“Research has found that the gastrointestinal system and the central nervous system are in constant communication. This relationship is referred to as the gut-brain axis. Psychological factors can impact the way in which your GI tract moves and contracts. And vice versa, an unhealthy GI tract can cause you to experience depression, anxiety, brain fog, and more.”
Donald J. Parker, LCSW
One of the most life-changing areas of research in recent years is the connection between gut health and mental health, specifically anxiety and depression. With an estimated 40 million Americans experiencing anxiety and 17 million dealing with depression, these are essential areas of research.
The research is showing that building a strong and healthy gut is vital for a long and healthy life, mentally and physically.
The growing research brings with it a sense of hope for those struggling with anxiety and depression. All the new knowledge also provides actionable tools and lifestyle changes that can bring about meaningful improvements for many people.
So how does gut health impact mental health, specifically anxiety and depression? What can you do today to support your gut and mind? We’ll cover all of that! Let’s start off by looking at some background on what is happening in the gut to understand where this is all taking place.
What is the Gut Microbiome?
In your gut you have a beautiful community of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other living things. We often refer to this community as the gut microbiome. There are about a hundred trillion of these little gut bugs living in your GI tract right now.
In fact, the number of bacteria in your gut is about 10 times that of the cells in your body. Most of the time, we have a great, mutually beneficial relationship with these gut bugs. We provide food and protection for them. They help us get the nutrients we need, digest certain types of food, regulate our immune systems, and protect us from nasty invaders.
In fact, these little guys affect almost all of our body’s functions, whether directly or indirectly. Many recent studies have shown a connection between the health of our gut microbiome and our immune system, mood, mental health, autoimmune diseases, endocrine disorders, skin conditions, and cancer.
For great mental and physical health, maintaining the diversity of this community is vital. Diversity in our gut microbiome helps maintain a balance between the different types of gut bugs. Since the different types affect us in different ways, if this balance is disrupted, certain members of the community may overgrow and lead to different health issues, like anxiety & depression.
How does the gut interact with the brain?
Physically, our gut and our brain aren’t close together. They’re not neighbors. But as you’ll see, what happens in the gut does not stay in the gut.
Numerous studies have shown that a healthy gut has been linked to healthy brain function. Part of the reason for this is the gut-brain connection or the gut-brain axis. The gut-brain axis allows the gut to communicate with the brain, and the brain to communicate with the gut.
Hormones, neurotransmitters (chemical messengers of the brain), and other messengers are released from the gut and sent as signals to the brain via this gut-brain connection. Messages can be sent in numerous ways but one of the main connections is via the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a large bundle of nerves that runs between the brain and the gut. Information is sent from the brain to the gut, and from the gut to the brain.
Additionally, many studies have shown that this gut-brain connection actually extends into many other parts of the body, like the endocrine and immune pathways.
Basically, our entire body is super influenced by what is happening in our gut. So how do these connections influence anxiety and depression? Let’s look at 3 different ways.
Way #1: The Connection Between Gut Inflammation and Anxiety & Depression
One of the key ways that the gut can impact mental health and lead to anxiety and depression is through inflammation. Inflammation happens when your body’s immune system becomes active. Oftentimes this is a good thing! Our immune system protects us from bacteria and viruses and allows our body to heal. It is when there is too much, or too frequent inflammation, that problems arise.
Unwanted inflammation in the gut can be caused by many things, including:
- Imbalance of the types of gut bugs, leading to an overgrowth of certain types
- Eating irritating foods that your body views as foreign
- Overconsumption of alcohol
- Not eating enough prebiotic food that feeds your good gut bacteria
- Eating a limited array or not enough fruits and vegetables
- Lack of quality sleep
Research has shown that inflammation of the gut is linked to many mental health issues, including anxiety and depression.
Having a drink once in a while isn’t a big deal.
Some periods of elevated stress won’t make much of a difference in the long run. Your body is designed to bounce back! It is super resilient and amazing.
But when you repeatedly stress out your gut with stress, inflammatory foods, antibiotics, poor sleep, etc., your gut will send out cries for help!
These cries may come in the form of anxiety or depression, or they may come in another form like fatigue, headaches, hormone issues, or irritability.
One of the best ways to improve your gut health, and ultimately your mental health, is to reduce the inflammation-causing triggers in your life. Think about that list above. What can you improve upon to help out your gut?
Way #2: How Your Gut Helps Create Happy Chemicals
Scientists have found that gut bacteria produce important neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and GABA. If you’re not familiar, neurotransmitters are the messenger molecules of the brain and nervous system. Serotonin, dopamine, and GABA have all been found to play a key role in mood.
- Serotonin is a natural mood stabilizer and it is primarily made in the gut. While it works all over the body, it is thought to regulate anxiety, happiness, and mood.
- Dopamine is involved in reward, motivation, and pleasure.
- GABA is an inhibitory amino acid that works as a neurotransmitter. It is thought to reduce anxiety. GABA is actually increased when drinking alcohol, but it is also reduced after the drinking ends.
Many anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications work by influencing the levels of these neurotransmitters.
If you do not have enough of the particular kinds of gut bacteria that make these neurotransmitters, you may be feeling anxious or depressed.
