The old adage “thinking with your stomach” may have more truth behind it than you realize. With that comes one of the buzziest words in the wellness sphere: microbiome.
That’s a fancy term for the vast variety of bacteria that live within your gut and body. Your intestines host more bacterial cells than human cells — some of them are good, while others can be harmful. The healthy bacteria are known as probiotics, which have been tied to a slew of health benefits.
That’s because your gut is a lot more integral to your overall health than you may think. Yes, it’s a key player in proper digestion, which helps your body absorb essential nutrients. But more and more research is starting to find that your microbiome may also support immune function, brain health, a healthy weight, and even your mood.
In fact, scientists are starting to find a link between your gut and serious mental health issues like depression and anxiety. So we delved into the science to find the connection, and spoke with the experts to find out what you can do about it.
How Does Your Gut Health Influence Your Emotions?
There is a connection between your gut and your brain. Scientists refer to it as the gut-brain axis: The neurotransmitters in your gut travel along your nerves and through your immune system to your brain, creating a two-way street of communication.
Mental and emotional stressors — like overdue bills or pre-interview anxiety — as well as biochemical stressors — say, eating a poor diet or avoiding exercise — can be communicated directly through your gut-brain axis, which explains why stress can make you feel sick.
Your microbiome produces a wide range of neurotransmitters, like the feel-good hormones serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, explains Shawn M. Talbott, Ph.D., a nutritional biochemist in Salt Lake City. It also produces norepinephrine, which is linked to focus, and gaba, which makes you feel relaxed.
“Because the microbiome also communicates directly with the immune system, there is a continual signaling of ‘wellness’ or ‘sickness,’” he adds.
In other words, if your gut isn’t healthy, your brain feels bad, too.
“The gut microbiome produces chemicals that are strong antioxidants,” explains James Giordano, M.D., professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center. “[These antioxidants] reach the brain via the bloodstream, and can reduce inflammation, which has been shown to be a contributory factor in certain mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, and in neurodegenerative disorders”
In fact, according to research published in JAMA Psychiatry, brain inflammation was 30 percent higher in people diagnosed with clinical depression. As the inflammation became more severe, so did the depression.
“Disruptions of the gut microbiome, can decrease production of antioxidant chemicals that reduce inflammation and sustain chemical stability in the brain,” Dr. Giordano explains. “These changes can contribute to altered neurological functions that are expressed in certain signs and symptoms of anxiety, depression, and as recent research suggests, specific features of schizophrenia and even autism.”
So, Can Improving Your Gut Health Boost Your Mental Health?
If an out of whack gut can have a negative impact on your mood, then a healthy microbiome can improve your mental health, right?
That seems to be the case. Improving your diet might literally improve your headspace.
Recent clinical studies show that loading up on fermented foods and drinks — like yogurt, kombucha, or sauerkraut — can lead to psychological improvements, like feeling less stressed, according to Talbott. Other research shows that popping a probiotic supplement with specific strains of bacteria may even reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
He emphasizes you should do some research or talk to your doc before you pick up a random pill, though. “The benefits of probiotics are very dependent on the specific strain being used,” he says. Some strains target depression, while others may work better for stress or anxiety.
That said, you shouldn’t expect a carton of yogurt to cure your depression overnight. Slow and steady changes to your diet — like increasing the amount of fermented foods you eat — may help make a difference over time, says Talbott.