You may have heard a lot over the past year about gut health playing a major role in general health, particularly chronic illnesses but there is also more research emerging on how our gut plays a role in our mental health.
I do not believe that if you improve your gut health in isolation it will directly improve your mental health but I do believe it does play a significant role.
The gut has a very dynamic ecosystem of microbes which we call the microbiome, in fact we are made up 90% bacterial cells and 10% human cells – many of which are concentrated in our gut.
We know now that we don’t live independently from all these bacteria but live together symbiotically and we need them for good health as well as they need us to survive so as to have an environment to flourish.
Although there are numerous ways that the microbiome can influence our health, I will focus on mental health here and as there are a number of ways, I will focus on how they influence neurotransmitters particularly (chemical messengers).
Good bacterial such as lactobacillus & bifibacterium produce GABA which helps regulate brain activity and this is particularly effective in creating a calming effect when we may be stressed or have anxiety. Certain things in life will cause us anxiety regardless but it is GABA that is one of the key neurotransmitters that relaxes us again. Without enough GABA we are susceptible to having anxiety and stress frequently.
There are also some bascillus species bacteria in our gut that help produce dopamine which is one of our major reward neurotransmitters. It basically plays a major role in motivation behaviour. This as well as endorphins are the key towards exercising to feel good. I know this is very important, otherwise you would always have to drag your feet to the next group exercise session. But as dopamine production increases as you get fitter, the gym session becomes something to look forward to.
Finally, serotonin, which is a very complicated neurotransmitter but is thought to be our main contributors to feelings of well-being and happiness and is mainly produced in our gut – 90% actually, which does surprise many people. This might be one of the reasons why we normally have particularly low mood when we have a pain or cramp in our gut more so that a pain in our arm or leg. Over 20 different good bacteria species have been know to collectively help increase our serotonin levels.
So here are some of the reasons to have good gut health and healthy bacteria because they are part of our unconscious system that influences our behaviour! This is only the tip of the iceberg on how the gut microbiome affects our health but is give you an idea how we are connected deeply with these little guys.
Finally, some key nutrition areas to have and sustain a healthy microbiome:
- If you have bowl function issues, food intolerance, IBS see a dietitian to correct this
- Have fibre from fruits and vegetables daily
- Add resistance starch to your diet – beans, legumes, oats, banana
- Omega 3 foods – salmon, sardine, walnut, chia seed, flaxseed
- Have prebiotic foods & drink – onion, garlic, asparagus, leeks, konjac, green tea
- Have fermented foods – yoghurt, kombucha, kefir, filmjolk, kimchi, pickles, sauerkraut, vinegar
- A Mediterranean Style Diet with added fermented foods may well be the most rounded approach to have a healthy gut microbiome!