Did you know your gut health can be directly linked to the state of your mental health? Think about it: if eating your fruits and veggies makes you feel healthier, happier, and stronger, it only makes sense that constantly putting bad food into your body will have the opposite effect. This is because what you eat impacts how your digestive system functions, and, if your digestive system is unhappy, it signals to the brain that something is wrong. Dr. Sue Mitchell with Gutwell Medical provides more information on what we can do to help our guts.
What is gut health?
“Gut health to me is ultimately focusing on creating an environment in which we have the greatest diversity of microorganisms, which in turn protect the human body,” Dr. Mitchell defines. A board-certified gastroenterologist, Dr. Mitchell has practiced since 1996, and for the past few years, her emphasis has been optimizing her patients’ gut microbiomes. “I address diet, nutrition, and lifestyle in terms of how they create harmony between our microbiome and our cells,” she adds.
The microbiome is a collection of microorganisms that can be bacteria, viruses, and fungi, all of which live together to keep your gut healthy. Dr. Mitchell describes the microbiome to her patients as the Amazon rainforest: you want as many species living together to make the rainforest healthy and resilient. “When we have a disease, I tell patients to think of it as the rainforest not being as lush or dense anymore; you don’t see as many species living there anymore,” she says.
Your microbiome begins to develop the minute you are born, and it continues to evolve until age four, which is when gastroenterologists believe you have your own genetic blueprint of your microbiome. You want to take care of your microbiome so your health develops longevity.
What are some signs of poor gut health?
“Things we know that can harm the microbiome include antibiotics, toxins, poor diet, high sugar and high carbohydrate intake, chemicals in food supply, along with stress, anxiety, and poor sleep,” says Dr. Mitchell. So, if you’re feeling particularly sluggish, it may be time to check what you’ve been putting into your body.
Physical symptoms of poor gut health include gas, bloating, diarrhea, heartburn, and abdominal pain, but lab work will help your doctor get a closer look at what may be wrong.
“In lab work, you can see nutrient deficiencies, like a lack of vitamin D or low iron levels. I like to measure a patient’s omega-3 index, B vitamins, and iron levels,” Dr. Mitchell notes. “In traditional medicine, we draw labs looking for disease, so if a patient comes in not feeling well, I may do lab work to see if they are anemic or if their thyroid isn’t working. I want to identify any nutrient deficiencies before somebody develops a disease.”
How does poor gut health affect mental health?
“We know endorphins are made in the gastrointestinal tract; there’s a very extensive communication network between what’s going on in the gut and the brain,” Dr. Mitchell says. “They send messages to each other back and forth. For instance, if you’re having symptoms like gas and bloating, that can interfere with your quality of sleep. However, if your gastrointestinal tract is happy, it lets the brain know that everything is going well in the gut.”
In fact, your brain and your gut are connected by the vagus nerve, hence why there is a link between poor gut and mental health and nutrient deficiencies. The vagus nerve helps food move throughout the digestive tract, stimulates the release of digestive enzymes, and communicates fullness (or hunger) to the brain. Nutrient deficiencies can affect your sleep and cognition, for example, which ultimately adds unnecessary stress and anxiety to your life. Poor gut health also increases your risk of mood disorders, depression, and anxiety. However, when you’re focused on fixing your gut, analyzing which foods to eat and which to not eat can be very stressful as well.
“I don’t believe any one diet works for one person,” says Dr. Mitchell. “There is a lot of conflicting information out there, so I focus on symptoms. I try to identify which part of the gastrointestinal tract is maybe not working and take a detailed history to make sure what the symptom means for the patient. For example, does bloating mean you feel full after a meal, or your abdomen is distended, or you’re passing a lot of gas? From there I determine the appropriate testing to do next.”
What can I do to improve my gut health?
There are three types of nutrients that help bacteria grow and create an optimal environment for one’s microbiome: probiotics, prebiotics, and phytonutrients. Evidence shows that when you combine all three of these in a meal, you get a symbiotic effect in your gastrointestinal tract. While that may seem like a lot to keep track of, especially with your busy life as a parent, there is one easy thing to make that incorporates all those good nutrients in one meal.
“One of my recommendations for my patients is creating a smoothie in the morning that combines those three elements,” says Dr. Mitchell. “Smoothies don’t require the stomach to work hard to digest food. When somebody is struggling with their gut health I suggest smoothies because I know that liquid will leave the stomach in a form that can begin nourishing the small intestinal microbiome.”
Otherwise, make sure you are consuming colorful, diverse foods to produce happy bacteria and mood-boosting hormones. Sleep and exercise are important factors in gut and mental health as well.