Is there a mind-gut connection?

More research suggests feeding your gut bacteria may help lift your mood.

Written by Chloe McLeod
Young couple at the coffee shop. Shallow DOF. Developed from RAW; retouched with special care and attention; Small amount of grain added for best final impression. 16 bit RGB color profile.

Gut health is a popular news topic that seems to make almost weekly headlines at the moment. And it's not just about digestion. Studies are increasingly suggesting that the health of our gut and intestinal bacteria may also impact our levels of anxiety, stress and depression.

Research has linked poor diet to higher risk of depression, and shown that conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or functional gut disorder can be triggered by stress.

Inside the gut

Let’s take a closer look at how our gut flora (microbiota) works. Along with other microbes, microbiota contains a mixture of billions of tiny bacteria. Each person’s microbiota is unique, and some people might have more or less of certain types of bacteria.

Early research comparing the gut health of people with depression to people without it has found a significant difference in types of gut bacteria between both. To further complicate things, there is evidence showing gut irritation – from food, environmental triggers or more – may send signals to the central nervous system, which then triggers mood changes.

“There is evidence showing gut irritation may send signals to the central nervous system, which then triggers mood changes.”

How do your gut and brain talk to each other?

The ‘gut-brain axis’ allows messages to be sent between each, and bacteria are thought to play a role in which messages are sent. Bacteria are easily affected by food, antibiotics and probiotics (food for the healthy bacteria in your gut), which then impact which messages are sent along the axis, and when. On top of this, cells in our gut wall can also influence what our bacteria do. The whole system is very complex!

How can you improve your gut health?

Eating a diet rich in plant foods and probiotics, and cutting back on refined, processed choices as well as alcohol can help improve your microbiome. Common foods rich in probiotics include legumes, whole grains and vegetables such as onion, garlic, asparagus and artichoke.

A recent study found that only seven days of eating a diet low in fibre and vegetables but high in saturated fats resulted in significant changes to the types of bacteria present in the gut. Consistently eating well is the key to keeping your microbiome in balance.

Studies in rats have shown probiotics can positively influence anxiety and depression scores. In particular, 28-day courses of the probiotic lactobacillus rhamnosus had an antidepressant-like effect, and reduced levels of stress-induced cortisone in the rodents. This in turn had an effect on behaviours associated with fear, suggesting certain probiotics can alter brain neurochemistry and subsequent anxiety-driven responses. It’s certainly an exciting starting point for human based studies.

Learning more about the role gut health plays in our mood gives us yet another reason to eat a healthy, varied diet. Understanding microbiota and gut health
is also another essential avenue to helping manage mental health.

To learn more, check out our interactive School of Better course, All About Gut Health.

Written by Chloe McLeod

Chloe McLeod is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian and Director of The FODMAP Challenge.

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