May is Mental Health Awareness Month. While seeking therapy, opening up to loved ones and creating healthy self-care and stress management habits are often the go-to recommendations for treating anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders, there is a very physical and scientific connection between the mind and gut that isn’t often explained in depth.
Since these two systems are so intertwined through the gut brain axis, discussing mental health is a huge passion of mine!
When you Google “tips for treating mental illness,” you’ll see a ton of lists that might say something about eating right, avoiding alcohol, exercising, and, in general, taking care of your body. While these are all good tips, most of these articles stay on the surface and don’t explain the real reasons why nurturing your body, and in particular your gut, is so critical for treating and maintaining positive mental health.
The science behind the mind-gut connection
The brain and gut are intimately connected and communicate back and forth through their bi-directional pathway. The gut has its own nervous system called the enteric nervous system which hosts the second largest number of nerve connections outside of the brain which is why it’s often referred to as “our second brain.” The Gut Brain Axis is the culmination of the three main pathways we know of through which these two systems are connected which are:
- The Vagus Nerve – This nerve is connected to both the brain and gut and oversees a vast array of involuntary and crucial body functions.
- Neurotransmitters – The enteric nervous system uses more than 30 neurotransmitters, just like the brain, and in fact 95 percent of the body’s serotonin, which plays a huge role in mood and other key body functions, is found in the bowels.
- Gut microbiome metabolites – These are short chain fatty acids produced in the gut that travel to the brain and have positive effects on mental health.
Chronic disease and mental health
Now that you understand the mind-gut connection a bit more, it’s no surprise that when individuals suffer from Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Long COVID, and other chronic diseases, they also tend to have digestive symptoms.
The opposite is also true; when people are already suffering mentally, this often leads to poor eating and health habits that impact their gut health. Additionally, patients that suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease and other chronic digestive conditions, are likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, brain fog (lack of concentration) and other mental and neurologic symptoms.
As you might’ve read in my previous posts, my husband has suffered with Crohn’s disease since the age of 16. Neither of us are strangers to the emotional toll this disease takes on patients and their families and it is critical for those suffering physically to pay attention to how they are also doing mentally.
Anxiety and depression are some of the most common complications of chronic diseases as they often cause major changes in someone’s level of function and quality of life. The risk of depression for the general population is 10-25% for women and 5-12% for men. However, for people with a chronic illness this increases to 25-33%.
If you or someone you know are suffering with anxiety, depression, or a chronic illness, here are some tips to be aware of:
- Do not isolate; seek a support group
- Make sure you’re going for regular health visits with your doctor to ensure you’re doing everything you can to treat your disease
- Seek help from a qualified mental health specialist that you feel comfortable opening up to
- Learn what is offered for your disease and explore all the available support services to help you navigate your options for treatment and getting help
Chronic illnesses have no cure but can often be managed with lifestyle modifications and medication. Knowing the connection between our mind and body and keeping a close eye on the two can be a game changer!
Feed your mind: What should I eat to help both my brain and gut?
While the saying is a bit cliché, there is truth to the phrase, “you are what you eat.” Scientists believe that in order to support our mental health, we must consume foods that form the building blocks for monoamine neurotransmitters. This is called nutrition psychiatry and it is a way to use food in conjunction with modern medicine to treat mental health disorders. Foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, are anti-inflammatory, foster BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) production and support a healthy microbiome all fall into this category. Salmon, nuts, whole grains, leafy greens, turmeric, ginger, fruits, veggies and other nutrient-rich foods are good examples.
Let’s keep the conversation going on mental health
In the age of COVID, global turmoil, and what feels like more societal pressures than ever before due to social media, mental health is a topic that we cannot take lightly. In fact, the World Health Organization recently found that the pandemic triggered a 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide.
If you are struggling mentally or physically, just know one thing – you are not alone! While we’ve come a long way in the past decade with addressing mental health, there are still huge gaps in the conversation and helping people understand the science behind how their physical health directly impacts their mental health is one of them. It’s common knowledge that we should all eat right and exercise, but I am passionate about ensuring that people understand how their daily decisions can make a huge difference in addressing the root of their physical and mental health issues.
While I am not a mental health professional, I care deeply about taking a holistic and preventative approach to health and making sure that your body and mind are both thriving is a huge part of this. If you think that your gut might be impacting your mental health or vice versa, feel free to set-up a virtual consultation.
If you are experiencing a mental health emergency or in need of immediate help, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline via phone 1-800-273-8255 or online.
It’s time that we take control of our mind-gut connection once and for all!