Mental health is a challenge that far too many people face.
It is a particularly difficult area, because people often have very limited control over their mental health.
This is especially true for people suffering from mental illness, such as depression and anxiety disorders. People in that situation often find that no matter what they do and how well they take care of themselves, their control over their own mental health is limited at best.
We understand so little about mental illness and its causes. Yet, some research is beginning to suggest an entirely new connection. A connection between depression and gut health, which has implications of mental health in general.
Here’s the thing…
Modern medicine is strongly focused on taking drugs.
But how effective is this approach really?
After all, medication just addresses the symptoms of the issues, not the underlying problem.
For some, therapy may be a partial answer, but even then people continue to struggle.
In reality, we don’t know what causes mental health issues most of the time and this makes it very difficult to effectively prevent these issues and help people suffering from them.
Perhaps it is time to look beyond the standard advice and see what science can tell us.
One of the most important perspectives is the way that what we take into our bodies can really affect our health, both physically and mentally – often in ways that we aren’t even aware of.
A commonly discussed topic in this area is the way that the food you eat can influence your mood. Most of us are somewhat aware of this in terms of short-term impacts, but we tend to overlook the long-term impacts of what we eat on our health and our emotions.
This is a huge topic, and I want to focus on one very specific area of it – gut health.
Gut health isn’t actually a new field and there has been research into it for many decades.
However, much of that research has been ignored and its implications have not been fully appreciated.
Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in the field.
Some of that comes from studies into gut health and some of it comes from the way that more and more people are taking the time to look at the scientific research themselves.
Regardless of why interest in this field is increasing, it is clear that gut flora does have significant implications for health and it is an area that needs to be considered in depth.
The Gut and Gut Flora
We have a tendency to view all bacteria as bad.
That isn’t actually the case.
Instead, there are many species of bacteria that live in a synergistic relationship with humans (1). This means that they help us and we help them.
For example, one study suggested that there is between 500 and 1,000 species of beneficial bacteria that play some role in our gut (2).
This gets even more significant from the numbers perspective – as there are many more bacterial cells in the gut than there are human cells in the entire body (3).
This alone offers a strong indication that gut bacteria is going to have a pretty strong impact on health, and by extension, depression and gut health could potentially be related.
These bacteria aren’t inactive.
Instead, they have a wide range of metabolic activities. These play roles in how nutrients and energy is salvaged, as well as offering protection against invasion by harmful bacteria (4).
Because of these functions, gut bacteria have been identified as playing roles in a range of diseases. In particular, they may help to protect against some disorders (5) and may also have therapeutic potential (6,7).
In general, the bacteria in our gut (also known as microflora) play a key role in protecting their host (8).
That is, they help to protect you and I, and promote our health.
Additionally, there are many aspects of modern society that also act to negatively impact our gut bacteria, some of which are discussed below.
Impacts of Current Practices and Nutrition
Modern medicine has the tendency to look for ‘quick fixes’ to health problems.
This can really be seen in just how quickly doctors will prescribe antibiotics or other medications, often before they even know whether they medication is going to help. In many cases, the impact that the medication has on your body is used as a way of working out what is wrong with you.
Quick fixes are always risky.
They may well solve the problem at hand, but in the process, they can cause significant damage elsewhere.
An example of this is antibiotics (11).
Frequently, antibiotics are broad spectrum and will affect a wide range of different types of bacteria. This is one of the reasons that they are so powerful.
The downside is that these medications don’t discriminate between bacteria that is harmful and bacteria that is actually helping your body. So, you end up damaging the bacteria that is helping you in the process.
In fact, communities of bacteria often fail to return to their original state following exposure to antibiotics (12).
Other medications can have similar effects.
This isn’t too surprising, because in general medication is not as targeted as we assume. This means that it can often have impacts on parts of the body that we don’t really anticipate.
Now, there are certainly cases where antibiotics are needed and they can sometimes be lifesaving. So, you may never be able to completely avoid antibiotics. But, if you do end up taking them, it’s important to find ways of bringing your gut health back up.
