Have you ever gotten “butterflies in your stomach” when you’re feeling excited or nervous? Have you gotten nauseous or lost your appetite after hearing upsetting news? Or have you ever had a “gut feeling” about something?
We have these “gut” feelings because our guts are intricately interconnected to our brains and our emotions. And there’s mounting evidence proving that your gut health can directly impact your mental health. It can even influence the development and severity of some mood disorders.
Today we’re going to dive into the gut microbiome’s link to mental health and mood disorders as well as take a look at some simple ways to support a healthy gut and healthy brain.
What Is a Mood Disorder?
We all experience a broad range of emotions – from cheerfulness to sorrow and from apathy to anger. Having these feelings is normal and part of the human experience. But if you have a mood disorder, your moods and general emotional state can become distorted and make it challenging to function and navigate life the way you’d like to.
If you have a mood disorder you may have feelings that seem inconsistent with your circumstances or experience significant unexplainable mood swings. You may experience periods of feeling irritable, or sad, or even excessively happy. Some of the most commonly diagnosed mood disorders include:1,2
- Depression: Characterized by prolonged periods of sadness or hopelessness, and/or feelings of indifference or numbness with little interest in usual activities.
- Anxiety: Persistent and excessive feelings of worry and fear.
- Bipolar Disorder (BPD): Also referred to as manic depression, BPD is defined by alternating periods of deep depression followed by manic episodes characterized by feels of elation or irritability, with a significant increase in energy.
- Cyclothymic Disorder: Characterized by mood swings, with persistent emotional ups and downs, but these fluctuations are not as severe as those experienced in BPD.
Because the symptoms associated with mood disorders can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint, many people may unknowingly struggle with an undiagnosed mood disorder. So how do you know if you have a mood disorder?
Mood Disorder Symptoms
A formal diagnosis of a mood disorder requires an official and thorough evaluation by a licensed mental health professional. Typically an official diagnosis requires a practitioner to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of your past medical history, administer a mood disorder questionnaire, and complete a psychiatric interview.
Mood disorders can also be especially tricky to diagnose because of their fluctuating nature. For example, if someone seeks help for feelings of severe hopelessness, they may be diagnosed with depression. But, if that same person exhibits symptoms of a manic episode months later, a BPD diagnosis may be more appropriate. So, it can take time to find the right mood disorder diagnosis.
If you haven’t been diagnosed, and are concerned you may have a mood disorder, there are some common symptoms that might indicate it’s time to reach out for help. Some of these tell-tale symptoms include:3
- Persistent anxious, sad, or “empty” moods
- Ongoing feelings of hopelessness and/or helplessness
- Having low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness
- Excessive feelings of guilt
- Thoughts of death, wishing to die, or thoughts of suicide*
- Regular feelings of apathy and loss of interest in usual activities or activities that you used to enjoy
- Recurring relationship problems
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
- Changes or fluctuations in your weight and/or appetite
- Low energy levels
- Trouble concentrating and a decreased ability to make decisions
- Extreme sensitivity to failure or rejection
- Frequent feelings of irritability, hostility, or aggression
While mood disorders may technically be classified as a condition affecting your brain and mental health, as it turns out, mood and gut health are intricately linked.
The Gut Microbiome and Mood: What’s the Link?
Our gut has been dubbed our “second brain” because it’s so intimately interconnected with our nervous system and has a significant impact on our brain function. But the truth is, our gut is more like our first brain, considering that our gut-based nervous system developed long before our human brains. So it makes sense that this complex system can have a monumental impact on our moods and emotional well-being.
You see, your brain and your digestive system are intricately connected via what’s known as the gut-brain axis. This axis is comprised of a number of different “communication channels” that include:4
- The neurological pathway: This includes not only the nerves connected to the gut, but also the production and modulation of crucial neurotransmitters like serotonin, GABA, melatonin, histamine, and acetylcholine.
- The endocrine pathway: Your gut determines nutrient availability which in turn, influences the production, secretion, and regulation of biologically active peptides from enteroendocrine cells which communicate with your brain.
- The metabolic pathway: The metabolites and by-products created by digestion and the microorganisms that live in your gut exhibit significant hormone-like activity, have immunomodulatory properties, and can stimulate or even damage your own cells.
- The immune pathway: Circulating cytokines and other inflammatory cellular communication mediators “talk” to and alter activity in both the gut and the brain – meaning increased gut inflammation directly impacts brain function.
With such sophisticated and intertwined communication systems, it’s no surprise that your gut can have some serious sway over your moods. Let’s take a little deeper look at how the microorganisms that reside in your digestive tract can influence this process.
Microbiome: Gut Health and Mood Swings
Trillions of microscopic organisms call your digestive tract home – making up a collective ecosystem known as your microbiome. And more and more research is finding that the make-up of this delicate ecosystem of bacteria can have significant implications for your mood and overall emotional state. An excess of strains of harmful bacteria and/or a deficiency in strains of beneficial bacteria can alter the way your digestive tract, and subsequently your brain, functions.
This microbiome-gut-brain connection is so powerful that a new class of probiotics dubbed “psychobiotics” or “psycho-microbiotics” is emerging as a natural treatment for mood disorders and psychiatric conditions. Studies have found that supplementing with beneficial strains of gut-colonizing bacteria can drastically improve symptoms of mood disorders – like depression, anxiety, and BPD.5
Considering just how critical your gut health is to your mental and emotional well-being you're probably wondering what you can do to keep your gut – and mood – in tip-top shape.
