You may be surprised to hear that the quality and health of our gut can affect the state of our mental health and how we feel day to day. There are many systems in our bodies that are interconnected and function holistically to maintain our overall health and wellbeing. Even though we have different organs and different systems, when something is off, it then affects another system to be off, which is why it is so important to look at the body as a whole with parts that can only function well if together if we are well overall.
Just like a rainforest, our gut has its own eco system that contains a delicate balance of microorganisms that work together to support many different functions in our bodies. There are different types of ‘good’ bacteria and ‘bad’ bacteria that support in regulating our digestion, nutrient absorption and plays key role in immune function and metabolism. But the work doesn’t stop there for these little guys, or for the gut itself in this case…
When we eat a nourishing meal, it is not just to feed us, but it is also to feed the microorganisms that live in our gut’s eco system. When we eat foods rich in colour, fibre, and nutrients, it then gets broken down to nourish and feed the organisms. As a result, the gut microbiota then produces different compounds that can influence our brain. These include short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), neurotransmitters, and microbial metabolites. They directly affect our nervous system and interact with the immune system, thereby impacting brain function and behaviour. So if we are feeling off or a little moody, our diet and gut could most definitely have a role in these feelings.
Another way the gut affects the brain is via neurotransmitters. These are chemical messengers that transmit signals between neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to other parts of the body. They play a crucial role in various physiological and cognitive functions, including mood regulation, cognition, behaviour, and motor control.
A few of our main neurotransmitters…
Acetylcholine: Acetylcholine is involved in regulating muscle movement, as well as cognitive functions such as learning and memory.
Dopamine: Dopamine is involved in regulating movement, motivation, reward, and pleasure.
Serotonin: Serotonin is involved in regulating mood, appetite, and sleep.
Norepinephrine: Norepinephrine is involved in regulating the body's response to stress, as well as attention and arousal.
GABA: Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, and is involved in regulating anxiety, sleep, and muscle tone.
Glutamate: Glutamate is the main excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain and is involved in regulating learning and memory.
Our gut is responsible for the production of the majority of serotonin in the body
Approximately 90-95% of the body's serotonin is found in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, specifically within the enterochromaffin cells of the intestinal mucosa (think of a fuzzy carpet that lines our gut). These cells produce and release serotonin into the gut lumen, where it acts as a local signal that is involved in various gut functions, such as regulating intestinal motility, secretion, and sensation. Almost like the traffic controllers we see on the road, controlling traffic, managing the influx of cars and trucks, and making sure everything flows smoothly.
What should I eat to support these functions?
A huge factor of treating mental health conditions is also looking at the way in which we care for our bodies, and this includes our relationship with the food choose to eat. As we continue to age, and as we evolve, this relationship will be ever changing but always an incredible support to our overall wellbeing.
1. Fruits and Vegetables – the more colour and variety the better, this way we are covering all micronutrients and minerals. The fibre content in vegetables also support feeding our gut bacteria.
2. Beans and Legumes – beans and legumes are a great as they are rich in healthy fibres, resistant starch, and soluble fibres. These are able to pass undigested through your stomach and small intestine until they reach your colon, where they feed your gut friendly bacteria.
3. Nuts and Seeds – nuts and seeds contain fibre, unsaturated fatty acids and polyphenols which all support the composition of the gut microbiota
4. Whole Grains (gluten free if needed) – whole grains are another great source of fibre and will support to feed the bacteria in our gut.
1. Foods high in sugar – foods higher in sugar can lead to inflammation which irritates the gut, damaging the protective mucus layer and decreasing the number of good bacteria.
2. Processed meats or lots of red meat – contrary to belief, meat products can be challenging for our human body to digest due to the large amount of protein, which can cause bloating and gas in some people if in the digestive system for a long time, therefore affecting our gut microbiome.
3. Foods high in saturated and trans fats – like red and processed meat, foods high in saturated and trans fats can also cause inflammation and a whole host of issues including affecting our intestinal flora composition.
Overall, we can play a huge role in the impact of how we feel mentally just through changing and/or including more nutritious foods into our diets. These changes can be pivotal and will support the gut, which then has an impact on our whole body and the vitality we feel.