“It’s all in your head.” Whether you have struggled with anxiety, depression, or even overwhelming stress, this is a phrase you may have heard at some point. Even if it comes from a well-intentioned friend or family member, this “advice” or suggestion is literally less helpful than someone saying nothing at all. If you or a loved one has struggled with their mental health, you might also agree that this statement couldn’t be further from the truth. What if I told you that research continues to find evidence that psychological conditions are actually a manifestation of physical imbalance or illness and not simply just a result of “a bad mindset”. You may be thinking of the “chemical imbalances in the brain” often discussed with mental illness, but that isn’t what I’m referring to here. No, I’m actually discussing an imbalance in the body that is nowhere near the brain. Instead, we need to look lower. Much lower. We need to look to the gut.
More specifically, I’d like to focus on the trillions of bacteria that live in our intestines, primarily the large intestine but to a lesser degree the small intestine. The numbers and types of bacteria that live in our gut differ from person to person and changes across the lifespan due to many different factors. Regardless of the make-up, the collective of these bacteria is referred to as the gut microbiota. Some of the variables that influence a person’s microbiota include diet, exercise, stress, sleep, medical conditions, medications, and much, much more! Though they are very small, the importance of these bacteria shouldn’t be underestimated! On a fundamental level, these bacteria ferment many of the different foods we eat. While this sounds insignificant, the byproducts of this fermentation provide our bodies a host of benefits. Some of the direct byproducts include vitamin K and a number of B vitamins, all of which are directly used by our body. Other byproducts help maintain the health of the gut, which in turn helps prevent issues like bloating, indigestion, diarrhea, and malabsorption. Another role of gut bacteria is to assist our immune system by fighting off harmful bacteria and preventing them from crossing the border of the intestines into the bloodstream. Some byproducts even produce a cascade of events in the body that controls the level of inflammation in the body. While all these roles are interesting and valuable, perhaps most incredible is the gut microbiota’s effect on the brain.
During the fermentation of certain foods, the microbiota produces short-chain fatty acids (which I will abbreviate as SCFA). Of these, the most prominent and active SCFA are butyrate, valerate, and propionate. These byproducts have the ability to travel in the bloodstream and impart effects on the brain. Emerging research has been investigating the relationship between certain concentrations of these SCFA in the blood and the presence, absence, or severity of conditions like depression, anxiety, ADHD, and even autism. This isn’t to say that an increase or decrease in certain SCFA is directly related to the onset or prevention of these conditions. Unfortunately, it is a bit more complicated than that. In general, it is more about a certain balance of these different SCFA for ideal health. To achieve that, there is a certain balance of bacteria needed in the gut to produce the ideal amounts of these SCFA. It is often simplified down to a balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria in the gut. In essence, the “bad” bacteria promote inflammation, weaken the immune system, are harmful to overall gut health, and produce proportions of SCFA that promote mental health issues like anxiety and depression. On the other hand, the “good” bacteria do just the opposite. Throughout your life, these “good” and “bad” bacteria are in a constant battle to populate your gut. The best thing you can do for your health, both physical and mental, is to support your “good” bacteria in consistently winning the battle.
Years are spent by researchers studying the countless strains of bacteria in your gut. They spend immeasurable hours investigating which specific strains have what effect in your body and how various lifestyle factors can increase or decrease the presence of said strains. Despite the seemingly endless research, one resounding message seems to hold true: habits we know as part of a healthy lifestyle also support the healthy bacteria in our gut. In other words, eating plant-based foods (fruit, veggies, and grains), exercising regularly, getting adequate sleep, and managing stress all help support the presence of “good” bacteria in the gut.
Certain foods are particularly good at boosting levels of “good” bacteria in your gut, helping them win the war for your colon. Foods that have prebiotic fiber provide fuel for your “good” bacteria, fermenting these fibers to produce healthy byproducts that fight off “bad” bacteria. In other words, the “good” bacteria are your troops and prebiotic fiber is the supplies and ammo they need to fight. Some excellent prebiotic foods include oats, bananas, berries, apples, and asparagus. On the other hand, probiotic foods are those that already have “good” bacteria in them. This helps to directly add more “good” bacteria directly to your gut. In other words, probiotic foods are like reinforcements for your bacterial ‘army’. Some excellent probiotic foods include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kombucha.
Filling your life with healthy foods, physical activity, stress management, and good sleep habits can help create both a balanced life and a balanced gut. In turn, you’ll fortify your gut against the negative effects of imbalanced gut microbiota. Not only will this help minimize inflammation and boost your immune system, it might actually boost your mood and help you stave off anxiety and stress! When it comes to struggling with any number of mental health struggles, whatever level of severity, I can confidently say that, no, it is not, “all in your head.” In fact, one of the best things you can do for your mental health is to take care of your body, and then watch how, in turn, it will take care of you.