How to Improve Your Gut Microbiome
Having an optimally functioning digestive system that supports your brain and emotional state requires a big-picture approach. Fortunately, taking a big-picture approach to gut health doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Simply making a few easy-to-implement lifestyle tweaks can drastically improve the health of your gut microbiome.
Let’s take a look at some of the best ways to give your gut a boost:
Probiotics for Gut Health:
Considering that the microorganisms that collectively make up your microbiome have a lot of pull when it comes to your mood, it’s no surprise that taking daily probiotics is one of the simplest and most powerful ways to support your gut-brain axis. Taking a daily probiotic is the best way to ensure you’re regularly re-introducing beneficial mood-boosting bacteria into your gut.
Supporting a healthy population of “good” bacteria will also help crowd out any “bad” bacteria – keeping your gut ecosystem balanced and happy.
Incorporate Gut-Supporting Supplements:
Supplements are an easy way to give your body a concentrated dose of potent nutrients. Some of the most effective gut-supporting supplements include:
- Collagen: Collagen, contains loads of healing amino acids that essentially work to “seal the gaps” in the lining of your intestines – which reinforces the barrier between your gut and your bloodstream.
- Digestive Enzymes: Digestive enzymes assist your body in properly breaking down and utilizing nutrients.
- Gut Calm: Gut Calm is a blend of botanical ingredients and naturally occurring polysaccharides that are essential for bolstering the integrity of your gut lining while promoting a flourishing and diverse microbiome.
While probiotics and supplements are a powerful and effective way to give your gut the support it needs, it’s all for nothing if your diet isn’t also supporting your gut health.
Build Your Diet Around Healthy, Gut-Friendly Foods:
Your diet is without a doubt one of the most crucial components of gut health. Building your meals around nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory foods is essential to give your gut the tools it needs to support a balanced and thriving microbiome. A healthy and gut-friendly diet is based on two simple principles:
- Prioritize real food: Focus on centering the majority of your meals around fresh vegetables and fruits, high-quality proteins, and healthy fats.
- Minimize inflammatory foods: Refined oils and sugars, artificial sweeteners, and processed foods are pro-inflammatory and can throw your gut out of whack. So while you don’t have to eliminate them entirely, it’s crucial to only include them in your diet sparingly.
However, adding in healthy foods and gut-healing supplements isn’t the only way to improve your gut health. It’s also important to take steps to reduce things that are hindering your gut health.
Reduce Your Toxic Burden:
We’re all exposed to a barrage of potentially harmful toxins every single day. This isn’t a problem if your body is working properly and can effectively process these toxins out. But if your detoxification systems get overloaded, these toxic compounds can begin to accumulate – spiking inflammation, promoting dysbiosis, and damaging the lining of your gut.
Minimizing your exposure to toxins while simultaneously boosting your detoxification pathways will help reduce your overall toxic burden and support a healthy gut. You can learn more about the exact steps to reduce your toxic burden right here.
Your gut-brain axis is a two-way street. So just like an imbalanced gut can put a damper on your mood, elevated stress and negative feelings can put a damper on your gut health. While it’s impossible to entirely avoid the stressors of life, being proactive about minimizing and managing stress can go a long way in keeping your gut happy.
Some of my favorite ways to combat stress include a good workout, meditation, connecting with a loved one, or simply spending time outdoors. Find what works for you and be diligent in taking care of your mental health just as you would your physical health.
When It Comes to Your Health, You Are Your Own Best Advocate
We’re only beginning to scratch the surface of just how connected our overall health is to the microscopic organisms that call our bodies home. But there’s no denying that the complex and sophisticated ecosystem that comprises our gut plays a colossal role in our physical and mental well-being. And the good news is, when it comes to your health, you are your own best advocate.
So if you’re struggling with a mood disorder or simply looking to feel better overall, one of the best places to start is with your gut. Follow the steps outlined in this article to get started on showing your gut some love. And if you feel like you need more support, I recommend seeking out the guidance of an experienced Integrative and Functional Medicine Practitioner to help you identify the root cause of your issues and come up with a personalized plan to fit your lifestyle.
If you enjoyed this article and are looking for more ways to put your health at the top of your priority list, head over and check out my blog – it’s full of research-backed, and easy-to-implement information just like this. And if you want to take it even deeper, I encourage you to sign up for my weekly newsletter – all you have to do is enter your name and email address in the form below.
Now it’s time to hear from you. Were you surprised to learn just how interconnected your gut is to your mood? What steps are you taking to boost your gut health? Leave your questions and thoughts in the comments below!
*If you're contemplating suicide or self-harm, or you suspect a loved one is, please reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free, confidential support and is available 24/7. Please call 800-273-8255.
- Mood disorders – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic
- Mood Disorders; Causes, Symptoms, Management & Treatment (clevelandclinic.org)
- Mood Disorders | Johns Hopkins Medicine
- The Gut-Brain Axis: Influence of Microbiota on Mood and Mental Health (nih.gov)
- The Gut-Brain Axis: Influence of Microbiota on Mood and Mental Health (nih.gov)
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.