Well, hello Fall.
As we head into the season of SAD (seasonal affective disorder) where the light wanes but for some people, their feelings of sadness intensify, I want to remind you that there are things you can do to help yourself through.
But first – a disclaimer: while I believe that there are many actions we can take to empower ourselves and change the trajectory of our physical, mental and emotional health, sometimes you need more. If you have any concerns about your mental health, please reach out to a qualified mental health professional.
Okay – now let’s talk about the very real connection between our gut microbiome and inflammation and mental health.
There was a time not too long ago where we didn’t understand—or even realize—the strong link between your mind and your gut. With technological advances developed in the past decade or so, research has exploded in this area.
Now the term “gut-brain axis” is widely used in health circles and while I think we need to pay attention to digestion and how our gut is functioning year-round, when I see new studies pop up at this time of year, I feel the need to share.
A little background on your belly
Our gut is composed of not only the cells of your esophagus, stomach, and intestines, but also trillions of microbes from hundreds of different species that live there. Yes, there are many types of “friendly” bacteria, viruses, and yeasts that happily reside inside you and contribute to your health.
There isn’t just one “healthy” microbiome which makes researching even more challenging. Everybody’s microbiome is different. Some of the influences that contribute to each person’s unique microbiome include genetics, the environment we are exposed to or grew up with, medications we take, and of course, the foods we eat. All of these things go into making me me and you you.
But we do know that having a healthy number, a wide variety, and proper balance of friendly and unfriendly gut microbes is key because they each play different roles in your health. And we’ve got to keep that balance if we want to reduce inflammation, discomfort and the risk of many diseases.
What do your little tummy bugs do anyway?
Some microbes make amino acids for proteins, necessary for building or repairing muscle, or they make vitamins B12 or K, both key players in keeping our nervous system, blood and bones in tip-top shape.
Other microbes stimulate your immune system, break down toxic compounds, or ferment fibre to produce the anti-inflammatory fatty acid called butyrate. A healthy gut microbiome also provides protection from harmful organisms that may be inadvertently consumed in contaminated food or water.
We can’t take these microscopic organisms for granted. They are a small but mighty army of Protective Health Soldiers who keep our physical selves secure and marching forward with strength and vitality.
Now, more and more evidence is painting a clearer picture of the effect that gut microbes have on your mental health.
A recent study published in the medical journal JAMA Psychiatry collected the data from 59 previous studies compared the gut microbiomes of people with and without certain mental health diagnoses. They then pooled the data together and analyzed it – this is called a meta-analysis.
The question researchers were aiming to answer was: “Do psychiatric disorders present with distinct or shared gut microbial alterations?” In other words, they were looking to see if they could find a pattern between which gut microbes were associated with which mental health issues.
Big question, right? But imagine how we might help people who have SAD or any other mental health concern if we could identify patterns or isolate solutions that might be as simple as rebalancing the gut microbiome? Through food and lifestyle changes that are accessible to everyone – amazing, right?
We are not there yet but one of the results researchers found was that people with mental health challenges tend to have higher levels of microbes that produce pro-inflammatory compounds, and lower levels of those that promote gut health and produce anti-inflammatory compounds like butyrate.
This is a significant double jeopardy associated with mental health conditions. Ideally, the goal is to have higher levels of microbes that promote gut health and lower inflammation, but this was showing the opposite.
While this is extremely interesting research and very relevant to many people, one of the studies authors had this to say: “While it is still too early to recommend specific interventions, it’s clear that clinicians need to place a greater awareness of gut health when considering the treatment of certain psychiatric disorders.”
But we can and should still pay attention because there is plenty of information here to demonstrate that gut health is closely connected to mental wellness.
So why wouldn’t we take steps to support this vitally important area of health?
Action steps to support your gut
There are some things you can do right now – today – to nurture a healthy microbiome in your gut:
First, this isn’t the first time I’ve outlined some smart steps to help with good gut health and to reduce inflammation. Start here for a primer on foods for mental wellness. And if you want a refresher on inflammation, I wrote a lot about it here.
- Certain probiotic supplements may help restore balance to the gut microbiome if it is affected by diarrhea or the use of antibiotics. Consult with a gut expert, like a holistic nutritionist or registered nutritional therapist (RNT) for example, on what’s the best combo for your particular biome (remember: we’re all different!)
- Bring more probiotic foods that contain live cultures into your diet. These include fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso, and kimchi. And if you don’t know how to make this easy for you, consult an RNT.
- You also need prebiotics in order to feed those friendly little microbes. A high-fibre diet with more vegetables, fruit, beans, and whole grains can increase the amount of gut-friendly butyrate that is produced by the microbiome. Did you know that people eating a standard North American diet get less than 50% of the fibre they need everyday to reduce many disease risks and keep those belly bugs fed?
- Finally, there is strong connection between good gut health and balanced hormones. In particular, higher levels of cortisol are known to increase inflammation. So take some time to breathe, sleep, meditate, hop on your yoga mat or do a little forest therapy to keep those levels down.
It may be the season of SAD, but please take some time to educate and empower yourself. There may be many things you can do beyond therapy or medication to make the shift into the darker months feel more manageable.
Reach out if I can help.
Perturbations in Gut Microbiota Composition in Psychiatric Disorders: A Review and Meta-analysis – JAMA Network
Gut Health ‘Vitally Important’ for Mental Health – MedScape
Your Digestive System & How it Works – U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
The Microbiome – Harvard: The Nutrition Source
The gut microbiome – Nature
The hunt for a healthy microbiome – Nature