Do you have a mental health condition? May is Mental Health Awareness month. Mental health is on the rise and its serious business. It can feel very lonely and out of control when you are affected by a mental health condition. The good news is that you can help those impacted, whether yourself or those you love, feel better. Let’s start with some statistics.
2017 Prevalence of Mental Illness
A key puzzle piece to your mental health is your gut. Many times, we don’t even know that our gut is a problem, or if we have symptoms of gut dysfunction, we can’t associate them with the state of our mental health, even if we have symptoms such as “brain fog”, headaches, or depressed mood after eating something not good for our own body. Examples may be eating something high in sugar or something we have a food sensitivity to and may not know it.
While we may be born with genetic predisposition to a mental health condition, the environment is the trigger to expression of the genes. Events that have happened to us during our lifetime impact the development of our microbiome and can pre-disposition us for mental health conditions including being born by c-section, not being breastfed as an infant, experiencing chronic infections, treatment with antibiotic therapy, or chronic stress. While we cannot turn back the clock, and a lot of this is newer information, we can potentially prevent expression of a genetic disposition to a mental health condition, reverse, or significantly impact the symptoms by managing our physical, psychosocial, and spiritual health.
Dr. Tom O’Bryan calls your microbiome a “game changer”. If you take care of your gut by feeding your microbiome with what it needs to keep in balance, it positively impacts your mental health. This is due to the gut-brain axis, which connects your gut to your brain. The vagus nerve, a major cranial nerve, travels all the way from your brain stem to your gut, serving as the highway for communication between the two. Eighty percent of our sensory communication travels up the nerve to the brain from the gut, whereas only 20% travels from the brain to the body. This nerve also branches out to organs and tells your organs what your brain is feeling and your brain what your organs are feeling. That’s amazing!
Did you know that your microbiome is actually responsible for producing chemicals that talk to the brain? These chemicals are called neurotransmitters. Serotonin is a major neurotransmitter to the brain which affects your mood and behavior. Approximately 90% of your serotonin is produced in the gut. Different microbes produce different neurotransmitters, which is why an imbalance of microbes (dysbiosis) can be associated with mental health disease. Anxiety and depression have been connected to dysfunction of the gut-brain axis and the lack and/or overgrowth of specific microbial organisms. Interestingly, people with gut-related diseases such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome also frequently experience anxiety and depression, because these diseases are also associated with dysbiosis and inflammation.
When you have an unhealthy or unbalanced microbiome, your gut can actually be sending signals to the brain for things that are actually not good for you physically or mentally. This only further creates a hostile environment for your body, because the bad microbes send signals which create cravings (for example sugar, alcohol, or even foods you have sensitivity to), which when you eat these, serve to allow the bad microbes to grow and further crowd out healthy microbes. This causes inflammation can put you at greater risk for being able to manage a mental health condition successfully, not to mention increasing risk for physical disease.
Psychotropic medications used to manage some mental health conditions may also influence the diversity of the gut microbiome and are known for side effects such as gastro-intestinal discomfort and weight gain. Future research will help identify the drug-microbiota connection.
Newer therapies are evolving for patients with mental health conditions associated with a dysfunctional gut microbiome such as specifically designed pro-biotics and fecal transplants. While not yet mainstream, they hold promise. That said, these therapies still rely on a commitment to change your lifestyle to correct and maintain a diverse and healthy microbiome.
Other things you can do:
- Get counseling and support from mental health specialists. Resources such as NAMI-the National Alliance on Mental Illness is one good resource. Get a referral from your primary health provider to a qualified mental health specialist.
- Find a functional medicine provider to determine the condition of your gut and help get any gut dysfunction under control. They can help determine if there are any other things contributing to your mental health condition, such as vitamin/mineral deficiencies, toxicities or hormonal imbalances.
- Get a health coach to help you with your goals and commitment to improve your gut health and focus on things you can do within your control to positively impact your physical well-being and help support the plan recommended by your mental health provider.
- Find positive outlets to keep your mind focused on activities you like or love.
- Use techniques to promote feeling calm, like relaxation breathing, meditation, singing/humming, or music which helps regulate your vagus nerve response to parasympathetic (rest & digest) versus a sympathetic response (fight or flight).
- Exercise regularly
- Keep a regular sleep routine and make sure you get at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night.
- Participate socially with family and friends who are positive supports for you to keep you socially engaged.
- Set goals to get your gut health on track. Eat fresh fruits and vegetables. Eliminate preservative foods. Eat organic where possible.
- Think about 3 good things that have happened every day…no matter how big or small. This can help your mind stay positive.
Interconnected: The Power to Heal Within (2019). Series produced by Urban Monk Productions, Inc.
Mittal, R, Debs,LH, Patel,AP, Nguyen, D, Patel,K, O’Connor, G, Grati,M, Mittal,J, Yan,D, Eshraghi,AA, Deo, SK, Daunert,S, and Liu, XZ. Neurotransmitters: The critical modulators regulating gut-brain axis.
J Cell Physiol. 2017 Sep; 232(9): 2359–2372.
Huang, TT, Lai, JB, Du YL, Xu, Y, Ruan, LM, Hu, SSH. Current Understanding of Gut Microbiota in Mood Disorders: An Update of Human Studies, Front Genet (2019) 10:98. Published online 2019 Feb 19 doi: 10.3389/fgene.2019.00098