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The Gut-Brain Connection and Your Mental Health

Depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges are directly linked to what happens in our gut. The gut and brain are in constant communication, working hard to send signals back and forth, which impact how we feel, act, sleep, and digest. Some even say that our gut is our second brain. Changes to our gut microbiome can cause changes in how our brain reacts, and vice versa.

Serotonin is the essential hormone responsible for stabilizing mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness. In fact, 90% percent of serotonin is produced in the gut. The rest is made in the brain and central nervous system. Low levels of serotonin in the stomach and intestines can lead to symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal cramping. Chronic depression can lead to an imbalance of unhealthy gut bacteria, which causes digestive troubles. Healthy gut bacteria on the other hand, makes for smoother digestion, supports our mental wellness, and can even make us more resilient to experiences of stress and trauma.

1. Eat Fermented Foods, Rich in Probiotics. Probiotics are live bacteria that exist in foods and are essential for maintaining the healthy bacteria in the body. Just a small amount of fermented foods daily, found in yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, tempeh, and raw apple cider vinegar, can help restore gut bacteria balance. This is especially important if you’re currently on, or recently took, antibiotics or mental health-related medications. In fact, any medication, even over the counter meds such as Tylenol, can throw off our gut bacteria balance. Some people benefit from taking a probiotic supplement. Talk with your health care provider about if this makes sense for you, and which supplement would be best.

2. Eat a Wide Range of Nourishing, Whole Foods. Ensuring that the majority of your diet is full of whole, nutrient-rich, and unprocessed foods is essential to overall health. When possible, aim to eat foods in their natural form, with nothing added. Whole foods, like fruits, veggies, beans, fish, eggs, nuts, rice, oats, etc. are nourishing and delicious just as they are! Whole foods promote health, prevent disease, and contain just the right amount of nutrients without unnecessary additives.

3. Limit Additives in Food. Additives, including hormones, antibiotics, artificial sweeteners, dyes, and preservatives all disrupt gut bacteria and reproductive function, can cause stomach upset, headaches, concentration difficulties, and lead to chronic diseases. Buying organic, GMO-free foods when possible can help limit your intake of additives. Try to avoid meat and eggs that contain added hormones and antibiotics, as they disrupt the gut bacteria balance, and buy wild fish when possible, as farmed fish contains high levels of toxins. Be sure to read food labels and nutrition facts. In general, if you can’t pronounce an ingredient, it doesn’t belong in our bodies!

4. Prioritize Sleep. How well your digestive system functions is directly connected to your quality of sleep. Poor sleep increases stress in the body, which causes the stress hormone cortisol to rise. High levels of cortisol over time can cause indigestion, changes to the gut microbiome, and lead to chronic diseases. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep per night for a happier belly, and more balanced mood. Find more gut health ideas here.

* If you or someone you know is struggling with severe depression or anxiety, please seek professional help. If you are thinking about suicide, or worried about someone who might be, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions in the comments below! If this post was helpful, please like, comment, and share.

Maintaining healthy digestion and discovering which foods are nourishing for your body’s needs can be complicated. But with support, creativity, and persistence, change is possible. If you're looking for health and wellness guidance, you've come to the right place, and I'd love to help you put the pieces together. Please reach out at Be well, friends!

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