The Connection Between Gut Health and Mental Health

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Daniel Pavlik Sr DC

May 27, 2021

You’re probably familiar with the effect that your mental state can have on your digestive system. From butterflies in the stomach right before an important event to losing your appetite when you’re feeling down, your mood can have a tremendous impact on the state of your gut health.

Gut health and stress

When you’re anxious or stressed, your digestive system is often the first casualty. You may develop indigestion and heartburn (usually caused by a release of additional stomach acid due to anxiety), experience constipation or diarrhea, or find yourself feeling nauseous when you’re particularly distressed. You might also experience pain in your GI tract, as the normal muscular activity becomes exaggerated and leads to cramps. If the anxiety is prolonged, you might develop ongoing GI issues such as gastritis (inflammation of the gastric tissues).

To discover whether your GI or stomach issues are related to anxiety, it is useful to track both your gut symptoms and your stress levels. When heartburn, stomach pain, or other problems arise, make a note of the incident and think about what you were doing around that time. Did you have a problematic meeting the day before? Perhaps you were anticipating a stressful event in the future. You might also need to consider ongoing sources of stress, such as a difficult co-worker or an overly long commute.

Reducing stress, promoting gut health

Resolving the pain, heartburn and other symptoms associated with anxiety is often very difficult unless you tackle the fear itself. While medicines such as antacids, laxatives, and anti-diarrhea medication may address some of the symptoms, they don’t help with the underlying problem.

If you’ve found yourself suffering GI symptoms and digestive problems that seem to have no discoverable cause, you may be able to reduce them by reducing your anxiety levels. Something as simple as a few minutes of meditation or breathing exercises every day can bring your anxiety back down to manageable levels, potentially calming those distressing gut health issues.

Exercise can be beneficial in reducing stress and anxiety, as well as in supporting gut health. Jogging, hiking, and cycling can all help bring down your anxiety levels. If you find these challenging, something more gentle might help. Swimming is well-known as a stress-busting exercise, and it’s low-impact too. Other activities that might help with stress include those with a relaxation component, such as yoga or tai chi.

A two-way street: when your gut impacts your mood

The effect of stress on the gut is a familiar concept for most people. What might be surprising is that the condition can work in the opposite direction. Your gut health can affect your mental health, sometimes quite significantly. While research is still arguably in its infancy, the connection between gut health and mental health is no longer in any doubt. It has been demonstrated that the gut has a significant role to play in multiple aspects of mental health, producing important neurotransmitters, and helping to regulate your mood.

This can mean that if your gut health is impacted by stress and other mood disturbances, you may find yourself in a vicious circle. The stress harms your gut health, which then causes further mood issues, which then make your gut health worse.

As well as tackling your stress and anxiety, you can support your gut health more directly. Changing your diet to include more healthy foods can make a big difference. Try adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet and cutting down on processed carbohydrates. You might also consider trying probiotic foods. If you’re suffering from gut health problems that don’t resolve on their own, you should seek medical advice on dealing with your condition. Your doctor may be able to help you figure out the source of the problem, recommend lifestyle choices, and advise you on a gut-healthy diet. You may also benefit from a course of medication aimed at helping to tackle your stress, which your doctor can provide.

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