How to Improve Your Gut Health and Mental Health

Woman eating to improve gut health - Vitality

“All disease begins in the gut.” -Hippocrates

In recent years, there has been an increase in research on emotional and immune health and how that relates to your gut and digestive health.  For example, gut bacteria manufacture 95% of your body’s supply of serotonin, an important neurochemical that can affect mood, digestion and sleep.  An unhealthy gut can increase the physiological symptoms of – and exacerbate – depression, stress and anxiety.

Paying attention to nutrition and managing your overall emotional health will help take care of your gut and vice-versa.   

The Gut-Brain Connection

Stomach problems are one of the most common symptoms of stress and anxiety. Researchers have identified a connection between the gut and the brain. Like the brain, your gut is full of nerves called the enteric nervous system, or ENS, also referred to as the “second brain.” The enteric nervous system has the same type of neurons and neurotransmitters found in your central nervous system.  This connection between the brain and gut affects your digestion, mood, and the way you think.

Stress-related Gut Symptoms and Conditions:

  • Indigestion
  • Stomach upset and diarrhea
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Constipation
  • Loss of appetite or unusual hunger
  • Nausea

If you are experiencing any of the above conditions, it could be a response to being nervous or anxious and your body releasing hormones and chemicals that enter the digestive system. The resulting chemical imbalance can cause gastrointestinal conditions.

How to Improve Your Gut Health

If you’re looking to improve your gut health, here are several things you can do including: keep stress under control, get enough sleep, don’t smoke, and limit alcohol and caffeine consumption. You may notice that these are the general guidelines that we hear over and over to help maintain a healthy lifestyle.  It’s no surprise that it will also keep your digestive system functioning optimally. Other suggestions for improving gut health include:

  • Mind what and how you eat. Eat healthy snacks and meals and stay away from junk food. One way to do this is to prepare pre-planned meals, have some fruits or granola bars to snack on when hungry. Also, take time when you eat to fully savor the food, enjoying every bite.
  • Eat a wide variety of diverse foods. Eat diverse foods while avoiding overly processed foods. Include prebiotic (whole grains, bananas, greens, onions, garlic, soybeans, and artichokes) and probiotic (yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut) food sources. (See below for more suggestions.)
  • Effectively digest your food. After a meal, it’s important to be in a relaxed state to produce the gastric juices needed to absorb food. Gastric juice is essential for the absorption of vitamins, minerals and nutrients necessary to support a healthy body and brain.
  • Exercise. It can be hard to regularly stay active. Scheduling some exercise time can encourage you to work out. Alternatively, take a walk around your neighborhood. This can help you reduce stress and improve your physical and emotional well-being.
  • Drink plenty of water.  Aim to drink between six and eight glasses of water a day to boost the digestive process.
  • Seek help. A therapist who specializes in anxiety can help you manage chronic worrying.

Food for Your Mental Health:

The key to improving your gut health is to know the types of foods that boost your gut health, and ultimately your mental health. Some of these foods include:

Fiber. Eating fiber improves memory and overall mood. It also decreases inflammation and oxidative stress by supporting microbiota. Foods high in fiber include beans and legumes, oats, nuts, dark chocolate, fruits and vegetables.

Vitamin D. Vitamin D regulates your microbiome and reduces gastrointestinal inflammation. Some foods that have vitamin D include egg yolks, tuna, salmon, orange juice and fortified milk.

Protein.  Eating protein decreases feelings of depression because of the production of serotonin, which improves your mood. Good sources of proteins include eggs, milk, yogurt, lean beef, turkey, chicken, fish, broccoli, oats and nuts.

Omega-3s. Omega-3 fatty acids help lower cholesterol, increase memory and cognitive function, and reduce sugar cravings. Walnutsflax seedssalmonsardines and mackerel are all rich in Omega-3s.

The human body consists of complex, interconnected systems. By taking steps to care for your gut, you can increase your physical and mental health and well-being.

Janine is an Implementation Manger with Vitality. She holds a B.S. in Exercise Science/Sport Management from Rutgers University, as well as many certifications within the fitness and nutrition industry. She loves being a spectator at her daughters’ athletic events, participating in water sport activities with her family, writing on sticky notes, over-consuming almond butter and taking hot yoga classes.  For relaxation, she enjoys baking, taking naps in hammocks and listening to podcasts.

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