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How to Improve Your Gut Health and Mental Health

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 25, 2021

Stomach problems are one of the most common symptoms of stress and anxiety. Researchers have identified a connection between the gut and the brain. Like the brain, your gut is full of nerves called the enteric nervous system, or ENS, also referred to as the “second brain”. The enteric nervous system has the same type of neurons and neurotransmitters found in your central nervous system.

This connection between the brain and gut affects your digestion, mood, and the way you think. ENS lines your entire digestive system with more than 100 million nerve cells forming two layers. It runs from the esophagus to the rectum.

How Your Gut and Brain Relate

Your second brain manages and controls your digestion, from swallowing to the release of enzymes. It ensures the breakdown of food into small particles, controlling blood flow for nutrient absorption and elimination.  

For decades, researchers thought that depression and anxiety contributed to people experiencing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and functional bowel problems such as constipation, diarrhea, bloating, pain, and stomach upset. However, other studies show it could be because of the ENS.

The ENS communicates with your brain through the nervous system and your hormones. An exchange of information also takes place between your gut and the immune system, affecting your overall mental health. It's also believed to contribute to diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, autism, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, pain, and anxiety.

Stress-Related Gut Symptoms and Conditions

When nervous or anxious, your body releases some hormones and chemicals that enter the digestive system. This can affect the microorganisms that live along your gut, helping in the digestion process while decreasing antibody production. The resulting chemical imbalance can cause several gastrointestinal conditions such as: 

  • Indigestion 
  • Stomach upset and diarrhea
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Constipation
  • Loss of appetite or unusual hunger
  • Nausea

How to Improve Your Gut Health

If you're looking to improve your gut health, here are several things you can do.

  • Effectively digest your food. After a meal, it’s important to be in a relaxed state to produce the gastric juices needed to absorb food. Gastric juice is essential for the absorption of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients necessary to support a healthy body and brain.
  • Mind what and how you eat. Eat healthy snacks and meals and stay away from junk food. One way to do this is to prepare pre-planned meals, have some fruits or granola bar to snack on when hungry. Also, take time when you eat to fully savor the food, enjoying every bite. 
  • Exercise. It can be hard to stay active regularly. Scheduling some exercise time can encourage you to work out. Alternatively, take a walk around your neighborhood. This can help you reduce stress and improve your physical and emotional wellbeing.
  • Drink plenty of water.  Aim to drink between six and eight glasses of water a day to boost the digestive process.
  • Seek help. A therapist who specializes in anxiety can help you manage chronic worrying.

Food for Your Mental Health

The key to improving your gut health is to know the types of foods that boost your gut health and mental health. Some of these foods include:

Fiber. Eating fiber improves memory and overall mood. It also decreases inflammation and oxidative stress by supporting microbiota. Foods high in fiber include beans and legumes, oats, nuts, dark chocolate, fruits, and vegetables.  

Vitamin D. Vitamin D regulates your microbiome and reduces gastrointestinal inflammation. Some foods that have vitamin D include egg yolks, tuna, salmon, orange juice, and fortified milk.

Protein. Proteins contain nitrogen, which limits the number of bad bacteria in a microbiome.  Eating protein decreases feelings of depression because of the production of serotonin, which improves your mood. Good sources of proteins include eggs, milk, yogurt, lean beef, turkey, chicken, fish, broccoli, oats, and nuts. 

Omega-3s. Omega-3 fatty acids help lower cholesterol, increase memory and cognitive function, and reduce sugar cravings. Walnuts, flax seeds, salmon, sardines, and mackerel are all rich in Omega-3s. 

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES: 

Anxiety and Depression Association of America: “How to Calm an Anxious Stomach: The Brain-Gut Connection.”

Cambridge University Press: “Nutritional Psychiatry: The Present State of the Evidence:”

Cleveland Clinic: “Gut-Brain Connection.”

Harvard Business Review: “Gut Health Is Key to Your Mental Health at Work.”

HelpGuide: “Mindful Eating.”

John Hopkins Medicine: “The Brain-Gut Connection.”

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