By Jessica Weinberger

Brain chemistry, self-esteem, and personal relationships all play an integral role in your mental health. Now researchers are looking beyond these well-known factors to understand how microbial activity — specifically in your gut — impacts how you feel mentally every day.

The Human Microbiome Project started in 2007 to catalog the micro-organisms living in our body. Since then, researchers have pinpointed two million unique bacterial genes found in each human microbiome.

While there isn’t an direct connection between our stomachs and our brains, the stomach sends messages to the brain, just as the brain sends messages to the rest of the body. If the microbiome is out of balance and the neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine that partially determine how you feel on a daily basis aren’t produced effectively, your mental health could suffer.

Without widely-available tests to gauge the health of your microbiome, it’s important to understand how it’s linked to your mental health so you can make choices that promote a healthy, happier you.

1. Your Mood

Gut bacteria is key to how your body digests food, but it also impact how you feel mentally on a daily basis. For three decades, Mark Lyte has worked to prove that gut microbes communicate with the nervous system. He’s found that microorganisms in our gut secrete many chemicals that are the same substances used by our neurons to communicate and regulate mood, like dopamine, serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

Dopamine helps regulate movement and emotional responses, while serotonin supports overall well-being and happiness, along with regulating your body’s internal clock. GABA works to reduce high levels of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and dopamine. High amounts of GABA is linked to feeling relaxed and happy, while low levels can lead to insomnia and feeling anxious, stressed, and depressed. Greater gut health supports the right balance of neurotransmitters that help you maintain the best mood.

2. Depression and Anxiety

These same neurotransmitters identified by Lyte can play a role in intestinal disorders that also correlate with high levels of major depression and anxiety. In 2014, a group in Norway examined bacteria from 55 people and found that certain bacteria were more likely to be associated with depressive patients. Neuroscientist John Cryan, in his experiments with mice, found that feeding his subjects a healthy, bacteria-rich broth led them to swim longer in his tests and spend less time immobilized.

The results showed that good bacteria altered the neural chemistry of mice, suggesting that gut health may play a role in managing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Christine Tolman, LPC, a Talkspace therapist, said that when working with clients who struggle with anxiety and depression, it’s crucial to take a holistic approach that includes a healthy lifestyle.

“A good therapist with proper training will investigate all aspects of your life, including diet and lifestyle choices. We discuss coping skills as a way to manage stress, and making healthy choices is a part of good self-care,” she said.

3. Stress

The gut-brain connection also impacts your stress levels and how you respond to stressful situations. A 2016 study found that a healthy microbiome can decrease inflammation throughout the entire body, which can lead to a healthier mind along with a healthier body. “Having a healthier foundation can give a person the strength to deal with stress as it comes,” Tolman said.

“Our bodies run off of what we put in them. Studies show that the more variety in one’s diet, the more variety there is likely to be in the gut flora. This variability leads to decreased inflammation, which in turn may lead to decreased incidence of anxiety and ruminating thoughts. By having a healthy variety of foods in your diet, you are giving your body the best chance possible to deal with everyday life stressors by decreasing the risk of inflammation,” she said.

How can you support a healthy microbiome? Try keeping a food diary, eating more fiber, and increasing your intake of whole foods like seeds, avocado, and lean protein.

4. Brain Fog

Often referred to as the “second brain,” your gut and brain actually form from the same fetal tissue in the womb. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that gut issues, like leaky gut syndrome, can lead to brain fog or depression. More than 4,000 square feet of intestinal lining exists in our bellies to control what’s absorbed into the bloodstream. Large cracks or holes in an unhealthy gut lining let digested foods and toxins escape, leading to inflammation and changes to gut flora.

When inflamed, the brain’s immune system works extra hard to protect it. The inflammatory oxidative stress in the brain’s hypothalamus causes the dreaded brain fog that you’ve likely experienced. Ever placed the milk in the cupboard by accident or struggled to focus on a spreadsheet at work? Leaky gut may be to blame for your brain fog. Repairing your gut lining with probiotic-rich foods and healing herbs can lead you down the path to a healthier gut and overall microbiome.

Add Therapy for a More Balanced Life

While Talkspace therapists are not doctors or dietitians, there is a growing recognition of the critical link between gut health and mental health. A licensed therapist can help you to recognize lifestyle aspects where you have room to improve, and which would increase your overall health and wellness, or refer you to other providers, as needed. As more research dives into the intricacies of the human microbiome, we expect that the findings will help diagnose and treat mental illnesses in the years to come.

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