Before you dismiss the idea that the gut can control what goes on in the rest of your body – including your feelings and emotions – hear us out. ‘Ever wondered why you get ‘butterflies’ in your stomach or your stomach ‘sinks’ when you’re faced with bad news?’, registered nutritionist Louise Pyne (louisepynenutrition.com) asks. ‘These are just two examples of how closely your gut is linked to your emotions.’
The gut-brain connection
We’ve been hearing for years that what we eat can affect the way we feel, our overall wellbeing and our state of mind – not just our weight, or our skin, or any other more visible markers of health. But with more and more information emerging about how an unhealthy diet can play a role in mental health issues, it’s becoming clearer just how influential our gut health is on the rest of our body – and it’s no wonder the gut is often being referred to as our second brain.
‘Our gut is actually called our second brain as it has many parallels and structural similarities to our grey matter,’ reveals Louise. ‘The two are in constant communication through a pathway of nerve cells via the vagus nerve.’ These chemical messages that go back and forth between the gut and the brain can have a huge impact on our emotional state, according to Louise.
We all know that our bodies require a vast range of vitamins, minerals and nutrients from our diet in order to keep us fighting fit. In the same way that a nutrient deficiency can lead to physical problems – for example, a lack of calcium is often associated with weak bones – this also applies to our mental wellbeing. ‘Your gut absorbs nutrients from food, and a poor diet may lead to deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals like B vitamins and iron which control energy levels and mood,’ Louise explains. Keeping our gut health in good nick means that we can absorb these nutrients efficiently.
Believe it or not, the brain and the gut are in constant communication, so it’s no wonder your diet and your gut health can affect the way you feel. ‘Your gut is in constant communication with your brain via neurotransmitters,’ Louise adds, ‘and this close interaction means that both emotional and psychological factors can trigger gut symptoms and vice versa.
Gut health and depression
Now that we understand better just how much the gut can affect our overall health, it’s easier to see the link between the gut and depression. More specifically, it’s low levels of microbiome (a collection of trillions of microorganisms and bacteria that live in our gut) that have been linked with anxiety and depression.
‘Gut bacteria produces neurotransmitters like feel-good serotonin which acts on the gut-brain axis (the pathway linking the central nervous system to the digestive system via the vagus nerve)’, Louise explains. ‘When levels of healthy microflora are low, your digestive tract becomes inflamed and low in healthy microorganisms.’ This can be caused by a number of reasons, from antibiotic overuse to a diet too high in processed foods, Louise believes. Worried your gut might be compromising your happiness? Taking control of your diet can help. ‘Good steps include cutting out all processed foods, especially sugar, and upping levels of anti-inflammatory foods like turmeric, berries and leafy greens,’ adds Louise.
Take back control
Taking control of your diet is easier said than done, but if you’re suffering from depression or anxiety, this is just another reason why it’s a good idea to try. There are plenty of easy ways to improve gut health by making little tweaks to your lifestyle, so why not give them a try? ‘Chow down on foods that naturally contain probiotics such as sauerkraut, probiotic yoghurt, miso soup and tempeh,’ advises Louise. The live cultures that these foods are rich in will work wonders for your gut bacteria. ‘Along with probiotics, it’s also a good idea to include more prebiotics in your diet,’ adds Louise. Try bananas, oats and asparagus – all prebiotic foods which will encourage the growth of good gut microflora.