Thanks to a growing movement that has revolutionized the way people discuss and understand mental illness, it's no secret that a large portion of the population struggles with issues like depression and anxiety. In fact, one in five adults deals with mental health conditions—and, intriguingly, it's believed this may be linked to gut health.
"The gut is the epicenter of our health, and its functioning affects most, if not all, other aspects in the body," explains Frank Lipman, MD, author of How to Be Well and founder of Be Well. A greater understanding of both mental illness and microbiome interactions has lead scientists to study the relationship between the two systems, and there's mounting evidence that supports a link between gut health and anxiety. With this continually growing and evolving information, you may soon be on your way to treating mental illness with proper nutrition. Ahead, Lipman explains how gut health and anxiety may be linked and what foods you should eat to take advantage of this connection.
Gut Health and Anxiety
"More and more, we are seeing the direct correlation between gut health and mood," says Lipman. This is because the gut produces neurotransmitters and hormones that can affect a person's mood. "If these bugs are compromised in any way, the production of these neurotransmitters and hormones will also be compromised and will affect how we function and how we feel," he says.
There are multiple scientific studies that back up these statements. A 2016 study conducted by Emily Deans, MD, at the Brigham and Women's Hospital at Harvard Medical School looked into the role of microbiota in mental health. According to the study, the modern microbiome is drastically different than that of human ancestors due to diet, antibiotic exposure, and differences in the environment. All of this may contribute to changes in brain health.
In 2015, researchers tested theories about gut health and mood on people. They gave healthy participants without mood disorders a four-week probiotic food supplement. Compared to those who received a placebo, participants who took the probiotic had a significantly reduced reactivity to sad moods. Researchers concluded that these results were evidence that probiotics could reduce negative thoughts associated with sad mood.
Additionally, a 2017 study performed on mice concluded that the microbiome is necessary for balancing gene regulators in the brain known as miRNAs. Its findings were based on observations of mice living in germ-free environments that ended up with unusual amounts of anxiety. After researchers reintroduced gut bacteria to the mice, the gene regulators normalized, proving that probiotics could be necessary for maintaining mental health.
Maintaining a Healthy Gut
So how do you keep your gut health in check? "Generally speaking, a diet filled with a variety of real, whole foods is ideal for supporting gut function," says Lipman. That means green, leafy vegetables, healthy fats, and quality protein like well-sourced animal proteins, wild-caught fish, beans, and lentils.
"Sadly, the Standard America Diet is the epitome of foods that should be avoided for gut health, brain health, energy, and everything in between," Lipman explains. In order to keep your gut in top condition, you'll want to avoid processed and packaged foods that contain preservatives, coloring, and sweeteners. Lipman also advises steering clear of sugar, gluten, nonorganic soy, factory-farmed meats and dairy, processed vegetable oils, and even some gluten-free grains.
Gut Health Red Flags
"The most common signs of gut problems present as digestive issues," shares Lipman. If you think you may have an imbalance in your gut that could be impacting your mental health, look out for symptoms like bloating, gas, constipation, loose stool, digestive discomfort, and heartburn. There are also less obvious symptoms like skin irritations, joint pain, foggy thinking, imbalanced mood, and fatigue. "If someone is feeling like that they are not functioning optimally and that they should be feeling better, they probably could be, and the gut is often a great place to start," Lipman says.
"Although diet can be extremely helpful for some, it is not the answer for everyone," Lipman says. When a change in diet just isn't enough, there are supplements that can be used to improve the balance of bacteria in your gut. "Probiotics can also be extremely beneficial, as they constantly inoculate our gut with the beneficial bacteria that support proper gut function."
While there's not yet evidence that proves a healthy diet can cure all mental health issues or that food alone is an effective form of treatment for anxiety or depression, focusing on nurturing your gut health isn't a bad place to start. Turn to natural, whole foods packed with powerful nutrients to keep your gut healthy so your mind can heal, too.