Did you know that your digestive tract, also known as “the gut”, is considered the second brain of the body? There is constant communication occurring between your gut and brain, meaning each of these body systems can impact the other. Have you ever anticipated a difficult conversation with a friend and suddenly felt an upset stomach, an urge to use the bathroom or sudden loss of appetite? The stress and anxiety experienced in our brain sends signals down to our digestive tract that may cause responses such as changes in muscle contractions that propel food through our intestines or an increase in gastric acid production.
More and more research has shown that the health of our digestive tract may play a key role in our mental health. One such proposed mechanism is through the trillions of bacteria that live in our gut, referred to as the gut microbiota. Our microbiota consists of both “good” and “bad” bacteria, and in individuals with chronic imbalances of the “good” vs. “bad” varieties, or a state of dysbiosis, this may alter brain functioning and contribute to many different physical and neuropsychological conditions. In fact, a dysbiosis of the gut microbiota is frequently seen in conditions such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, and other mood disorders. Rates of mental health conditions have been the highest ever seen just over the past few years. Mental health can have a huge burden on quality of life, relationships, death rates, finances and more. So, if we could adopt some strategies to optimize our gut health to positively impact our mental health, it would seem to be a no brainer, right? The real question, however, may be: how can I improve my gut health? Well you’ve come to the right place!
As a registered dietitian working largely with individuals suffering from various mental health conditions, I spend a great deal of time incorporating my passion for gastrointestinal health into my counseling sessions and encouraging an inclusion rather than exclusion of foods. For starters, it is important to evaluate the overall adequacy and balance of your diet. For instance, are you eating in adequate, regular quantities throughout the day and getting a balance of carbohydrates, fats and proteins? If our digestive tract is not being stimulated with enough nutrition and a variety of different nutrients, this can directly impact the health and viability of our good bacteria. Secondly, what food sources can I add in that benefit these good bacteria? The answer: probiotics, prebiotics, and resistant starches.
Probiotic food sources are foods that contain healthy bacteria such as yogurts with live, active cultures, kefir and fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha, and tempeh. There are also an endless amount of probiotic supplements available on the market, so consider working with your health care provider on how to choose the right probiotic supplement for you.
Prebiotic food sources include special types of fibers that feed the microbiota. Examples of these are things such as berries, bananas, tomatoes, beans, lentils, whole wheat, pistachios and flaxseed. For individuals with sensitive digestive tracts, prone to gas and bloating, make sure to slowly increase these fiber sources in the diet to avoid distress.
Finally, resistant starches are a type of carbohydrate that feed our bacteria and can be found in foods such as potatoes and rice that have been cooked and cooled, plantains, chick peas, and steel cut oats. These foods may be slightly better tolerated over prebiotic fibes as the overall fiber content is lower. The key to success with any of these food sources is consistency and variety. While we may experience benefits to our digestive symptoms immediately, the long term benefits to our gut microbiota come from repeated ingestion of these foods over time. Also, remember that every BODY is unique, so what might work for one person, may not work for another. Try different food sources, explore your taste preferences, and look up some tasty recipes that incorporate these food source. After all, food is meant to be enjoyed, so have some fun exploring!
Written by Elizabeth Lees