Health & Wellness

The gut-brain connection—why food is so important for our mental health

Ways you can improve your gut health for better moods.

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Your gut is an extremely complex system that does much more for you than simply digesting food. Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi, which make up your gut microbiota. Additionally, the gut has an entire nervous system called the enteric nervous system (ENS). These elements work together, meaning our gut and brain are extremely interconnected and in constant communication.

Phrases like “go with your gut” and “I’ve got a gut feeling” are common for a reason; the gut is often referred to as “the second brain.” The nervous system in our guts developed millions of years before our brain, which is why the gut is such a critical component of our overall well being. Our gut is the largest part of our hormonal and immune systems and it is responsible for regulating countless functions in the body.

Research has found a link between gut health and mental health. The gut produces neurotransmitters such as serotonin, that can affect mood and behavior. Imbalances in the gut microbiome have been linked to mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. Additionally, the gut produces hormones such as cortisol, which impact stress levels. Chronic stress can lead to inflammation and imbalances in the gut microbiome, which can further exacerbate stress levels, creating an unbreakable cycle. Irritation in the gastrointestinal system can send signals to the brain that trigger mood changes. These findings emphasize the importance of maintaining good gut health for overall well-being, both physically and mentally.

What does this mean for college students? Well, college students tend to be under extreme stress, deal with high rates of anxiety and depression, and often have lifestyle habits that aren’t conducive to a healthy gut microbiome. However, improving your gut health could make a significant difference if you are suffering from physical or mental health issues. Below are some strategies you can incorporate into your life to improve your gut health, and consequently your overall wellbeing!

Eat a Diverse Diet

Include a range of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and lean proteins in your diet. Fiber comes from fruits and vegetables and is extremely important in providing nutrients that beneficial bacteria in the gut need to thrive. Fiber also helps to diversify the bacteria that is found in your microbiome. Healthy fiber rich options for whole grains include oats, quinoa and brown rice. Foods such as avocados, nuts, seeds and olive oil are high in healthy fats and can help reduce inflammation in the gut. For proteins, choose lean options such as chicken, fish and legumes to provide the nutrients needed to support the growth of beneficial bacteria. Lastly, try to avoid processed foods and foods high in sugar as they can promote the growth of harmful bacteria in the gut.

Consume Pre and Probiotics

Probiotics are live bacteria that are beneficial for gut health. You can get probiotics from fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut and tempeh or you can choose to take probiotic supplements. Prebiotics are fibers that can promote the growth of beneficial bacteria. You can find prebiotics in foods such as onions, garlic, bananas, asparagus and artichokes, as well as in supplement form.

Helpful Lifestyle Habits

Chronic stress can harm your gut microbiome, and exacerbate mental health issues. Incorporating stress-reducing techniques such as meditation, deep breathing or yoga can limit stress and help rebuild your gut.

Exercise has been shown to promote a healthy gut microbiome through many pathways, such as reducing inflammation, strengthening your immune system and promoting healthy digestion. Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week, as it can also help you reduce stress.

Get enough sleep: Sleep is important for overall health, including gut health. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night.

Limit alcohol consumption as much as possible. Alcohol causes inflammation and can irritate and damage the lining of the gut, making it more permeable to toxins and harmful substances. This condition, known as leaky gut syndrome, leads to inflammation and increases the risk of developing autoimmune diseases.