Low mood isn’t in all in your head, but it might be in your stomach.
Have you ever felt sick before an important presentation or job interview? Has a heated conversation ever left you with a stomach ache, reflux, or problems with digestion? If you’ve experienced this, you’re not alone, and it’s not a coincidence or rarity. GI issues are one of the most common symptoms of both stress and anxiety.
Your brain and gut are highly connected, and you feel fear in your stomach for a reason; the vagus nerve, which stretches the longest of all twelve of your cranial nerves, connects your brain to your organs. It’s like a super-fast phone line or a shock system that allows your mind and body to send automatic messages to one another.
The gut and brain are so interconnected that the gut is sometimes called the “second brain.” The mind and the gut are in communication all of the time, not just when you’re under pressure or nervous. While it is responsible for fight-or-flight mode as well as many other bodily responses, the brain-gut connection is powerful all of the time, and in fact, it has a tremendous impact on your mood.
Why is gut health important for mood?
Those of us who live with depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, or who have survived trauma have a higher likelihood of experiencing stomach problems. I know, it’s the short end of the stick right? When it comes to chronic conditions and mental health diagnoses, it’s like a gift that keeps on giving, but it’s not a gift at all. Instead, it’s a painful feedback loop. Numerous studies have noted a correlation between IBS and symptoms of anxiety and depression, which often feed into one another.
When we talk about the cause of low mood or Depression, serotonin is often at the forefront of the conversation. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter and hormone that is linked to mood as well as sleep, digestion, and other bodily functions. Studies show that higher serotonin levels are linked to a more positive mood, whereas lower serotonin levels are linked to a depressive mood.
However, it is not so simple as popping a straight over-the-counter serotonin supplement, and in fact, doing so without telling your provider can be dangerous; too much serotonin can lead to serotonin syndrome or toxicity. That is why it’s important to speak to your health provider when adding a new supplement. Your doctor will monitor you for serotonin syndrome if the medication you are taking has the potential to cause toxicity. Note that prescription anti-depressants are not the same as over the counter supplements and that only some of them require monitoring.
Approximately 90% of our serotonin is actually located in the gastrointestinal tract, which is one of the reasons why gut health is such a vital component of mood.
What happens in the gut?
In addition to digesting food and producing serotonin, the gut plays another vital role in mental health. The bacteria that live in your gut produce neurochemicals. When the gut is healthy, your levels of serotonin, GABA, and other transmitters are at their optimal level. When the gut is inflamed, however, the microbiome is put under a tremendous amount of stress due to the release of cytokines and neurotransmitters, which impacts your emotional state.
Cytokine dysregulation specifically has been linked to feelings of isolation and depression, while a decrease in levels of GABA, which is also produced by the microbiome in the gut, is linked to anxiety and Depression. With all of this said, it is clear that giving attention to your gut health is essential for your mood and holistic wellbeing. Thankfully, it is not something that is stagnant. There are several things that you can do to fix your gut health and maintain it, which can aid you in bringing your serotonin and GABA levels to where they need to be so you can begin to feel better and more regulated.
How to move toward healing the gut
Focus on nutrition. Make sure that you’re eating a wide variety of vegetables and consuming probiotic-rich foods. Probiotic-rich foods include:
- Naturally fermented pickles
There are also probiotic supplements that you can get over-the-counter at your local grocery store. The refrigerated variety is ideal because refrigeration keeps the good bacteria in the supplement alive. Spore-based probiotics in particular have been shown to help people with symptoms of leaky gut syndrome and are recommended due to their durability. Spore-based probiotic supplements are more resilient when it comes to changes in moisture, temperature, or acidity. Also note that foods rich in fiber such as leafy greens, other vegetables, and fruits are important for the health of the good bacteria in your gut. Trying new vegetables as often as you can is a fun way to incorporate more micronutrients into your diet and support microbial diversity at the same time. In addition to consuming probiotics, you can consider adding in supplements that aid digestion such as stomach acid or enzyme support and fat digestion support.
If you are experiencing GI issues that aren’t going away or that may require medical attention, it is important to see a medical provider.
How to heal and maintain a healthy gut
To maintain gut health and aid digestion long-term, implement the practices above and make them a part of your daily routine. If you find that any foods trigger gut issues for you, avoid them when possible. Note that gut bacteria composition can change in as few as twenty-four hours after dietary alterations, but that for maintenance, having a routine that works for you is valuable. Similarly, if you find that a particular supplement helps you when you take it regularly, keep up with it. Make sure that any health concerns such as leaky gut or SIBO are treated.
In addition, remember that one of the best things that you can do to maintain your overall health is to decrease your stress levels. When you’re not stressed out, you sleep more soundly, experience fewer stomach problems, and feel better overall. Taking care of your mental and physical health alike is crucial, and it is largely due to the brain-gut connection that they go together. Don’t be afraid to put your wellbeing and your overall self first. It is worth it, and so are you.
Inflammation in anxiety
Gut-Brain axis and mood disorder
Gut microbiota’s effect on mental health
Vagus nerve and microbiota-gut-brain axis
Depression and anxiety in IBS
Indigenous bacteria from the gut microbiota regulate host serotonin biosynthesis
Prevention of leaky gut by probiotics leads to attenuated HPA
Evidence mounts that gut bacteria can influence mood, prevent depression
Oral spore-based probiotic supplementation was associated with reduced incidence of post-prandial dietary endotoxin, triglycerides, and disease risk biomarkers