At the same time, there are other factors in our life that can influence the composition of bacteria.
Another very important factor is what we eat.
Foods that are heavily processed certainly don’t do gut bacteria any favors (16).
Another issue is a food type known as acellular carbohydrates.
This term refers to carbohydrates that no longer contain their full cellular structure.
A good example is flour. When flour is ground, the cellular structure is broken down. This has a number of implications. For one thing, breaking up the cell structure means that the glucose is released into your bloodstream much faster. That can spike your blood sugar levels.
Other examples of acellular carbohydrates are things like energy bars, cake and pizza.
In fact, most carbs that have been heavily processed are acellular, because their cellular structure was broken apart as part of the process.
Research also suggests that foods falling into this category may play a key role in inflammation, obesity and leptin resistance (17).
This pattern occurs because of the impact that acellular foods have on your gut bacteria. This may also be why low carb diets often promote health outcomes.
That is, after all, one of the key marketing approaches that yogurt companies use to promote their probiotic options.
Likewise, getting enough fiber in your diet has been linked to benefits for gut health (19).
The Link between the Gut and the Brain
So, what about mental health?
It turns out that there really is a link between the bacteria in your gut and your mental health. So, depression and gut health are actually linked, even though it seems like they shouldn’t be.
What’s even more interesting is that this relationship actually works in two directions.
So, let’s start with this link.
Research has shown that people with depression can have significantly different compositions in their microbiota.
One very recent research study looked at this in patients who had major depressive disorder and control subjects. Comparisons were made between the two groups.
The authors noted that there were significant differences in microbiota composition from one person to the next.
Despite this, there were also some strong differences between the two groups (20).
The outcomes of the research don’t show how the two factors are related to one another.
Instead, they simply offer evidence that there is some link in place.
There has been a large focus the gut-brain axis.
This term refers to the signaling that occurs between the gastrointestinal tract and the nervous system. Gut bacteria play a key role in this signaling (21).
Research has illustrated that this signaling system can play a key role in brain function (22).
As such, the gut-brain axis is a biological mechanism that provides gut bacteria a potential way to influence brain function and this could also theoretically occur in reverse.
One interesting pattern is that the bacteria in the gut can play a role in the stress response (23). This suggests that as a person’s gut health improves, they may be able to respond better to stress. That’s a pretty major outcome for mental health.
Indeed, some researchers argue that an imbalance of serotonin may play a role in influencing mood, potentially leading to depression (25).
Improving Mental Health through Gut Health
The link between gut health and mental health suggests that improving gut health may act as a key tool for improving mental health overall.
While this aspect of the field is still very new, researchers are beginning to look at the therapeutic potential of probiotics as a way of improving microbiota health along with mental health.
One recent study conducted a randomized controlled trial that provided a multiple species probiotic and looked at the impacts that it had on non-depressed individuals.
The authors found that the group receiving the probiotic experienced less rumination and fewer aggressive thoughts. The probiotic group also reacted less strongly to sad mood, which the authors thought was largely the result of less rumination (26).
The outcomes of the study offer evidence that probiotics may play a role in helping to prevent depression by improving gut health. At the same time, there is the potential for similar effects to occur in patients with a mood disorder, like depression, and may help to improve mental health as a consequence.
At the same time, evidence for this approach is increasing (29).
For example, one study found that a probiotic formulation was able to decrease scores on both depression and anxiety scales (30). A second study also highlighted the ability of probiotics to help reduce anxiety (31).
Another study found similar outcomes for helping to alleviate psychological distress (32).
There is a lot of merit in improving gut health as a tool for improving mental health.
After all, we have mechanisms for improving gut health. This is potentially easier to do than to try and improve mental health directly, especially as there is still so much about mental health that we do not know.
Improving Gut and Mental Health
Mental health is a challenging area and there is no single answer.
For some people, antidepressants and/or counseling are a critical component of managing a mental illness. Certainly, you should always talk to your health care provider about any decisions surrounding treatment for mental illness.
