Your Gut Bacteria Linked to Anxiety and Depression. Here’s What to Do to Stay Mentally Healthy
You have likely acted on a “gut feeling” before, trusted your gut, or felt butterflies in your stomach. These phrases might sound like tired cliches, but researchers have found that there is a physical connection between the gut and the brain. New studies show that bacterial balance in the gut has a major impact on mental health, particularly anxiety and depression.
A New Prescription for Mental Health
The human intestinal tract is home to about five pounds of good and bad bacteria. In fact, the number of microorganisms in your body is greater than the number of your body’s own cells! Good bacteria include organisms like Lactobacilli and Bifidobacterium, while bad bacteria include Helicobacter Pylori, which is infamous for causing ulcers. A study conducted by a team of neuro-biologists from Oxford University found that subjects who took supplements to increase their level of healthy gut bacteria experienced a reduction in symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression.
Subjects who took the supplements also had lower cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone that increases anxiety and is correlated with health problems like obesity and adrenal fatigue. It also promotes inflammation in the body’s tissues, which may lead to feelings of depression and fatigue. Cortisol was an essential hormone for early humans because it initiated the “fight or flight” response. However, in today’s increasingly sedentary society this hormone mostly serves to increase stress levels, leading to obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
While current research does not yet support good bacteria as a replacement for conventional mental health treatment, more doctors and mental health professionals are considering probiotic therapy as an add-on treatment. Patients with mild cases of anxiety or depression may consider boosting their healthy gut bacteria before trying medications.
Increase Healthy Gut Bacteria with Fermented Foods
The simplest way to optimize gut bacteria is to ingest healthy bacteria as the study participants did. This can be done through supplement pills, or more easily by incorporating probiotic foods into your diet. The best foods for promoting healthy gut bacteria are fermented foods. Five of the best-fermented foods for increasing good bacteria are:
• Yogurt, which is rich in strains of Lactobacilli and also provides a good source of calcium. Choose plain yogurt with no added sugar or artificial ingredients.
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• Kefir, a fermented milk product that tastes similar to yogurt, is a great way to boost healthy bacteria on the go. Unlike yogurt, kefir is liquid and drinkable.
• Miso is a traditional Japanese food made from fermented grains, such as barley, rice, or soybeans. It adds a strong, meaty flavor to soups and noodle dishes.
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• Sauerkraut is a fermented cabbage dish that originated in Germany. It goes best with sausages like bratwurst, but don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Grill it with apples and cheddar between two tortillas for a fusion-style quesadilla.
• Kimchi is a spicy fermented cabbage, the Korean version of sauerkraut. Try it with rice and noodle dishes, or get creative and top a hamburger with kimchi. Kimchi complements almost any savory food.
Other Methods to Optimize Gut Bacteria
Diet isn’t the only lifestyle factor that affects intestinal bacteria balance. A key component in promoting healthy gut bacteria growth is to avoid antibiotics unless they are really necessary. Antibiotics not only kill bad bacteria, but also the good bacteria in your gut. A new procedure that may help restore severely unbalanced gut bacteria is fecal microbiota transplantation, which uses healthy bacteria from a donor to colonize a patient’s intestinal tract.
If you are struggling with depression, anxiety, or another mental disorder, increasing healthy gut bacteria is a harmless and potentially life-changing treatment to consider, but remember that every person has a slightly different balance of gut bacteria. Talk to your healthcare provider to determine which dietary changes, lifestyle changes, supplements, and procedures are right for you.