How often do you hear yourself saying, “trust your gut”, “I have a gut feeling”, “butterflies are in my stomach”? Our gut and mind are deeply connected. It’s in our language. We feel joy, anticipation, love, and sometimes dread and anxiety in our digestive system.
And the science on the gut-brain connection tells us that this is a two-way street – meaning that our brain, mood, and emotions affect our digestion function; and our digestive function affects our mental wellbeing too.
How are the gut and the mind connected?
The gut and the brain are intricately connected in a few ways that we know of, and research into this area continues to grow.
The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) is the largest part of our autonomic (think “automatic”) nervous system, and it regulates digestive function without us having to think about it. Our ENS is in constant communication with our Central Nervous System (aka our brain and spinal cord) and this feedback is one of the ways that our brain and gut are connected.
Another way is through chemicals such as neurotransmitters. Our happy, feel-good hormone is largely produced in the gut, and has been shown to be a key player in the microbiome-gut-brain axis. Gut dysfunction or a disrupted gut microbiome may lead to reduced or altered hormone production.
More recently, your gut microbiota – aka all the beneficial microbes that live in your digestive system - have been shown to influence the brain and your mood. Gut microbes communicate with the brain in a bunch of different ways – through neurons, hormones, and even via your immune system. We still have lots to learn about how the microbiome works and how it interacts with our body systems.
How can I look after my mental wellness through my gut health?
Looking after your gut can make a big difference in your mood. Here are 5 simple ways to support your mental wellbeing through your gut.
1. Work on healing your digestion
A healthy digestion = a healthy gut + a happy mood.
If you’re experiencing any digestive issues, it’s important you work through them. The link between digestion issues and impacted mental health has been researched extensively, so we know that our digestion plays an important role in keeping us feeling good.
Experiencing regular digestive discomfort? It could be a sign that your food is not being optimally digested, absorbed, and excreted – which could be affecting the way you feel.
Many of the herbs you can easily grow at home or source from your local health store are excellent for helping soothe digestion.
My go-to herbs for digestion support are Aniseed, Chamomile, Licorice, and Peppermint.
The beautiful thing about these herbs is that many of the ones we use for digestion also *happen* to be good for supporting a healthy mood. Chamomile soothes the digestive system and also helps to settle the nerves, and Licorice is wonderful for stress.
It’s like the plants just knew that our gut and our mood are connected, way before we figured that out. Plants are so clever!
Importantly, if you have a serious digestive issues, please don’t hesitate to work with your health practitioner to get the best support.
2. Eat the rainbow
You’ve heard it before but colourful wholefoods like fruits and vegetables are packed with nutrients and antioxidants.
Compounds like betacarotene found in orange foods and anthocyanadins found in red and purple foods have been shown to have a wide variety of health benefits, such as supporting healthy blood vessels, eye health, and balancing immune pathways.
Your gut is made up of 1 trillion good bacteria, so it’s important you take care of them. Plant foods like fruits and veggies feed these good bacteria in your gut, supporting a healthy microbiome.
My favourite ways to eat a colourful, nutrient-rich diet full of wholefoods are aiming to make half my plate at each meal and snack fruits and veggies, adding veggies in unexpected ways, like pumpkin or sweet potato into overnight oats or beets into a smoothie bowl, and always having some frozen fruit and veg on hand for quick and easy additions to meals.
3. Fibre to feel good
Who says fibre is boring? In my books, it’s the cream of the crop for whole wellbeing. And while fibre supplements are a great supporting tool if you’re not getting enough on your plate, fibre from wholefoods like colourful fruit and veggies, as well as beans and legumes, is optimal.
Firstly, fibre keeps your digestive system in tip top shape. Yes it keeps you regular (as long as you are also drinking enough fluids),but it also feeds your gut microbiome – keeping those good bugs healthy and thriving.
Research has shown that you can alter your gut microbiome by changing your diet for as little as 24 hours, so it is also never too late to increase the amount of wholefoods fibre that you are eating to support your healthy gut bugs.
The research on how much fermented foods can affect your mood is still in its infancy, but we do know that eating foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, yogurt and kombucha can influence your gut microbiome, as well as contribute to your overall gut health, according to a 2019 article published in Nutrients journal.
And when it comes to the preparation of food, there’s a lot we can learn from traditional methods. Food has been traditionally fermented for its preservation benefits – we know that the healthy microbes in fermented foods help to keep pathogenic (“bad”) microbes from overgrowing and spoiling the food. If we think of our gut microbiome as a fight for space between “good” microbes and “bad” ones, then regularly introducing good bugs into our gut may help to crowd out the less-healthy ones.
As mentioned, the way our microbiome affects our brain, mood, and emotions is complex and we still have a lot of learning to do. However, we can be confident that looking after our gut bacteria will have widespread health benefits, including our mental wellness.
5. Eat more mindfully
Did you know your digestion starts before your food reaches your gut?
Eating more mindfully can benefit your digestion in powerful ways.
By slowing down and paying more attention to our food we stimulate what’s called the Cephalic Phase of digestion – the thought, sight, and smell of food triggers appetite, as well as oral and gastric secretions, which prepares our stomach for the arrival of food.
When we allow this reaction to take place we digest our food better and feel more satisfied.
When was the last time you ate your meal mindfully? Too often we shove down our food, eating on the go, in front of a screen.
Taking a deep breath (better yet 5-10) sends a signal to your body that you are safe and takes your body out of “fight or flight”, and back into “rest and digest” mode. When we eat on the run or when we are stressed, blood is diverted away from our digestive system and into our muscles so that we can react quickly to whatever is threatening us. It puts digestion on the back burner and can cause all sorts of weird and wonderful digestive issues.
My favourite mindful eating tip:
Before you begin your meal, take five deep belly breaths. If you can, eat your meals outside in the sunshine for added microbiome benefits. Your digestion and your stress levels will thank you.
Our gut health and our mental wellness are intricately connected. They communicate with each other and the health of one affects the health of the other. Looking after your digestion is one way to support your mental wellbeing, and this can be done with small, simple steps like healing your digestion, introducing more wholefoods, fibre and fermented foods, and eating more mindfully.
Always read the label and use as directed. If symptoms persist see your healthcare professional.