We talk a lot about how what you eat affects your health. It’s well-known that what’s in our food directly impacts our bodies, and that eating healthier food makes us physically healthier in return. But what many people don’t realize is that the food we eat directly affects our mental health as well.
The Link Between Brain and Stomach
In the past several years, researchers have made more and more connections between what happens in your digestive tract and what happens in your brain. Many people refer to it as the gut-brain axis - the highway of neurochemicals, nutrients, signals and hormones that travel between your brain and your digestive system. The center of this highway is the vagus nerve, which carries messages from the digestive tract directly to your brainstem.
One of the messages your body sends is in the form of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep, appetite, mood and memory. Even though it affects your brain so much, over 90% of the serotonin in your body is produced in your gut. Your digestive tract contains a hundred million nerve cells that take the signals of your serotonin and shoot them up the vagus nerve to your brain.
Through the brain-gut axis your digestive system plays a huge role in your mental health. The most common side effects of the medications prescribed for anxiety and depression are gastrointestinal problems. And researchers have found people with gastrointestinal disorders have higher than average rates of many mental health disorders as well.
The link between mind and body is far from a minor piece of trivia. The World Health Organization estimates 1 in 13 people globally suffers from anxiety, while depression is the number one cause of worldwide disability. In the US nearly 20% of the adult population will experience some form of anxiety disorder each year, and up to a quarter of children suffer. And even though less than half receive treatment, the cost adds up to billions of dollars per year.
While the gut-brain axis is certainly not the only factor in mental health, it can form an important component in prevention and treatment of the most common mental disorders. Researchers have found that improving the health of your digestive system can directly improve your mood. For many people that’s a great side effect, but it proved true for people suffering from depression and anxiety disorders as well.
Caring for Your Microbiome
It’s obvious then that caring for your mood also means caring for your stomach. But how do you keep your digestive system healthy?
You have to think about your microbiome. The millions of beneficial bacteria that live inside of you are like the maintenance workers on the gut-brain highway. They keep your intestinal lining, where all those nerve cells live, healthy and protected from the harmful bacteria that cause inflammation. They improve how well you absorb nutrients from your food. And they help activate the nerve cells and pathways that transmitters like serotonin need to reach your brain. When the microbiome isn’t healthy you don’t just feel it in your gut, you feel it in your brain.
**The problem is that our modern diets are wreaking havoc on our microbiomes. Processed foods and refined sugars are deadly to our good bacteria. Many people’s diets lack the variety of fresh foods that keep the microbiome diverse and healthy. And most Americans don’t eat enough vegetables and fiber to help restore the balance.
Probiotics are key to reintroducing healthy bacteria into your digestive system. But some research has shown that the probiotics in supplements are often ineffective. The solution is dietary - eating cultured dairy and fermented foods that aren’t heavy processed. Greek yogurt from Fiddle Creek Dairy or Oak View Acres Organic Sauerkraut are excellent choices for reintroducing good bacteria.
Once you reintroduce bacteria, you have to keep them healthy. That means avoiding highly processed foods and choosing organic to minimize chemicals and antibiotics. And you have to have variety in your diet to promote diversity in your microbiome.
Healthy grass-fed meats and omega-rich protein sources are a great start for a healthy brain diet. Sourcing your proteins locally means you know where your food is coming from and that it's the freshest it can be.
Trying something new from Green Owl isn’t just delicious, it might also be the key to a healthier mind!