Mental health and gut health - what’s the link?
We all know about “gut instinct” and “following your gut” but scientists have only recently learnt about the actual effects of our gut on mental health. This new research gives a new meaning to this ancient wisdom about the importance of our guts in controlling our minds and behaviour. You may be surprised to see the many different ways our gut health can affect our mental health.
How gut health affects mental health
Chronic pain and mental health
Many gut conditions like IBS, IBD and coeliac disease can cause constant recurring pain, which has a major effect on our mental health. This chronic pain can lead to anxiety and depression. Some people start taking recreational drugs or smoking cigarettes as a “coping” mechanism. And sadly, chronic pain has also been linked to suicide.
This may happen because chronic pain can make us feel demoralised and helpless. There are factors that can make this worse, such as family situation, social support and knowing the cause of the pain. Other possible theories about this include that having depression and anxiety makes us more sensitive to physical pain. It is likely a combination of both and other factors, too, related to medications and genetic factors as well. But it highlights the importance of effective pain management, especially without resorting to strong painkillers.
For gut health, these can include lifestyle changes, such as increasing exercise, adding vegetables to the diet and treating pain with hypnotherapy. CBT can also be used to help change the mental reaction to pain which can include negative thoughts.
Microbiome and mental health
The biggest discovery in recent years has been about the role of the bugs including bacteria, viruses and fungi which live in our gut. These millions of organisms form a microbiome, which produces many hormones implicated in mental health. They also send signals through a huge network of nerves back to the brain. The main nerve in this gut-brain connection is the Vagus nerve. The research is still ongoing, but there are some groups of “good bacteria” which have been linked to mental health:
Bacteroides: patients who had depression were found to have less of this bacteria in their gut when compared to people who do not have depression.
Bifidobacteria: this bacteria has been linked to the production of proteins that boost our mood, including tryptophan which is eventually made into serotonin - our happy hormone!
Could the food we eat boost our mental health?
There is limited evidence so far that probiotics can cure depression, but they have shown to help with depressive symptoms. Eating a diet rich in tryptophans is also important to ensure the body does not have a deficiency. Tryptophan is the building block for the happy hormone serotonin, and the foods rich in tryptophans include chicken, eggs, cheese, fish, peanuts and pumpkin seeds.
Stigma and mental health
Bowel conditions carry a lot of stigma because it can be difficult to discuss them easily with our colleagues or employers. It can also be difficult to discuss with family members and friends because it can be considered inappropriate. People can feel ashamed when discussing their gut issues and this can lead to isolation and anxiety. Since anxiety can be a trigger for IBS, this can then cause a cycle of worsening symptoms.
Stigma related to bowel conditions can also create low feelings and thus cause depression. Unfortunately, mental health conditions can also carry stigma, so this can add a further burden to those of us who have gut issues.
That’s why it is so important to start talking and normalising bowel issues. 1 in 5 people potentially suffer from IBS, yet most do not even see a doctor about it. Suffering in silence needs to stop. That’s why we need to start talking and normalising bowel problems. We need to take away the shame - because whether you have IBS or not- everyone poops.
Although mental health can affect our gut in different ways, there are ways to tackle it - that is why at Zemedy we have created a set of tools. Experiencing a flare-up? Use our special tools and break the cycle of constant pain and its effects on your mental health. Our tools activate the Vagus nerve to calm your mind and encourage your microbiome to thrive.
And finally, we are all about community. We want you to feel empowered to share your stories and feel safe enough to talk about your vulnerabilities. Please do not be afraid to reach out and come join our community space within the app. Whatever your mental health needs, we are always ready to talk!