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Healthy Gut, Healthy Mind: How Diet Can Improve Mental Health

Title image of the ruffled leaves of a purple kale plant.

Have you ever made a decision by “going with your gut” or been in a situation where you felt butterflies in your stomach? Been so nervous you felt sick?

For pretty much all of us, the answer is probably yes. Feeling stress and anxiety in your gut isn’t a new discovery. But what many people don’t realize is the why.

Why do we feel negative feelings in our stomachs? That weight in your stomach when we receive bad news, or that flutter of nervousness before doing something for the first time. They’re obviously not just figures of speech; we feel them after all.

Turns out, there’s a connection between the brain and the gut. Or rather, connections. In fact, the connections are so significant and the gut plays such an important role in mental health that it’s called the “second brain.”

What is this connection?

The first and most obvious connection is in the nerves that link your gut to your brain and back again. There’s a lot of them running back and forth, but one of the biggest is the vagus nerve. Normally, signals travel up and down the vagus nerve, but stress and anxiety interrupt that process.

The second connection is neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of a hormone called serotonin. It’s often called the “happy chemical” because it plays a huge role in our mental wellbeing and happiness. But here’s the surprising part — 90-95% of serotonin in the body is produced in the gut! Other neurotransmitters produced in your gut help control feelings of fear and anxiety.

Neurotransmitters are sent to the brain on pathways like the vagus nerve. When stress and anxiety interrupt the pathway from the gut to the brain, it’s messing up the delivery of nearly all of your happy chemicals. It’s also messing up your ability to regulate stress and anxiety.

Your brain and gut are also connected through the immune system. When we have an infection, our body activates parts of the immune system to fight it. The problem for us is that our immune response is also kicked in by stress and anxiety. In other words, our bodies tend to react to stress as if they’re fighting an infection.

For those of us who live in chronic stress, this is a problem. When our immune systems are on high-alert all the time, health issues follow, from anxiety and clinical depression to Alzheimer’s disease.

So, what can we do to make a difference?

Improve Gut Health, Improve Mental Health

Thankfully, there are some fairly easy steps we can take to improve our gut health. A lot of the questions come down to the bacteria that live in our guts. Certain foods help the good bacteria, which can improve our immune response to stress and our ability to produce serotonin. In other words, when your gut is healthy and you have diverse gut bacteria, you are more resilient against stress and your mood is better.

1) Eat more pro and prebiotics

Probiotics and prebiotics are foods that help the good stuff in your gut. Probiotics contain good bacteria that will increase the amount you have. Prebiotics essentially feed the good bacteria; they work together. The good news for those who eat a South Asian diet is that many such foods are already there.

Probiotic Food in South Asian Cuisines

  • Yogurt
  • Tempeh
  • Idli
  • Paneer
  • Dahi
  • Khalpi/Achaar

Prebiotic Food in South Asian Cuisines

  • Garlic
  • Onion
  • Tomato
  • Whole grains
  • Apples
  • Bananas

2) Eat lots of fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are good for a lot of the same reasons pro and prebiotics are (and many are prebiotics). Furthermore, many fruits and vegetables are high in fiber, which is good for digestion.

High-fiber fruits and vegetables

  • Dal
  • Chana
  • Green peas
  • Beans
  • Broccoli
  • Spinach
  • Carrots
  • Raspberries
  • Apples
  • Bananas

3) Stay hydrated

This is the easiest way to help your gut health. It’s the easiest way to help your health in a lot of ways. In terms of gut health, drinking more water strengthens your intestines and helps balance bacteria. It also helps with digestion. In terms of mental health, not getting enough water is linked to increased feelings of anxiety. Staying hydrated is important for feeling calm and relaxed even if you’re not feeling anxious.

The Bottom Line

In short, eating more diverse foods, drinking more water, and getting enough sleep are great ways to improve your gut health. As we’ve now seen, improving gut health is very important to improving mental health. Of course, it’s also very beneficial to overall physical health.

Still, we realize that it’s not always easy to maintain a balanced diet. Things are difficult due to the pandemic and nutritious food isn’t always the most affordable. The added stress of COVID-19 creates a negative feedback loop.

What’s important is taking small steps to break the loop. It takes time to improve your gut health, but the benefits to your mental and physical health are well worth it. Now, we don’t mean to say this is some kind of magic cure-all. Rather, it’s important to understand our bodies and how our diets can influence our mental health. Making changes to what we eat is a great first step towards improving our mental health, better self-care, and leading healthier, happier lives.

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