Mental Heath and Digestion: The Gut-Brain Connection
Imagine a relationship where a clear line of communication does not exist. In fact, imagine a relationship where both parties have severed any kind of beneficial communication, period. Both parties cannot receive answers, peace, or healthy fulfillment in their respective needs, purely because there is no formal means of connecting. This scenario, is your brain without wholesome, healthy nutrition – good, honest food.
The relationship from brain to body, is so essential in living a healthy mental and emotional life that when one area is deficient, the other is directly impacted. In fact, new research on the importance of gut health for mental health suggests that there are very clear communications taking place from our brain to the rest of our body, specifically our digestive system. However, if this communication is impaired or even cut off simply because we are failing to supply the nutrients our bodies so desperately need, our brain is one of the first to suffer.
What Is The Connection Between Gut Bacteria and Mental Health?
“What’s interesting is that for many years, the medical field did not fully acknowledge the connection between mood and food,” states Eva Selhub M.D. in her eye-opening article entitled, “Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food,” on behalf of the Harvard Health Blog. There have been doubts across the board, but especially in the field of medicine. Yet more and more the science speaks for itself. In fact, Selhub goes on to state that, “Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function – and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.”
In fact, the medical field is now starting to develop an entire branch of science that specifically focuses on food and mental health entitled, “Nutritional Neuroscience.” A recent article published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine makes the strong and definitive point that, “Nutritional neuroscience is an emerging discipline shedding light on the fact that nutritional factors are intertwined with human cognition, behavior, and emotions.”
How Nutrition Affects Mental Health
Our bodies were built to be in communication. We are designed for connection. So, it is less and less surprising that when one communication system goes down, such as the digestive system, another system will be affected and suffer. Yet one of the largest underrepresented relationships in the body is that from the brain to the digestive system.
In her insightful TEDTalk, nutritionist Lisa Kilgour builds her argument on this foundational relationship by stating, “Our digestive system uses the same neurons as our brain does and we actually produce most of these neurons in our gut. We make 90% of our serotonin, our feel-good neurotransmitter, and 50% of our dopamine, our reward neurotransmitter, in our gut.” So it may come as less of a surprise when Kilgour makes the bold connection between mental health, our gut, and our diet. “When we have an imbalance of neurotransmitters in our brain, it frequently means we have an imbalance of neurotransmitters in our gut. Low levels of neurotransmitters in our brain, is called depression. Low levels of neurotransmitters in our gut, is called constipation and slow digestion, a depressed gut. Frequently they go together, when you have one you have the other.”
Eat Your Way to Better Mental Health
In light of this information, establishing the relationship between food and mental health, is the first yet essential step in grasping how to implement helpful treatment solutions. As daunting as it may be to implement good foods for mental health into our diet, new science and information has shown that it is far from impossible.
According to Healthline, “Research has shown the most support for two diets: the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes more healthy fats, and the DASH diet, which focuses on reducing sugar.” This same article utilized real-life examples of women with mental health disorders that also made these specific diet changes. One particular woman who struggled deeply with severe anxiety, made this diet shift and attributes being off her meds to the food she ate. ‘“I haven’t had an anxiety attack in months,” Green stated. ‘“I’m completely off my antidepressants, which I 100 percent attribute to my diet and lifestyle changes.”’
Starting at an even more simplistic level of understanding, learning what basic nutritional deficiencies lead to mental health disorders, can be just as helpful. In an article from the Indian Journal of Psychiatry entitled, “Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses,” the authors state that, “The most common nutritional deficiencies seen in patients with mental disorders are of omega–3 fatty acids, B vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that are precursors to neurotransmitters.” Again, there is a connection made between our neurotransmitters, our food and our overall mental wellbeing. These ties can no longer be ignored.
“Understanding how food makes us feel and taking an active part in feeding and fueling ourselves better, can create change in our culture. It can be a catalyst for change,” states Kilgour. And she’s right. When addressing mental health and addiction one of the first steps to recovery is in first admitting that there is a problem. When it comes to the relationship between our diet and mental health, admitting to the connection, is step number one. Honoring that we are designed for connection, communication, and healing is also part of the process. So let us embrace the inherent connections within our body and make food choices that support a more stable mental health for ourselves and our loved ones.