A quick Google of the words “gut health” yields 1.3 billion results in thirty seconds and the number grows by the day. Not too long ago the notion barely existed and now it’s everywhere. Probiotics, prebiotics, fermentation, microbiomes and good and bad bacteria. Advertising is targeted toward improving gut health by diet, lifestyle, supplements and eating a whole range of funky foods that look and smell questionable. Why the rise in popularity, and what links could this have with mental health?
There are several reasons why we might be hearing more about gut health than ever before. One is the advances in technology that have helped develop our research on the gut microbiome: Progress in research has led to a better understanding of the gut microbiome, the collection of microorganisms that live in the gut. Studies have shown that the gut microbiome plays a key role in overall health, influencing everything from digestion to immune function to mental health. So on the one hand we are simply learning more about something that has always existed, but on the other hand our current Western lifestyle and diet means we need to know more than ever before as we may have more control over our symptoms than we realise. Shouldn’t a Western diet be a healthy one, given all the options and information we have at our fingertips? Well, probably yes. But unfortunately, a current Western diet, which is high in processed foods, refined carbohydrates, sugar, and unhealthy fats, has been shown to have a negative impact on gut health. It happens in the following ways:
- Decreased fibre intake: The foods we choose in the Western world are typically low in fibre, which is essential for a healthy gut microbiome. Fibre acts as a prebiotic, providing food for the beneficial bacteria in the gut. Without adequate fibre, the gut microbiome can become imbalanced, leading to dysbiosis.
- Increased inflammation: High sugar intake, refined carbohydrates and imbalanced omega-6 and omega-3 can promote inflammation in the gut, which can damage the gut lining and disrupt the gut microbiome. Inflammation has been linked to many digestive disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease - and the prevalence of gut related disease and disorders only rises by the day.
- Altered gut microbiome: Consuming high saturated and trans fats, more sugar and less nutrient-dense food (characteristics of a Western diet), can alter the composition of the gut microbiome, reducing the number of beneficial bacteria and increasing the number of harmful bacteria. This imbalance can lead to dysbiosis and an increased risk of digestive disorders.
- Impaired gut barrier function: Consumption of highly processed and sugary foods can harm the gut barrier, which normally acts as a barrier to keep harmful substances out of the body. This can lead to increased inflammation and a heightened risk of autoimmune disorders.
And while this might be reading like diet and lifestyle advice, the impact can be more than simply physical. There is a growing body of research that suggests that gut health can impact mental health. The gut and the brain are connected via the gut-brain axis, which is a complex communication network that involves the nervous system, immune system, and gut microbiome.
The gut microbiome plays an important role in the gut-brain axis by producing neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, that can impact mood and mental health. Additionally, inflammation in the gut can trigger inflammation in the brain, which has been linked to a range of mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety.
Life Space puts the gut-brain axis like this: “This 2-way pathway [between the gut and the brain] allows a constant ‘lively chat’ between the gut, microbes and the brain, using various routes such as the nervous system (including vagus nerve), endocrine and immune systems. As a result of this open line of communication, what impacts one system will often impact the other.”
What this means is that when we don’t take care of our gut, we can suffer the consequences in our mood and mental health. Changes in mood, sudden impaired cognitive function, sleep disturbance and anxiety may be linked to the gut’s inability to hormone signal, immune signal and neural signal, as well as impact stress response.
While it is important to know that these symptoms can be caused by many factors, exploring the links to gut health can be one avenue to change in mental health. Always speak with a healthcare provider before making any lifestyle changes, but know too that the gut is a dynamic ecosystem that can be influenced by a variety of factors, including diet, lifestyle and supplements, such as those made by Life Space.
If you want to embark upon improved gut health, you may want to consider the following:
- Eat a variety of plant-based foods: Consuming vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains can help support a healthy gut microbiome by providing fibre, prebiotics, and other nutrients. Aim to have at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
- Incorporate probiotic-rich foods: Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can help promote gut health. Incorporating probiotic-rich foods such as yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi into your diet can help improve gut health. A probiotic supplement, such as Life Space’s Gut Health range can help boost consumption of good bacteria.
- Reduce processed and sugary foods: Our over-processed Western diet can be harmful to the gut microbiome and promote inflammation. Reducing your intake of these foods can help promote a healthy gut.
- Stay hydrated: Drinking plenty of water and other hydrating fluids can help support gut health by promoting healthy bowel movements and reducing the risk of constipation.
- Manage stress: Chronic stress can have a negative impact on gut health. Incorporating stress-reducing activities such as meditation, yoga, or deep breathing into your routine can help support gut health. Life Space’s Probiotics+ Stress Relief is a targeted probiotic formula containing beneficial bacteria with added ingredients to relieve symptoms of stress and nervous tension associated with mild anxiety.
- Get enough sleep: Lack of sleep can disrupt the gut microbiome and impair gut function. Aim to get eight hours of sleep a night to support gut health.
It's important to note that making small, sustainable changes to your diet and lifestyle over time is key to improving gut health. Making these changes can impact the gut-brain axis and have an impact on improving mental health - and even if the issue is deeper than the gut, more sleep, healthier foods and time spent managing stress can’t be a bad thing!