Ever hear the phrase “you are what you eat”? What if we told you that what you are eating could be the root of one of the most common things people deal with on a day-to-day basis? Turns out, your gut health could be wreaking havoc on your mental health without you even knowing!
More and more research is being done to help us understand the true impact of gut health on other systems in the body. Commonly reported symptoms like weight gain, weakened immunity, anxiety, depression, changes in mood and energy levels, aches and pains are being reported alongside inflammation, digestive issues and other diseases. Do you see the pattern here? They all stem from the gut!
Anxiety in particular is something a lot of us carry with us and thus is an important topic of conversation. Out of all mental health diagnoses, it is the number one issue in the United States, affecting 40 million adults every year. Maybe you fall into this category or know someone who does. Health journals have been reporting on anxiety for years. And recently, scientific reviews of these journals have been suggesting thatyour gut could be a major factor playing into your mental health.
In a review published in General Psychiatry, researchers from the Shanghai Mental Health Center looked at over 20 studies, examining more than 1,500 participants, to see if gut bacteria had any effect on anxiety. Some people might say this is out of left field, but in fact, a growing amount of research indicates that bacteria found in the gut play a role in brain and mental health—namely, the gut-brain axis, which facilitates communication between the nervous, immune and endocrine systems.
As soon as we heard this, we had to know more! After all, Dr. Jennifer Noonan recently sat down with our co-founder Morgan Kline for the Coffee & Kettlebells podcast to talk about how important a healthy gut really is. So, there must be something to this whole “gut health” thing. When your gut is out of balance, everything else in your body is too. Balancing your gut is essential to living your life with greater vitality.
First things first: What makes a gut healthy? There are trillions, yes trillions, of microorganisms in the gut. We call them microbiota. These little guys perform important functions in the immune system and metabolism by providing essential inflammatory mediators, nutrients and vitamins. When intestinal flora is affected, a series of changes in physical and/or mental symptoms can occur. Here’s where we hear about the ever-so-popular IBS, IBD, GERD and a number of other acronyms related to gastrointestinal (GI, in case you needed another one) issues.
If you’re unsure whether your gut is healthy or not, here are some symptoms that might indicate bad gut health. Please note that this is not a comprehensive list but does address some of the most common symptoms.
1. Gas, bloating and bowel movement changes
The number one telltale sign of gut dysfunction is digestive issues like bloating, gas or bowel movement changes. This is due to the number and diversity (or lack) of bacteria living inside your gut, intestines, stomach and colon. Gas in particular should signal to you that food is fermenting in your gut because your stomach acid is falling down on its job. This leads to an imbalance of bacteria, resulting in the inability to break down the food you’ve eaten…and, yes, gas.
2. Bad breath
But I swear I brushed my teeth! Sometimes bad breath isn’t just a result of poor dental hygiene. In fact, chronic bad breath, aka halitosis, stems from odor-inducing microbes, which increase when the ratio of good and bad bacteria in your gut is off. This may start as a mild inconvenience for your social life, but if your gut flora is off, you are more vulnerable to health conditions linked to bad breath such as kidney infections and diabetes.
3. Skin problems
Diving further into the realm of vanity and mild inconveniences, another sign of an unhealthy gut might be staring right back at you in the mirror. Your skin can tell you a lot about what is going on inside your body. For many people, food intolerances or poor digestion of foods consumed can cause things like eczema and breakouts. By balancing the microbes in your gut, you might be doing more for your skin than any face wash ever could.
4. Sugar cravings
Scientists have determined that the bacteria in your gut produce proteins similar to leptin and ghrelin, which are dubbed the “hunger-regulating hormones.” Here’s a quick breakdown: Bacteria try to get us to eat foods that they thrive on. So if you eat a lot of sugar, you feed the unhelpful bacteria that love it and they pump out the proteins to make you crave more sugar. It’s a vicious cycle! Not to worry, though—there is still hope! By fixing your gut, you can eradicate the bacteria that cause you to crave these foods in the first place and—boom!—no more sugar cravings.
5. Mood changes and mental health problems
Last but not least, we underestimate the impact our gut function plays on the levels of our “happy hormones,” serotonin and dopamine, as well as vitamin D. Part of the reason people with leaky gut may experience mental health issues is the micronutrient deficiencies that happen when the body is unable to absorb nutrients. The majority of the happy hormones are actually made in your gut. If you are unable to absorb micronutrients that help facilitate these hormones, it is likely you could experience moodiness, anxiety or depression due to a lack of crucial hormones responsible for regulating emotions.
Don’t worry, we won’t leave you high and dry to figure this out on your own! If you are wondering how you can get your gut health back on track (or keep it on track), there are a few things you can start being aware of in your diet that will definitely have in impact.
Like we touched on before with sugar cravings, a diet high in processed foods and added sugars can decrease the number of good bacteria in your gut. High amounts of refined sugars, particularly high-fructose corn syrup, are what the bad bacteria crave, helping them to outnumber the good guys. Cut out the sugar, cut out the bad bacteria, lessen the cravings and make more room for good bacteria to thrive! So stay away from added sugars. Instead, try eating a wide variety of whole foods. A lack of diversity within the gut bacteria limits recovery from harmful influences, such as infection or antibiotics that kill off good bacteria. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains can lead to a more diverse gut flora. This is because the food you eat provides nutrients that help bacteria grow. A diet rich in whole foods provides your gut with a variety of nutrients that help promote the growth of different types of bacteria, resulting in a more diverse gut flora. The adage “the more the merrier” applies here!
Also, if you don’t eat probiotic-rich foods already, now is the time to start! Foods like yogurt, miso and tempeh and drinks like the ever-popular kombucha all have the wonderful microorganisms that make up a healthy gut. One great part about the research we told you about earlier is that they looked into the use of probiotic-rich foods to help address symptoms of anxiety. Their findings indicated that more than half of the studies found that regulating gut bacteria helped to improve anxiety. Obviously, there is still a long way to go with research in the gut-brain axis world before determining direct causation between anxiety and gut health. With that said, eating more gut-friendly foods has been shown to help the bacteria already in your intestines flourish (instead of simply introducing more bacteria, which happens when taking supplements). If your gut is flourishing, the cause-and-effect chain can ripple on up to your brain, improving your mental health as well.
A huge bonus of eating a diverse diet with loads of probiotic-rich foods is that you’re also going to be getting more prebiotic foods! Not to be confused with probiotics, prebiotics are a type of fiber that passes through the body undigested and promotes the growth of good bacteria. Again, many whole foods have naturally occurring prebiotic fiber. Some examples include legumes, oats, bananas, asparagus, garlic, onions and nuts. Including these in your diet will help your body flush out the bad stuff and leave room for more of the bacteria that can absorb all of the micronutrients necessary to help regulate emotions.
Mental health issues like anxiety can be overwhelming, but getting your gut health in check could be just what the doctor ordered to give you some peace of mind. Isn’t it wild that whole foods have the ability to heal such an intricate system of hormones in the body—minus all the extra pills and supplements that can rack up a huge bill and actually have a negative impact on your gut health in the end? The potential for a more accessible solution for mental illness, like anxiety, with small changes in your diet and lifestyle is an incredible step in a positive direction! As always, we encourage you to speak to a doctor before making dietary changes or if you think you may have anxiety. Head to the BE. blog to learn more about prebiotics and probiotics as well as the link between gut health and cravings, and to learn more about the importance of gut health and how to heal your gut, listen to this episode of Coffee & Kettlebells!
If you like this post, you may also like…