One in two Australasians experience a mental health issue at some point in their life. At the same time, the rate of digestive disorders such as IBS is increasing. The emerging field of psychobiotics provides interesting insights into the role of the gut in influencing mental health. Psychobiotics can be defined as live organisms (or probiotics) that influence the chemistry of the brain, via two-way communication between the gut and the brain.
Poor diet, stress and poor digestive health can all disrupt the communities of bacteria that naturally reside in the gut. We are host to a large variety of microbes that are largely beneficial to our health. They want us (their host) to be happy, so they are involved in the synthesis of neurotransmitters: chemicals such as GABA and serotonin that help us to feel good. When the balance of these microbes is affected, the beneficial bacteria can be overwhelmed by other species that can have negative effects. As well as impacting our capacity for producing feel-good chemicals, we also see an increase in inflammation caused by by-products of “harmful” bacteria, which affects the integrity of the lining of the digestive tract, causing a “leaky” membrane. This allows for viral and bacterial pathogens to gain access to the bloodstream, where they can travel throughout the body and cause damage, including a weakening of the blood-brain-barrier. When these pathogens gain access to the brain (via a compromised blood-brain-barrier), they can cause inflammation in the brain, which contributes to mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, as well as other symptoms like aggression, rumination, impaired memory and migraine.
Specific probiotic strains are now being studied for their positive impact on mood disorders, and on mental health more broadly. They can improve our gut health by increasing populations of good bacteria, at the expense of those that have detrimental effects on our mental health and wellbeing. At the same time, probiotics can help to repair a leaky gut membrane, thereby reducing the quantity of pathogens reaching the bloodstream: improving the integrity of the blood-brain-barrier and minimising neural inflammation.
Simple lifestyle modifications can help our beneficial bacteria to thrive:
- Eat a fibre-rich diet: Fibre-rich foods including vegetables, nuts and seeds, act as fuel for our beneficial bacteria.
- Regular exercise: Moderate-intensity exercise has been shown to positively manipulate the bacterial communities in our gut, decreasing the communities of harmful bacteria.
- Stress management: Chronic stress produces low-grade inflammation that interferes with the integrity of our intestinal barrier and allows pathogenic compounds access to the bloodstream.
- Face-to-face social connections: Being around others increases the diversity of our bacteria, helping to build a thriving community (inside and out!).
- Get out into nature: Gardening, bush walks, swimming in the ocean – being outside and amongst nature has a beneficial impact on the diversity and composition of our gut bacteria.
If you are experiencing symptoms of compromised mental wellness, it might be worth examining the health of your gut in more detail. Book an appointment to discuss appropriate steps for bringing the body – and the mind – back to balance.