If someone told you that you could improve your mental health by changing the bacteria in your gut, would you believe them? If symptoms of depression could be reduced or alleviated with a few diet changes and some kombucha, would you think it was sorcery? Mental health has long been considered just that: mental. But recent scientific breakthroughs have shown an intricate connection between our mental health and the health of the bacteria that live in our gut.
It sounds like something from a sci-fi novel with sentient bacteria, but it’s a lot less far out than you think, and it could pave the way for treating depression without traditional antidepressants.
A 2016 study showed roughly 7% of the population has experienced a major depressive episode, making depression one of the most common mental health issues we face. Standard treatment for depression can include several different types of therapy and prescription medications. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are one of the most frequently prescribed antidepressants and can cause some unpleasant side effects, like headaches, weight gain, insomnia, erectile dysfunction, and decreased libido.
Many people are unable to take SSRIs due to the severity of the side-effects and are left wondering what treatments are left for them? What can they do to help their depression? As unlikely as it seems, making your gut healthier might be a step toward improving mental health.
Recent studies have proven the existence of the “gut-brain axis,” often referred to as a second nervous system, comprised of trillions and trillions of bacteria in our digestive tracts. These bacteria are able to create neurotransmitters, chemical messengers that allow nerves to “talk” to one another and to the brain, which allow the bacteria to send signals directly to our brains via our peripheral and central nervous systems. So, in short, if your gut is unhealthy, it’s likely your brain will be unhealthy as well. Improve your gut, improve your mental health.
But how? Is eating yogurt enough?
There are several things you can do to improve the gut microbiome, from adding fiber to your diet and reducing sugar, to eating fermented foods and taking probiotic supplements. Here are a few actionable tips to improve your gut microbiome and hopefully improve your mental health.
1. Eat “prebiotic” foods.
Beneficial, gut bacteria need fuel to function just like we do, so feed them what they need to flourish. You might think probiotics are the answer to the question of gut health, but they only last so long without food. Adding prebiotics to your diet encourages the good bacteria in your gut to replicate and stay with you for the long haul. Some prebiotic foods you might already be eating (If you’re not, you should be!) and not even know it include:
- Leafy greens
- Raw garlic
- Raw onion
- Green beans
2. Eat and drink ferments.
Kombucha isn’t just for hippies and health nuts! Lacto-ferments like kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchi are packed with healthy bacteria. Eating or drinking them is like a super boost of good bacteria for your gut. The best thing about lacto-ferments is they can be super easy to do at home. All veggies have good bacteria on their surface. When placed in an anaerobic, or oxygen-free, environment, those bacteria process the sugars present and science happens, resulting in tasty fermented, or pickled, veggies.
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3. Ditch the sugar.
Food and drink high in sugar is anathema to gut health. While good bacteria feed on high-fiber foods, bad bacteria love sugar, so the more sugar in your diet, the more you encourage colonization of the wrong kind of microorganisms. And it’s not just processed sugar you should watch out for. High fructose corn syrups and sugar alcohols like xylitol and mannitol are also bad for the good guys. If sweeteners are a must, natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup, while not great for your gut, aren’t the worst of the bad.
4. Choose the right supplements.
Adding a good probiotic supplement to your regimen can be beneficial, but it’s essential to choose the right one. Time-release probiotic supplements will provide a bump to your gut flora all day, whereas regular supplements are once and done. If the bacteria don’t replicate quickly, they won’t colonize your gut. By taking a time-release supplement, you increase your chances of the healthy microorganisms getting a foot-hold and sticking around.
Also, many health experts recommend rotating probiotic supplements periodically, so you expose your gut to different strains of bacteria. Over thousands of years, our bodies have learned to commune with gut bacteria and figured out how to utilize different strains for our benefit. The gut microbiome is complex, but different strains provide our bodies with vitamins, minerals, aid in digestion, and more.
5. Rethink your SAD.
The Standard American Diet (SAD) is replete with highly processed foods, unhealthy fats, red meat, and more sugar than you can shake a stick at, none of which are good for your gut. Eating less meat and dairy, while adding in whole, unprocessed foods and whole grains will benefit your overall health in a multitude of ways, not least of which is an improvement to your gut health and thereby your mental health.
A few, relatively, low-key diet changes may significantly improve symptoms associated with depression and help people who are unable to take conventional antidepressant medications. By bolstering our bacterial load and improving our gut, we stand to improve our mental health as well.
This article was first published on ProHealth.com on July 22, 2018 and was updated on May 7, 2021.
Kristi Pahr is a freelance health and wellness writer and mother of two who spends most of her time caring for people other than herself. She is frequently exhausted and compensates with an intense caffeine addiction. Her work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Real Simple, Men’s Health, and many others.