Love your gut. Love your mind.
There was a time not too long ago where we didn’t understand—or even realize—the strong link between your mind and your gut. With technological advances developed in the past decade or so, research has exploded in this area. Now the term “gut-brain axis” is widely used in health circles. I am so excited to share with you one of the latest studies that shows just how critical your gut health is to your mental health and how these tie into inflammation.
Your gut is composed of not only the cells of your esophagus, stomach, and intestines, but also trillions of microbes from hundreds of different species that live there. Yes, there are many types of “friendly” bacteria, viruses, and yeasts that happily reside inside you and contribute to your health. And everybody’s microbiome is different. Factors that contribute to each person’s unique microbiome include genetics, environment, medications, and food. There isn’t just one “healthy” microbiome (which makes this type of research even more challenging).
Having a healthy number, variety, and balance of friendly gut microbes is key because they each play different roles in your health. Some microbes make amino acids for proteins or they make vitamins B12 or K. Other microbes stimulate your immune system, break down toxic compounds, or ferment fibre to produce the anti-inflammatory fatty acid called butyrate. A healthy gut microbiome also provides protection from harmful organisms that may be inadvertently consumed in contaminated food or water.
Now, more and more evidence is putting together a clearer picture of the effect that gut microbes have on your mental health. A recent study published in the medical journal JAMA Psychiatry collected the data from 59 previous studies that compared the gut microbiomes of people with and without certain mental health diagnoses. They then pooled the data together and analyzed it. The question the researchers were aiming to answer was: “Do psychiatric disorders present with distinct or shared gut microbial alterations?” In other words, they were looking to see if they could find a pattern between which gut microbes were associated with which mental health issues.
One of the results they found was that people with mental health challenges tend to have higher levels of microbes that produce pro-inflammatory compounds and lower levels of those that promote gut health and produce anti-inflammatory compounds like butyrate. This is a “double-whammy” situation that’s associated with mental health conditions. Ideally, you want higher levels of microbes that promote gut health and lower inflammation.
While this is extremely interesting research and very relevant to many people, it’s still a bit too early to use microbiome tests as a tool to prevent, diagnose, or treat mental health conditions.
The science is still progressing and hopefully one day soon we will be able to see the ability to clinically test or alter the gut microbiota to improve mental health.
“While it is still too early to recommend specific interventions, it’s clear that clinicians need to place a greater awareness of gut health when considering the treatment of certain psychiatric disorders,” says one of the study authors.
Disclaimer: If you have any concerns about your mental health, please see a qualified mental health professional.
While we can’t directly use the results of this study to improve mental health at this time, it is another piece that underscores how vitally important a healthy gut microbiome is. There are some things you can do today to nurture a healthy microbiome in your gut:
- Certain probiotic supplements may help restore balance to the gut microbiome if it is affected by diarrhea or the use of antibiotics
- Probiotic foods that contain live cultures include fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso, and kimchi
- A high-fibre diet with more vegetables, fruit, beans, and whole grains can increase the amount of gut-friendly butyrate that is produced by the microbiome (these foods are often referred to as prebiotic); increase your fibre intake gradually to reduce the onset of gas and bloating
About the study:
- This particular study is a meta-analysis of 59 case-control studies. The researchers looked at dozens of previous studies to see if they could identify specific patterns of gut microbiota that were common to different psychiatric disorders.
- “While it is still too early to recommend specific interventions, it’s clear that clinicians need to place a greater awareness of gut health when considering the treatment of certain psychiatric disorders,” says one of the study authors.
- Diversity = abundance (number of microbes); richness = number of species. This study did not find a decrease in diversity in the microbiomes of people with psychiatric disorders, but did find a small decrease in richness.
- Note that all studies have limitations. That’s why it’s important to look at multiple studies, giving more weight to the ones that have a better design to answer the questions being asked. For this one, the researchers pooled data from 59 previous studies that compared the gut microbiomes of people with and without psychiatric diseases.
- Study strength is rated a 7/7 according to this chart (it is a meta-analysis): https://www.compoundchem.com/2015/04/09/scientific-evidence/