Have fun! This will be different for everyone; it could be getting lost in a book, meeting a friend for coffee or hobbies that you enjoy.