Mental health is vital for our wellbeing and we are all inevitably connected to it in some way. Although there has been extensive research in this area, the focus has typically been on external elements such as genetics and life events. But, what is often overlooked is the link between diet and mental health — something which is commonly referred to as the “gut-brain connection”.
We have all heard of the phrase “you are what you eat”; but, when it comes to mental health, it is even more pertinent. Not only do certain dietary choices influence our physical health, but they can also have a profound impact on our mental health. In other words, what we take in to our bodies can affect how we feel.
The gut-brain connection is rooted in the fact that our gut is home to approximately 100 million neurons and the same chemical messengers, such as neurotransmitters, which control our brain. This means that it is not only diet which has an effect on mental health, but also the balance of bacterial colonies found in the gut. This particular balance is known as the ‘microbiome’ and is made up of both ‘friendly’ and ‘unfriendly’ bacteria which compete for resources within the gut.
Having an imbalance of ‘friendly’ and ‘unfriendly’ bacteria in the gut can increase the permeability of the intestines, allowing unfriendly molecules to pass through into our bloodstream and further influencing other systems in the body, including the brain and its functioning.
There is now evidence to suggest that certain diets can influence depression, anxiety, and even misophonia. Unhealthy dietary behaviours such as ‘fast food’, processed foods, high sugar, unhealthy fats, and excessive alcohol consumption, can alter the composition of the Bowman’s capsule in the gut, leading to changes in the body’s hormone balance — such as increasing cortisol, the ‘stress hormone’ — which can influence emotions, mood, and gain weight.
Overall, the gut-brain connection is something that should be considered carefully when looking at the overall health of an individual. The right diet, combined with the right lifestyle choices, can go a long way towards improving mental health and the well-being of the individual.
Maintaining healthy eating habits is the first step towards a healthier gut-brain connection. Eating more whole, natural, and organic foods is key. It is also important to recognize the role that prebiotics and probiotics can have in maintaining balance in the gut, as well as controlling the microbiome and gut health in general.
It is important to remember that, whilst diet is key in maintaining the gut-brain connection, other lifestyle factors are equally important too. Regular exercise, plenty of sleep, and engaging in social activity all are crucial components for sustaining good mental health.
Finally, considering the mental health impacts of both diet and lifestyle can be essential in order to prevent long-term mental health effects and to ensure that the individual is looking after their mental wellbeing effectively. Whilst it may not be possible to immediately reverse the effects of an unhealthy lifestyle, being aware of the gut-brain connection can be a great starting point for individuals looking for ways to enhance their mental health.