Here's how your gut could be affecting your mental health without you even knowing

·4 min read
Photo credit: ARNELLDMarshall                 - Getty Images
Photo credit: ARNELLDMarshall - Getty Images

From nervous butterflies before a big date to getting a good vibe about a potential new colleague you've only just met (hello, future best friend), we've all experienced a 'gut feeling' before. Listening to it is a different story entirely, of course...

Interestingly though, that 'gut feeling' (aka our intuition) almost always proves to be right. But how can that be? After all, do our bellies and our brains really have anything in common?

Well, it turns out our stomachs and our minds actually have a lot more in common than you might think. In fact, the connection between the two is so strong that the foods we eat can affect our mental health, and in turn our mental health can affect our tummies too – nervous poos, we're looking at you.

Scientists and medical experts call this the 'gut-brain axis' and it's all to do with the vagus nerve (one of the biggest nerves connecting your gut and brain). "The communication system between your gut and brain is called the gut-brain axis," explains Dr Elizabeth Rogers, Associate Clinical Director at Bupa Health Clinics. "The vagus nerve is a key part of the gut-brain axis and is essentially the 'bridge' between [the two]."

Dr Megan Rossi (PhD, RD), registered dietitian and author of Eat More, Live Well, agrees. "The gut and the brain are in constant two-way communication," she says. "And when signals between the two are out of whack, it can trigger gut and other health issues. The gut-brain axis is pretty powerful and the latest evidence suggests that tapping into it could play a major role in our mental health."

So, how exactly can your gut affect your brain?

"The communication between your gut and brain involves your immune, hormone and nervous systems," says Dr Rogers, "There is evidence to show that chronic stress can disrupt the bacteria in your gut, which can cause inflammation and damage the wall of your intestine."

She continues: "Given how closely the gut and brain interact, it becomes easier to understand why you might feel nauseated before giving a presentation or feel intestinal pain during times of anxiety. Just as your mind can influence your stomach, your stomach can also influence your mind. Gut problems such as bloating, indigestion, constipation and diarrhoea are naturally likely to make it harder for you to focus and may affect your concentration."

Similarly, Dr Rossi adds, "Boosting the health of your gut is one of the most effective ways to enhance your overall health and wellbeing—and that includes the health of your brain."

Does that mean 'gut feelings' are a legit, scientific thing?

Essentially, yes. As Dr Rogers puts it, "Your gut makes the same chemicals that your brain makes when it thinks, and there is some evidence that feelings of worry, stress and anxiety cause inflammation in your stomach." Inflammation being something we know the body isn't a fan of.

Photo credit: Peter Dazeley - Getty Images
Photo credit: Peter Dazeley - Getty Images

The same goes for those pesky nervous poos too. "As your brain and gut health are connected, when you feel anxious or depressed, you may experience abdominal cramps, heartburn and loose stools," says Dr Rogers. "Stress and anxiety increase hormones, such as cortisol, adrenaline and serotonin, and your gut responds by producing physical symptoms like constipation or watery stools."

What lifestyle changes we can make to improve our gut-brain axis?

"It’s due to the gut-brain communication that feeling stressed plays a big role in our gut health and can affect our gut bacteria," explains Dr Rossi. "Trials have shown not only that our gut microbiota (that’s the trillions of microbes, including bacteria, living within us) is implicated in our mental health, but that by modifying our gut microbiota with simple diet and lifestyle strategies, we can help manage mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. A few small changes can make a big difference."

Dr Rogers agrees, pointing out, "It’s really important – both for your wellbeing and gut health – to eat a balanced and varied diet."

"For example, eating whole foods and avoiding processed foods will help. Vegetables and fruit contain a lot of the minerals, vitamins, and fibre we need to keep us physically and mentally healthy, which has a positive effect on both our wellbeing and gut health," Dr Rogers adds.

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