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A Doctor Reveals The Link Between Your Mental Health And Gut Health

Most of us will have experienced ‘nervous butterflies’, or had tummy problems that have made it harder to focus, but have you ever wondered what exactly causes this?

It turns out that out that there’s a strong relationship between our gut health and mental health, known as the gut-brain axis – and more of us are keen to find out about it – over the last 90 days, searches for ‘gut brain axis’ have increased by 160%.

This IBS Awareness Month, I’ve spoken to Dr. Luke Powles, Clinical Director for Bupa Health Clinics, to find out more about the connection between the gut and wellbeing.

From finding out what ‘good gut health’ actually means, to whether we should be taking supplements, Dr Powles’s advice can help to improve both digestive and mental health, e.g., which foods can strengthen your gut-brain connection and the best mind-body tools to keep you on an even keel.

What is the gut-brain axis? 

The gut-brain axis is the term used to describe the close relationship between your gut and brain. Google Trends shows a 70% increase in searches for the gut-brain axis over the last 90 days, with people keen to learn more about it. 

Although research into this connection is relatively new, it’s thought that there’s two-way communication between your brain and gut, that happens via your vagus nerve.

This nerve acts as a ‘bridge’ between your brain and gut, communicating across your immune, hormone and nervous systems. 

Brain to gut

As your body makes the same chemicals in the gut that it does in the brain, they can influence the other – which explains terms like ‘nervous butterflies’ and ‘gut feelings’. 

Some evidence shows that chronic stress can disrupt the bacteria in your gut, leading to inflammation and damage to your intestine walls.

Gut to brain

Your stomach can also influence your mind. If you’re suffering with digestive issues, like bloating, indigestion or diarrhoea, your ability to focus can be affected.

Research shows that those who live with gut conditions like irritable bowel disease (IBS), or inflammatory bowel disease are more likely to have mental health conditions like anxiety.

What does it mean to have ‘good gut health’?

It’s important to take care of your gut health to protect your mental and physical health. ‘Good gut health’ means that your gut is full of good bacteria, that’s able to break down what you’ve eaten and unlock its full nutritional value. 

Maintaining a good balance of bacteria within your gut helps to keep you healthy in body and mind, but there are lots of things that can cause imbalance to your gut health– from your age, certain antibiotics, food poisoning or conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease.

What’s the best way to maintain a good gut-brain axis?

One of the best ways to look after your gut-brain axis is simple – eat well. Be sure that your diet’s full of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, as well as lean meats and fish. These foods have a positive impact on both mental and physical health. 

If you suffer from digestive issues, pay attention to them – it can be useful to track your diet and anxieties to see if there’s anything, in particular, causing a flare-up. This way, you can recognise the cause, start to address it and help improve your gut-brain axis. Why not use a worry tree or a food diary to get you started?

What are prebiotics and probiotics and do I need them?

You may have heard about prebiotics and probiotics, but there’s currently little evidence to support the health benefits of having them, whether in your food or as a supplement. 

Prebiotics are a specific type of fibre that feeds the good bacteria in your gut, as they can’t be digested by the rest of your body. You can find prebiotics naturally in lots of food, including garlic, asparagus and bananas – they’re also available as supplements.

Eating probiotics may help to boost and balance your gut’s good bacteria levels – they are ‘live’ microorganisms, like yeast, fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut, or live bacteria yoghurts. Similarly, to probiotics, they’re also available as supplements.

Providing you have a healthy immune system, probiotics and prebiotics should be safe to consume, but they’re not essential. Speak to a health professional if you’re interested in finding out more information.