The Link Between Gut Health and Mental Health | Exploring the Science

People are rapidly becoming more aware of the potential link between gut health and mental health.

The digestive system and the brain communicate via something known as the gut-brain axis. This complex system relies upon a combination of hormonal, neurological, and immunological pathways. If it falls out of balance, some professionals believe it could contribute to depression, anxiety, and digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Another consideration is the relationship between gut flora and mental health. Also known as the gut microbiome, this is the population of microorganisms that inhabits the digestive tract. Let’s take a closer look.

The Gut Microbiome and Mental Health

The digestive system is home to a vast population of microorganisms, including many different types of bacteria that help maintain a healthy gut. Researchers are only just beginning to understand the importance of gut flora, but some evidence indicates there may be a link between gut bacteria and mental health.

For example, bacterial strains such as Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus play a role in producing certain neurotransmitters. They include gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HT), both involved in mood regulation.

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Gut bacteria also help to maintain a healthy environment inside the digestive tract. One of their functions is playing a role in gut permeability. This term refers to how readily substances pass through the intestinal walls into the bloodstream.

Some professionals believe that if the microbiome becomes imbalanced (dysbiosis), this can lead to increased gut permeability. This is sometimes known as leaky gut syndrome, although the existence of leaky gut syndrome is up for debate in the medical world.

Supposedly, leaky gut syndrome leads to gut bacteria and other molecules entering the blood and circulating around the body, potentially reaching the brain. The potential effects of this are not well known and have not been thoroughly researched.

Either way, having a healthy microbiome is important for overall health. However, factors such as poor nutrition, stress, and antibiotic use can negatively impact the microbiome.

Factors such as poor nutrition, stress, and antibiotic use can negatively impact the microbiome.

Fortunately, there are ways to help improve digestive health. Some of the most well-known options are prebiotics and probiotics.

Prebiotics are specific carbohydrates and soluble fibers that help the existing gut flora to function effectively. The best sources of prebiotics are fruit and vegetables, just one of the many reasons it is important to eat enough of them.

Meanwhile, probiotics are substances that contain live bacteria and help to balance the microbiome’s composition. It is possible to find them in fermented foods and drinks, including kombucha, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut. Many people also consume them as supplements.

So, could probiotics help depression and anxiety? Here’s what the research shows.

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Gut Health and Depression

In a small 2015 study, 40 healthy volunteers (who did not have depression) took either a multi-species probiotic supplement or a placebo for four weeks. Compared to the placebo group, those who took the probiotic were less reactive to sad mood. This included reduced scores for rumination and aggressive thoughts.

Gut Health and Anxiety

A 2020 meta-analysis suggested that while probiotics may be beneficial for depressive symptoms, they do not reduce anxiety scores.

However, a 2014 study on mice indicates that certain bacterial strains may have some sort of effect. The authors tested Bifidobacterium longum and Bifidobacterium breve against the antidepressant escitalopram and a placebo.

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They found that both the bacterial strains and the escitalopram reduced anxiety in one test for anxiety. In one other test B. breve induced lower anxiety, and in another test B. longum induced antidepressant-like behavior. But there were also tests where the bacterial strains did not have an effect. 

Bottom Line on Gut Health and Mental Health

Researchers are only in the very early stages of exploring the potential relationship between gut health and mental health. Right now, there isn’t enough information to suggest probiotics for the management of specific mental health conditions.

It is essential to research individual probiotic brands to ensure that they are reliable and effective.

While probiotic supplementation is generally considered safe, consumers should be aware that probiotics are not regulated the same way that medications are. Therefore, it is essential to research individual brands to ensure that they are reliable and effective. It is also vital to eat a balanced, nutritious diet to help keep the microbiome healthy.

Finally, probiotics are not substitutes for appropriate medical care. Those suffering from severe anxiety or depression should talk to a healthcare provider about the best way to manage their condition.

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