Mental Health, the Gut-Brain Connection, + Nutrition
I remember when I first started struggling with depression, I believed that it was all *in my head*. I thought that the chemicals that were out of whack for me were in my brain ++ that my microbiome [or gut health] was far enough away from my brain that I didn’t need to look at that aspect of my health in regards to my mental wellness… boy was I wrong! When I learned that 90% of our serotonin [one of the chemicals associated with happiness/mood regulation] is produced in our gut [source], I realized that I needed to pay more attention to my gut health + nutrition as a way to help improve my mental health. I started to realize [++ am still learning more about today!] that all of our body systems are interconnected + the health of one directly relates to the health of another.
One of my first questions when I heard about the *Gut-Brain Connection* was… what is this? Is there a line of communication or radio signal that goes directly from my brain to my stomach? Does my stomach really make things for my brain health? Yes, I realize I was a bit clueless, but this is something I had never really heard of + my doctor didn’t tell me about when I was in the trenches of major depression.
The Gut-Brain connection is an intimate relationship between our guts + our brains — we even have phrases that describe this connection — for example, a “gut-wrenching” experience or “feeling butterflies”. These phrases describe what happens when our emotions trigger a physical response in our gut — so yes, our gut actually has a physical response to emotions. The brain + gut are connected in our bodies in two different ways – physically [the vagus nerve] + chemically [neurotransmitters + hormones]. The communication flows both ways — according to Scientific American, “The gut-brain axis seems to be bidirectional—the brain acts on gastrointestinal and immune functions that help to shape the gut’s microbial makeup, and gut microbes make neuroactive compounds, including neurotransmitters and metabolites that also act on the brain”. Your brain-gut connection is one of the reasons why nutrition + your gut health is so important when you want to be mentally healthy too! Your gut is actually making compounds for your brain to stay healthy + in balance [not to mention – your gut is doing many other beneficial things for your body]!
According to Mental Health America, “There is a strong relationship between having mental health problems + having gastrointestinal symptoms like heartburn, indigestion, acid reflux, bloating, pain, constipation, and/or diarrhea” ++ on top of that, “having anxiety + depression can cause changes in the gut microbiome because of what happens in the body when it has a stress response”. Clearly – our guts have a connection with our brains + an important part of our mental health is also our gut health!
So – how can we make sure we are keeping our guts [+ therefore our brains] healthy + happy? Through how we fuel our bodies! The foods + nutrition that we are putting into bodies is also closely related to our mental health. Diets that include highly processed, fried, and sugary foods can increase the risk of developing depression by as much as 60% [source]. Proper nutrition is so important for maintaining your mental health — the SMILES trial found that ⅓ of participants with depression experienced a full relief of symptoms after improving their diet. The more they improved their diet, the more their depression improved!
Below are few things to keep in mind for how you feed your body to stay happy + healthy //
#1] Eat a diet high in whole foods [fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, legumes, fish] and unsaturated fats [like olive oil]. People who fuel their bodies with whole foods are up to 35% less likely to develop depression than people who eat less of these foods [source]. In fact — diets that include highly processed, fried and sugary foods can increase the risk of developing depression by as much as
#2] Incorporating omega 3 fatty acids in your diet have been shown to have up to 30% reduced risk of depression [source]. You can find these in oily fish [salmon, trout, sardines, + tuna] as well as walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, + dark leafy green veggies [brussel sprouts, kale, spinach]!
#3] B group vitamins help regulate neurotransmitters, immune function + amino acids. In fact, people who eat foods rich in folate [part of the B vitamins group] have a lower risk of depression [source]. You can find natural sources of folate and folic acid in green leafy veggies, legumes, + whole grains ++ you can find natural sources of B12 in fish [salmon, trout, tuna], beef, lamb, clams, poultry, eggs, + milk.
#4] Vitamin D is also important for optimal brain functioning + mood//critical thinking. Low levels of Vitamin D are linked to depression – especially in people who have seasonal affective disorder [source]. You can find Vitamin D in eggs, salmon, + tuna but you can also find it in sunlight! If you get 5-30 minutes of sunlight twice a week, you’ll produce enough vitamin D!
This is A LOT of information + it can feel very overwhelming if you currently feel that your diet//lifestyle may need a little TLC! I recommend to start simple – focus on eating whole foods + trying to avoid the fried, sugary, processed foods. If you think nutrition is something you want to focus more on, we recommend meeting with a dietician or nutritionist to dive more into this with you!