However, the relationship between gut health and the mind shows that focusing on gut health may be the answer that some people are looking for.
The importance of this cannot be understated because treatment for mental illness doesn’t work for everyone.
Take depression for example.
Many people simply do not respond to treatment. In fact, only around a third of people actually find a treatment that works with their first antidepressant.
Even with subsequent work in identifying a good medication, only around 70% are successful (33).
That means that just under a third of people don’t find a medication solution.
This issue is so significant that it has its own name: treatment-resistant depression (34). And, even then, many people find that medication makes depression easier – it doesn’t take away the problem. Instead, they may still experience many of the same symptoms, just not quite a severely as they were before.
Maybe that’s not too surprising.
After all, treatment for depression largely focuses on masking the symptoms.
That’s a little bit like taking painkillers for a broken leg.
Research into gut health and mental illness is still ongoing, but what we know suggests that poor gut health may well play a role in the development of some mental health issues, such as depression.
That probably isn’t the case for every single person, but it may well be the case for many.
Here’s the thing.
Even if the concept sounds far-fetched… isn’t it worth trying?
All the research we’ve talked about so far suggests that improving your gut health really will make a difference on your mental health overall.
Gut health is important for many aspects of health, so even if improving it does nothing at all for your mental health, it’s still worth doing. After all, feeling better physically can sometimes help with depression, and it certainly won’t hurt.
So, how do you do it?
Gut bacteria is a complex system of bacteria that interact with one another and with their human hosts.
You can’t simply pop a pill to improve your gut health and your mental health at the same time.
Instead, it’s a matter of looking at your own health and lifestyle, and figuring out which area needs improvement.
I talked about these earlier, but some key things that can contribute to poor gut health are the following:
- Chronic stress
- Acellular carbohydrates
- Not getting enough fiber
With this in mind – one of the key ways to improve gut health is to knock out these risk factors.
The latter two are relatively easy to do, simply by moving towards a focus on whole food.
In fact, doing that is generally a good move for health in general and it’s a decision that many more people should be making.
Decreasing stress is more difficult.
Again, this is something that we should all be doing for our health.
But, many people struggle to find ways to decrease chronic stress. Even when people do have some idea about how to decrease stress in their own life, they may be resistant about actually doing so (but that’s a topic for another time).
Even though it can be challenging, and a little scary, it really is worth looking at your own life and finding ways to take care of yourself better emotionally and decrease your stress. For example, the site Psychology Today offers 5 tips to help reduce stress.
Finally, decreasing your use of antibiotics and NSAIDs isn’t always possible, but it’s an approach that should be taken whenever possible.
The second thing that you can do is to find ways to promote your gut health.
Probiotics are one good example of this.
That word is commonly associated with probiotic yogurt – largely because of how good the yogurt industry is at marketing.
However, there are a large number of fermented foods out there that also contain live cultures and can be a good way of getting these into your diet. There are even probiotic supplements on the market.
Additionally, there are many sites that teach you how to make your own probiotic food, such as this post from Wellness Mama, which looks at making your on kombucha.
A Final Word
Interest in gut health and its implications is growing fast, and many people are particularly interested in depression and gut health.
Many of the studies discussed in this article were published in the last few years, with a number of them published in 2015.
Because of this, we are likely to see a lot of growth in knowledge and understanding of the field over the next few years.
Right now, the idea of your gut influencing your mood and mental health may seem ridiculous to many people and to many health professionals. Yet, as the research continues and public awareness of it increases, this field may become a lot more commonplace and much more respected.
I would love to hear from you what you think about the connection between gut health and mental health, and whether you have had any experiences that support or refute this link.
The bacteria in our gut plays a much stronger role in our health than most people realize.
Research suggests that there may be a significant connection between our mental health and the bacteria in our gut.
Because of this, improving gut health may also help to improve mental health. Certainly, it is a direction worth pursuing for anyone who struggles with mental health issues.