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How your gut health affects your mental health

Young sick african american plus size woman with hands holding pressing her crotch lower abdomen. Medical or gynecological problems, healthcare concept. Young woman suffering from abdominal pain while sitting on sofa at home
Poor gut health has been linked to some mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. (Getty Images)

When thinking about how to improve your mental health, your gut might be the last thing that comes to mind - but research shows that your gut health has more of an impact on your mind than you think.

Most people are unaware of the gut-brain connection, with 90% of Britons not realising that an unhealthy and unhappy gut can contribute to stress, anxiety and depression, according to a new survey by Drink Living Things.

The prebiotic soda brand asked 2,000 British adults about their gut health plans for 2024, and found that just 17% believed they had good gut health. However, nearly 80% said they had no plans to prioritise it this year.

This is despite significant portions of the population experiencing symptoms of poor gut health, such as bloating (60%) and difficulty with bowel movements (57%), as well as disrupted sleep (39%), unexplained fatigue (40%) and nausea (20%).

But what does your gut microbiome have to do with your mental health? Here’s what the science says.

Healthy gut, healthy mind

The link between our gut health and our minds is a relatively new area of research, and scientists are discovering more each day. Research suggests that gut health may play a role in specific mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.

A recent study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry in 2023, examined the potential link between the gut microbiome and clinical implications for bipolar disorders, and suggested a relationship between chronic low-grade inflammation, metabolism and neurotransmissions that “would explain characteristic mood fluctuations” that accompany bipolar disorders.

In 2022, a study published in the journal Nature examined the gut bacteria composition in more than 3,000 people across diverse ethnic groups. It found consistent associations between gut microbiota and depressive symptoms, suggesting that gut health plays a pivotal role in mental wellbeing.

According to personalised nutrition platform ZOE, co-founder by epidemiologist Tim Spector, there are three pathways that scientists have found that make up the gut-brain connection.

These include the vagus nerve pathway, a a nerve that runs directly between the gut and the brain; the immunoregulatory pathway, where specific gut microbes may influence cells in the immune system, including those in the brain; and the neuroendocrine pathway, where gut microbes can affect the production of certain substances in the body that influence how we feel.

People who suffer from anxiety and depression will be no stranger to the feeling of nausea that accompanies a sense of dread. For some, longer-term gut issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may be the norm.

The ZOE website refers to a 2019 study published in Nature that found specific types of gut microbes linked to mental health, such as Faecalibacterium and Coprococcus that were associated with improved mood, and Dialister, which were less common in people with depression.

Benefits of probiotics

Probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, as well as a diverse number of plants, can help improve your gut microbiome. (Getty Images)
Probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, as well as a diverse number of plants, can help improve your gut microbiome. (Getty Images)

Probiotics are a big deal in the world of gut health. These are live microbes that have been found to improve the gut microbiome and provide health benefits when consumed.

A 2020 review of seven studies that examined the effect of taking pre- and probiotic supplements on depressive symptoms, and found positive benefits.

Another 2019 review of 21 studies, which included 1,503 participants, found that 11 studies showed a positive effect of probiotic supplements on symptoms of anxiety. The researchers concluded that more than half the studies showed positive results in treating anxiety through the regulation of gut microbiota.

However, ZOE warns that some probiotics don’t contain a diverse array of good bacteria, and are often chosen because they are easy to produce and package rather than being the best for your gut.

The platform encourages people to eat a diet rich with foods that naturally contain a range of probiotics, which can be found in fermented foods like cheese, kefir, yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut.

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