We get butterflies in our tummy. We have gut feelings. Our stomachs get tied up in knots. These are common turns of phrase for a reason; although the connection between your gut health and your mental health has just recently begun to be fully studied and researched, it seems we’ve always known it was there to some degree. But just how connected are our brains and our guts, and what does that mean for our diet… and our mental health?
The gut-brain connection
The vagus nerve is a major part of your overall nervous system, and it enables you to do all the things you need to do to live, like breathe, digest food, and automatically swallow. It’s also the physical connection between your gut and your brain – messages are sent from the brain to the gut, and from the gut to the brain via the vagus. It can be easy to forget that there’s a literal, physical connection between our minds (our brains) and our bodies. Many of us separate health into two different categories, ‘physical’ and ‘mental’, when they’re actually incredibly closely linked. It makes perfect sense when you think about how not only is stress one of the major causes of digestive issues, but digestive problems can make you feel really unhappy and irritable.
Gut flora and mental health
Your microbiome (gut flora) is the huge, diverse population of bacteria (as well as viruses, archaea, and fungi) that call your gastrointestinal tract home. Bacteria get a pretty bad rap, which makes sense since they can cause infections and illnesses… but the ones in your tummy are different. They include trillions and trillions of the ‘good’ kind, the kind we need to keep our guts, our digestive systems, our skin, and even our mental health operating at their best.
In recent years, mounting evidence is showing that the bacteria in our guts can actually have a significant influence on our brain chemistry, on our neural development, and on a range of behaviours like our stress response, how we experience pain, and even our mood. Our microbiome ‘talks’ to our vagus nerve too, sending information between our tummies and our brains to regulate our digestion – that’s why it’s so important for them to be balanced, and to have enough of the good ones.
Balance is key
When your microbiome is unbalanced (dysbiosis), the ‘bad’ ones can take over and cause inflammation. This inflammation is your immune system working hard to defend itself against the microbiome it doesn’t want – but its effects go further than that. Studies show that inflammation and depression/anxiety are linked, and while it can be a bit of a ‘chicken/egg’ scenario as far as which one comes first, we do know that managing your microbiome balance will fight inflammation, which in turn can help to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and/or depression.
As with so many things, balance is key to a healthier, happier life – the great news is that when it comes to your microbiome, keeping things balanced and healthy is easily within your control:
Probiotics are a combination of different types of ‘good’ or beneficial bacteria/yeasts that live in your body. They keep your gut flora neutral so that your microbiome is well balanced, your immune system is supported, and inflammation is kept at bay. Depending on the type of bacteria they can also aid digestion, create vitamins, breakdown medicines, help to line your gut, and prevent illness. To get these in your diet, you must eat fermented foods and drinks, things like live yoghurt, kimchi, kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut and pickles (but not ones made in vinegar).
While most of us could reasonably easily manage to eat some yoghurt every day (dairy intolerances aside), we may not all have daily access to sauerkraut and other ‘live’ (probiotic enriched) foods. One easy thing you can do to help ensure you’re maintaining a healthy, balanced microbiome is to invest in a daily probiotic supplement. Depending on your needs and what you’d like to spend, you can choose from a great selection of different probiotics designed to deliver as many beneficial bacteria as possible, straight to your digestive system.
Probiotics are the bacteria, prebiotics are their food – after all they’re alive, and they need to eat. Prebiotics are the compounds in food that make them effective for growing and maintaining a healthy level of friendly flora in your tummy. When it comes to beneficial bacteria some foods are better than others, so to encourage your welcome guests to flourish and thrive, eat the prebiotics that help them to stay strong and keep your digestive system thriving, and inflammation at bay.
Foods like onions, garlic, Jerusalem artichoke, leeks, oats, asparagus, bananas, and cocoa are all strong in prebiotics and, luckily, are all easy additions to your diet! Of course, they are mostly effective when raw, so if you’re unsure about just how much raw asparagus and onion you can eat, you can add high fibre food supplements like psyllium husks to your diet too, and rest easy knowing that you’re doing everything you can to keep your gut, your body, and your mental health in optimum condition.
Our Recommended Probiotics:
For daily wellbeing EXTRA Strength probiotic is a premium product which contains a healthy balance of probiotics over pathogens in the body, important for digestion, immunity and energy levels. Amongst other things, probiotics can help to replenish the good bacteria in the gut during and after a course of antibiotics. Probiotics can also be taken on a daily basis by those looking for a healthy balance of good intestinal bacteria; this includes those with conditions such as IBS, IBD, Candida, people with low energy levels, stressful and busy lifestyles, those with digestive irregularities, and anyone with skin conditions such as acne or eczema.
AYA Ultimate 10 Billion is a probiotic supplement to support digestive and immune health. Helps restore a positive balance of friendly bacteria in the GI tract which can be disrupted by poor diet, stress or antibiotic usage.
Good for Gut & Digestion, Fertility & Pregnancy, Everyday Health & Wellbeing and Immune Support.
Alflorex Precision Biotics is a specialised probiotic supplement which can help people with unresolved digestive problems related to the bowels. When taken daily Alflorex helps manage digestive balance, improving gut health
Zenflore, with the unique 1714-Serenitas culture and specially selected B vitamins, provides complete support for your mind and body during busy and demanding times, helping to support a healthy mind and combat stress-related fatigue.
OptiBac Probiotics One Week Flat is a premium course of probiotics that help to balance the bacteria within the digestive system. It may help to provide relief from digestive ailments such as bloating and constipation. Each serving of this natural digestive food supplement provides high quality live cultures that help to support the health and performance of the digestive system.
ProVen Probiotics Fit for School stick packs have been specially formulated for children aged 1-16 years old. Each stick pack contains 12.5 billion of the unique Lab4 acidophilus and bifidus friendly bacteria combined with vitamins C and D to provide support for your child’s immune function.
For more information contact your local McCauley Pharmacy here