Even more interesting, gut bacteria also make other chemicals, like butyrate, that have been linked to reducing anxiety and depression. Butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid that has been shown to help reduce inflammation and even to help grow new brain cells.
Hint: Our Collagen Clarity Creamer has inulin fiber which has been linked to boosting butyrate. Sign up to be the first to shop our launch!
Way #3: How Leaky Gut Can Lead to Anxiety & Depression
When our gut microbiome is challenged because of poor diet, stress, antibiotics, lack of sleep, etc, it actually harms the walls of our gut.
Normally, in a healthy gut, the wall of the gut are tightly sealed and only material that our body wants to pass out of the gut is allowed to pass. The gut wall acts as a gatekeeper that only lets certain positive, beneficial guests through.
But when we stress out our gut microbiome it becomes imbalanced or dysbiotic. When this happens the walls of our intestine actually become damaged and things from inside our gut are able to leak out into the circulation of our body.
Yes, that’s right. Unwanted food particles, bacteria, and other molecules are able to pass through our gut wall. We refer to this situation as leaky gut or increased intestinal permeability.
Leaky gut leads to a host of negative effects, including anxiety and depression. It’s clear that there are numerous ways that gut health can impact the presence of anxiety and depression. Let’s look at what you can do to improve your gut health to reduce anxiety and depression.
5 Things You Can Do to Help Your Gut Thrive
1.) Eliminate irritating foods
One of the first steps in ensuring that your gut is able to thrive is to eliminate irritating food. Irritating foods cause inflammation in the entire body and lead to many different health issues.
Some of the most common symptoms of food sensitivity include:
- Dry skin, hives, or rashes
- Stomach pain
- Joint pain
- Gas, cramping, or bloating
- Irritability, anxiety, or low mood
- Runny nose
The most common foods that cause people issues are:
So what can you do to determine if a food is causing you issues? It can be difficult to tell whether or not a food is irritating for you as the issues may not be present right away.
In fact, they may appear a few days after you eat the food. You can get food allergy and sensitivity tests but the gold standard is to do an elimination diet. If you are serious about improving your gut health, and you experience any of the symptoms above, doing a 30, 60, 90-day elimination is a great idea.
If you’re interested in doing an elimination diet, HealthLine has a great article on how to do one.
2.) Add More Prebiotics to Your Diet
Prebiotics are a type of fiber that acts as food for the good bacteria in your gut. Research has shown that prebiotics move the gut composition toward more protective bacteria.
We want more of these good guys! They help reduce inflammation, fight illness, and boost levels of our feel-good chemicals. Recent research has shown that these changes in the gut due to prebiotics are linked to reducing anxiety. Pretty awesome!
You can get prebiotics by eating the following list of foods, but we have also included one of the best prebiotics, inulin fiber, in our Collagen Creamer. It can be difficult to make sure you are eating these prebiotic-rich foods every single day.
If you’re looking for daily insurance that you’re getting prebiotics, sign up to be notified when we release our Collagen Creamer.
List of Prebiotic-Rich Foods:
- Chicory root
- Dandelion greens
- Jerusalem artichoke
- Green bananas
3.) Eat probiotic rich foods
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeast that benefit us when we consume them. Probiotic pills and capsules have become increasingly popular in recent years. If you are interested in boosting the good gut bacteria in your body, you can do so more easily by eating probiotic rich foods, like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kim chi, and miso.
Dr. Mercola, from Mercola.com, stated, “Fermented foods not only give you a wider variety of beneficial bacteria, they also give you far more of them, so it’s a much more cost-effective alternative. Here’s a case in point: It’s unusual to find a probiotic supplement containing more than 10 billion colony-forming units. But when my team actually tested fermented vegetables produced by probiotic starter cultures, they had 10 trillion colony-forming units of bacteria. Literally, one serving of vegetables was equal to an entire bottle of a high potency probiotic! So clearly, you’re far better off using fermented foods.”
4.) Meditate & Destress
Did you know that meditation can actually improve the health of your gut? Recent research showed that during periods of stress, an altered gut bug population changes the neurotransmitters produced by your gut microbiome.
Meditation was shown to regulate the stress response, reducing chronic inflammation and helping to maintain a healthy gut barrier. Reducing and alleviating stress is one of the best ways to improve gut health. According to the American Psychological Association, stress negatively affects every single system in the body.
In the gut, it leads to leaky gut that we discussed above. As we know, leaky gut is linked to anxiety and depression.
5.) Add Collagen to Your Day
While more research is needed on the topic of collagen for gut health, there are many health care practitioners who praise it for it’s gut healing benefits. One of the possible ways that collagen supports gut health is by providing a supply of the amino acid glutamine.
A 2021 study on the effects of glutamine on gut health showed that “glutamine can positively affect gut health by:
- supporting the gut microbiome
- gut mucosal wall integrity
- modulating inflammatory responses”
Translation – glutamine benefits your gut bacteria, supports a healthy gut wall, and helps to regulate the immune system.
Bringing It All Together
It’s clear that the health of our gut impacts our mental and physical health in many, many ways. Fortunately, there are lots of things we can do to improve our gut health and move towards feeling our absolute best.
In addition to the five items listed above, we’ve put together a free eBook diving into further detail on Gut Health -- you can get it here. In this eBook you’ll find even more strategies to feel your best!