Is It All in the Gut? How Your Gut Might be Influencing Your Mental Health

Thursday, 5th April 2018

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For many of us, phrases like ‘gut-feeling’ and ‘gut-wrenching’ are simply a figure of speech. But according to a new body of research, ensuring a healthy digestion might be a lot more important than first thought. And not only when it comes to physical health.

The discovery that digestion can play a key role in supporting our overall health is nothing new. In fact, it was over 2000 years ago that Hippocrates first declared, “all disease begins in the gut”. But a new exciting field of neuroscience called psychobiotics is showing that our gut - or more specifically the balance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria that call it home - might be influencing our mental health too.

The term “friendly bacteria” has been bandied around a lot in recent years - hitting the mainstream ever since Yakult’s Love Your Insides first launched itself onto our breakfast tables. Shopping aisles are now awash with trendy bacteria-rich foods like sauerkraut, kefir and kombucha… Alongside endless write-ups professing the power of probiotics to boost digestion, enhance immunity and promote healthy, glowing skin.

But who are these friendly bacteria?

Our gut plays host to a never-ending battleground of bacteria which scientists call our “gut microbiome”. One third of our microbiome is common to all of us, whilst two thirds is entirely unique. And it’s extremely vast... Our gut bacteria houses at least 1000 different species, totalling in the tens of trillions - and collectively weighing more than the average brain (!)

More and more research is showing us that the gut and brain communicate with each other. They do this through an intricate mutual information exchange system which includes - amongst others - the Vagus nerve, gut hormone signalling and the immune system. In fact, the gut houses 500 million neurons which connect directly to the brain via the Vagus nerve. Research shows that these links enable bacteria to communicate with the brain, with the potential to affect our thoughts, moods and even behaviour.

It’s also estimated that up to 90% of serotonin (our number one mood-boosting neurotransmitter) is made in the digestive system.

Perhaps these discoveries offer some explanation for why so many digestive complaints and disorders go hand-in-hand with mental health issues like depression and anxiety - and visa versa.

So, can we boost our mental wellbeing by targeting this bacteria?

That’s exactly what psychobiotics is looking to uncover. The depth of its influence still isn’t clear, but so far the studies seem to suggest that it’s possible. One study with mice showed that changing the composition of microbes in their gut had a very real impact on their behaviour. The experiment looked at anxious mice (those less confident about exploring new environments) and those that were naturally more inquisitive. When they exchanged gut microbes between the two groups they saw a complete reverse in behaviours. The anxious mice became more confident, and in turn, the more confident ones increasingly hesitant.

Research into the gut-brain axis is still in its early stages, but there’s no doubt that in supporting our gut we give ourselves the best chance of optimising our health across the board. Here are our tips for doing just that:

Kombucha - Kombucha is a fermented tea made using tea, water, sugar and SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). Hailed the ‘Immortal Health Elixir’ by the Chinese, Kombucha first came onto the scene around 2000 years ago, long before any hipster natural food shops. Kombucha is great for the gut as it’s packed full of enzymes and prebiotics which serve as fuel for our bacteria, allowing the good guys to thrive. JARR kombucha is our booch of choice, made from organic and biodynamic loose-leaf Sri Lankan tea and organic sugar cane from Brazil. They’ve got some tasty flavours too for those less fond of the slightly tart taste (including ginger and passion fruit).

Stay clear of sugar and processed foods - our gut bacteria plays an important role in maintaining the integrity of our gut lining which acts as our barrier to the outside world, protecting us from the nasties. When bacteria ferment fibre in the colon, they produce short chain fatty acids which help to protect our gut lining, keeping it healthy and strong. When we eat sugar, refined carbs and processed foods, they get absorbed too quickly, bypassing any involvement with our gut bacteria. When the bacteria doesn’t get the natural fibre they rely on for food, they start to munch on the layers of mucus that line our gut, breaking this barrier down. This can cause something called Leaky Gut Syndrome, allowing toxins and germs to leak through into the bloodstream which can cause a myriad of health problems. Focusing your diet around natural, whole foods helps to ensure that your gut microbiome is getting plenty of natural fibre to keep this barrier healthy and strong.

Load up on foods high in inulin - inulin is a powerful type of fibre which acts as fertiliser to the healthy bacteria in our gut supporting them to thrive. Foods high in inulin include jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, leeks, onions and bananas.

Kefir - Kefir is a tangy-tasting, fermented milk drink which originated in the Caucasus Mountains in the former Soviet Union. Raw kefir contains over 40 different strains of friendly bacteria and is packed full of nutrients to support a healthy digestive system.

Get moving - Studies have shown that exercise can beneficially alter the composition of our gut bacteria. One recent study sampled a group’s gut microbiome before putting them on an exercise plan that involved engaging in cardio exercises for 30 - 60 mins, three times a week for six week. After the six weeks, they found that most participants had seen an increase in healthy bacteria. These changes reverted back to what they were before as soon exercise was stopped.

Supplement with a high-quality probiotic - keep your healthy gut bacteria levels topped up with a high quality probiotic. Probiotics tend to work better in teams so try to choose one with a few different strains. Normally recommended are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria which are naturally found throughout our digestive system.

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