How to Improve Gut Health for Depression: Tips and Strategies
The connection between gut health and mental health conditions like depression is becoming increasingly clear: dysfunction in the gut can lead to depression, increased anxiety levels, and negatively affect overall mental well-being. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to improve your gut health and support your mental health.
Understand the Gut-Brain Connection
The gut-brain connection refers to the communication between the gut and the brain, which is facilitated by the nervous system, hormones, and immune system. The gut contains millions of chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters, which send signals to the brain and vice versa. This means that the health of our gut can impact our mood, emotions, and cognitive function. Understanding this connection is the first step in improving your gut health and supporting your mental health.
These neurotransmitters, aka “happy hormones,” like GABA, serotonin, and dopamine, are produced in the gut and in the brain. Poor gut function and lack of healthy bacteria can result in neurotransmitter imbalances that lead to mood disorders like anxiety and depression. While it’s important to note that MORE of these neurotransmitters is not always better, a healthy gut is essential for maintaining a healthy gut-brain connection.
A poor gut-brain connection may be a result of the following gut health problems:
Nutrient deficiencies caused by a junk diet or history of medications like PPI’s and oral contraceptives;.
History of antibiotic usage;
Gut infections from bacteria, viruses and/or parasites;
Bacterial overgrowth (SIBO);
Fungal overgrowth (SIFO);
Low stomach acid;
Lack of bacterial diversity;
Celiac disease or Inflammatory Bowel Disease.
Research suggests that a higher proportion of depressed individuals have chronic diarrhea and constipation than non-depressed individuals - in fact, ⅓ of people with depression have chronic constipation, and a few studies report that people with depression rate their accompanying bowel difficulties as one of the biggest factors reducing their quality of life. So if your depression or anxiety is accompanied by other symptoms, it’s a good idea to focus on improving gut health for your mental health.
Here are a few tips for to how improve your gut health for depression and other mood disorders:
Incorporate Probiotics and Prebiotics into Your Diet
Researchers have uncovered 13 types of bacteria that are “important predictors” of depressive symptoms. The presence of certain bacteria may be tied to depression, supporting the notion that this species of bacteria has something to do with this mood disorder, while the absence of others may also contribute to depression. Researchers also found the depressed people had an increase of the same bacteria implicated in Crohn disease, suggesting inflammation may be at fault.
Introducing probiotics and prebiotics can be helpful in rebalancing the diversity of bacteria. Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are good for your gut health. They can be found in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi. Prebiotics, on the other hand, are types of fiber that feed the good bacteria in your gut. They can be found in foods like bananas, onions, garlic, artichokes, and whole grains. Incorporating both probiotics and prebiotics into your diet can help improve your gut health and support better mental health.
Consider adding a probiotic supplement or a daily serving of fermented foods to your diet, and aim to include prebiotic-rich foods in your meals.
Reduce Your Intake of Processed Foods, Gluten and Sugar
One of the best ways to improve your gut health and support better mental health is to reduce your intake of processed foods, sugar and in some cases, gluten-containing foods. These types of foods can disrupt the balance of good bacteria in your gut and contribute to brain inflammation. Instead, focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and lean proteins. This will not only improve your gut health and reduce inflammation, but a whole foods diet will also provide your body with the macro- and micro-nutrients it needs to function at its best.
Processed foods are also full of inflammatory seed oils like corn, safflower, canola and soy. In our society, pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acid intake (from foods like vegetable oils) far surpasses intake of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Not only do more omega-6’s pose a risk to gut health, but this significant imbalance means that the brain does not get the fuel it needs to function optimally, leading to issues like depression.
Another common ingredient in processed foods is wheat or other gluten-containing grains. Gluten sensitivity or celiac disease can also be a driver of depression. Depression is one of the more common symptoms of non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a condition that involves a different immune system reaction to gluten ingestion than celiac disease. And not all symptoms of Celiac disease are gastrointestinal - anxiety, depression and fatigue are also common issues reported in patients prior to diagnosis. Celiac disease can affect the gut and brain in various ways, leading to poor mental health for those suffering from untreated celiac disease, and sometimes even after diagnosis, too.
