Far beyond just ‘feeling happy’, mental wellbeing is of rising importance to public health. Mental health charity Mind reports that every year, 1 in 41 people across the UK will experience a mental health problem. The same findings show that on any given week, 1 in 6 people in England will report experiencing a common mental health problem, such as depression. When our mental health is good, we tend to feel upbeat, motivated and productive. Conversely, poor mental health can result in well-known symptoms such as depression or stress that can make day to day activity more challenging.
One way to support mental health is with better gut health. While we may think of the gut and the brain as two completely independent systems in the body, they’re actually very closely linked. The key is the gut microbiome, the eco-system of ‘good’ and potentially ‘bad’ bacteria in the gut. Health science is constantly uncovering new information about the role of the good gut bacteria and the true extent of its importance to the body. As well as aiding digestion, friendly bacteria in the gut are known to have a significant role to play in many of the body’s key functions, including support of the immune system. One of these functions influenced by good gut bacteria is brain health and cognition.
The gut-brain axis
Within the gut, good and potentially bad gut bacteria exist in an ever-shifting composition that is as unique to an individual as a fingerprint. This composition, the gut microbiome, is able to send signals to the brain, and receive them back; a bidirectional process. This relationship is known as the ‘gut-brain axis’ and could be why emotions are often so closely linked to the gut. Through the vagus nerve2, the gut microbiome ‘speaks’ to the central nervous system (CNS), exerting influence on the signals and information sent around the body.
The ‘gut-brain axis’ is how the brain knows when we’re full after eating, but studies show that the relationship is much more complex. The gut microbiome is shown to be important for stress response, mood and cognition. Examples include behavioural imprinting and fear-expression. In addition, how well we sleep is closely connected to mental health. As anyone whose sleep has been disrupted with worry can attest to, poor sleep can often exacerbate mental health concerns and become a cycle. With emotional wellbeing looked after, it is often easier to get a restful night’s sleep.
Can diet influence mental health?
Because we know that good gut bacteria have a role to play in supporting mental health, it stands to reason that nourishing the good gut bacteria may be valuable for this purpose. Encouraging greater numbers of good gut bacteria allows them to exert their benefits across the body, and diet can be used to nourish these good gut bacteria. Prebiotic fibre is a way to nourish good bacteria in the gut. It is the preferred fuel source for bifidobacteria, a type of good gut bacteria that the body relies on. Prebiotics can be found in a diverse range of foods, including Jerusalem artichokes, onions, bananas and whole grains, to name just a few.
A Mediterranean Diet, characterised by proportionally high inclusion of foods such as fish, cereals, fruits, vegetables and plant-based oils, has been connected with supporting better mental health. The diet, inspired by eating habits of Greece, Italy and Spain, is thought to be nutritionally advantageous for mental health. High in omega-3s and antioxidants, the typical Mediterranean Diet is typically rich in sources of prebiotic fibre3, which nourish good gut bacteria and in turn, may influence and support mental health. Click here to learn more about the diverse benefits of a Mediterranean Diet.
Increasing prebiotic fibre intake through diet is a useful way to nourish good gut bacteria that support mental health, but this is not always easy for some people. While a food-first approach is always preferred, prebiotic fibre can also be found in dedicated supplements. What we put into the body in terms of food and nutrition may have a much bigger influence than we might first think. Since our good gut bacteria are known to help to influence mental health and wellbeing, a closer look at diet may be appropriate when looking to support cognitive health.
Looking to learn more about the connection between mental health and the gut? Click here to discover more.
- Mental Health Facts and Statistics
- Caitríona Long-Smith, Kenneth J. O'Riordan, Gerard Clarke, Catherine Stanton, Timothy G. Dinan, John F. Cryan. Annual Review of Pharmacology and Toxicology 2020 60:1, 477-50.
- Lassale, C., Batty, G.D., Baghdadli, A. et al. Healthy dietary indices and risk of depressive outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Mol Psychiatry 24, 965–986 (2019).
- Schmidt, Kristin et al. “Prebiotic intake reduces the waking cortisol response and alters emotional bias in healthy volunteers.” Psychopharmacology vol. 232,10 (2015): 1793-801.
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