The importance of our gut health goes well beyond just our digestion, it can impact our mental health too. There’s no escaping the link between our gut and our brain, and with one in four of us experiencing a mental health concern every year, our gut health really is something everyone should be taking into consideration
Our gut and our brain are in constant, two-way communication, which is referred to as the gut-brain axis. The science behind this connection (particularly how our gut microbes are involved) is relatively new, but the ‘gut feeling’ phenomenon is something we’ve all experienced. In fact, long before science connected the two, we were using gut functions to describe our feelings and emotions: ‘I’ve got butterflies in my stomach’; ‘You don’t have the guts for it’; ‘I can’t stomach that behaviour’. Now, we even consider IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) a disorder of the gut-brain axis, where the communication between the two is out of whack and results in an overly-sensitive gut.
The latest evidence suggests that tapping into our gut-brain axis could play a pivotal role in our mental health, as research has found people suffering with depression have slightly different gut microbes to those without. The exciting news: trials have shown that by influencing our GM with simple diet strategies, we can help manage mental health conditions such as depression (alongside medication and therapy, as needed). What’s more, by nourishing our GM (gut microbiota, the trillions of microbes living in our guts) with simple diet and lifestyle strategies, we may even be able to prevent some cases of depression and anxiety.
So what can you do to support your mental health through your gut health? There are several strategies you can try straight away and small changes can make a big difference, as I often see with my patients.
- Check-in on your happiness levels. Asking yourself how happy you are is such an important question, but one that too few of us take time to consider. In my book Eat Yourself Healthy, I share a simple validated questionnaire so you can take a look at your happiness score and explore how gut health nutrition targets can help.
- Eat a high-fibre diverse diet with a variety of plant-based foods. Try to aim for 30 plant points a week. That’s 30 different types of plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices. One of my favourite studies (the SMILES trial) showed that a Mediterranean diet, which is very high in fibre and extra virgin olive oil, can be effective in improving depression levels.
- Take a break. Many of us find ourselves constantly on the go, but our brains and bodies aren’t made to be like this; they become fatigued and this raises stress levels, decreases resilience and impacts our GM. Rest is just as important as activity for our physical, mental and gut health.
- De-stress with mindfulness and breathing exercises. Try doing just 15 minutes a day of meditation, or using a mindfulness app, which can make a significant difference. The benefits may not be instant, but studies show a difference in 12 weeks.
Dr Megan Rossi is a research Fellow at King’s College London and author of Eat Yourself Healthy (Penguin Life, £16.99). Connect with Megan at theguthealthdoctor.com @theguthealthdoctor.