When you skip the processed foods, it’s easy to avoid seed oils, sugar, and gluten! Limiting grains such as wheat, barley, rye may be helpful but if there’s a family history of Celiac or non-Celiac gluten-sensitivity in your family, I encourage you to get tested for Celiac before removing gluten for good.
Manage Stress and Get Enough Sleep
In addition to improving your diet, managing stress and getting enough sleep are also important for improving your gut health and overall mental health. Over 50% of people with IBS also have depression, anxiety or sleep problems, and numerous studies have suggested that the incidence of insomnia and depressive disorder are linked to “biological rhythms, immune function, and nutrient metabolism,” aka gut health!
Lack of sleep and chronic stress can not only disrupt the balance of good bacteria in your gut and contribute to inflammation, but also negatively impact your mood and cognitive function. Incorporate stress-reducing activities like exercise, prayer, meditation, yoga, or deep breathing into your daily routin can help improve gut bacteria. Recent evidence suggests that aerobic exercise improves the diversity and abundance of healthy gut bacteria, while other studies have identified yoga as a proven mode of exercise to improve symptoms of IBS and depression.
Incorporate stress reducing activities and aim for 7-9 hours of sleep each night to support optimal gut health and mental well-being.
Supplement a Healthy Diet
While improving your gut health through diet and lifestyle changes can be effective, some people may benefit from additional support, especially after years of gut dysfunction. Probiotic supplements can help replenish good bacteria in your gut, while prebiotic supplements can help feed those bacteria, however gut health goes beyond adding a probiotic.
Addressing possible nutrient deficiencies and underlying causes of poor gut health is essential. The most common nutritional deficiencies seen in those with mood disorders are of omega–3 fatty acids, B vitamins, minerals including magnesium, and amino acids that are precursors to neurotransmitters. You may also need digestion support like digestive enzymes, bile salts, and betaine HCL.
Self Help for Depression and Anxiety
If you are struggling with mental health issues, improving your gut health with the above strategies along with seeking professional help from a therapist or psychiatrist can be beneficial. Still not sure how to improve gut health for depression? Set up a strategy call with me to learn more about your options for healing your gut, reducing inflammation and repairing your metabolism!
Ballou S, Katon J, Singh P, Rangan V, Lee HN, McMahon C, Iturrino J, Lembo A, Nee J. Chronic Diarrhea and Constipation Are More Common in Depressed Individuals. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2019 Dec;17(13):2696-2703. doi: 10.1016/j.cgh.2019.03.046. Epub 2019 Apr 4. PMID: 30954714; PMCID: PMC6776710.
Barandouzi, Z.A., Lee, J., del Carmen Rosas, M. et al. Associations of neurotransmitters and the gut microbiome with emotional distress in mixed type of irritable bowel syndrome. Sci Rep 12, 1648 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-05756-0
Dalton A, Mermier C, Zuhl M. Exercise influence on the microbiome-gut-brain axis. Gut Microbes. 2019;10(5):555-568. doi: 10.1080/19490976.2018.1562268. Epub 2019 Jan 31. PMID: 30704343; PMCID: PMC6748614.
Li Y, Hao Y, Fan F, Zhang B. The Role of Microbiome in Insomnia, Circadian Disturbance and Depression. Front Psychiatry. 2018 Dec 5;9:669. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00669. PMID: 30568608; PMCID: PMC6290721.
Radjabzadeh, D., Bosch, J.A., Uitterlinden, A.G. et al. Gut microbiome-wide association study of depressive symptoms. Nat Commun 13, 7128 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-34502-3
Rao TS, Asha MR, Ramesh BN, Rao KS. Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian J Psychiatry. 2008 Apr;50(2):77-82. doi: 10.4103/0019-5545.42391. PMID: 19742217; PMCID: PMC2738337.
Zingone F, Swift GL, Card TR, Sanders DS, Ludvigsson JF, Bai JC. Psychological morbidity of celiac disease: A review of the literature. United European Gastroenterol J. 2015 Apr;3(2):136-45. doi: 10.1177/2050640614560786. PMID: 25922673; PMCID: PMC4406898.