We’ve all heard the stories of how people who drastically change their diet feel better in both mind and body. For example, those with gluten intolerance claim that they feel more alert and energized now that their bodies are no longer struggling to digest gluten. Those with sensitivity to lactose notice that their digestive system is more responsive to food once they cut dairy products out of their diet, and that enhanced digestive function leads to better overall health.
The truth is that EVERY part of your body is connected. Your digestive tract absorbs nutrients from the food you eat to keep your organs running. Your brain sends electrical signals to every cell in your body. Your heart has to pump blood to keep the organs and tissues alive. Your body is one massive collection of networks that work together to keep you moving, functioning, and thinking.
One of the most fascinating connections is the brain-gut connection. In the last few years, researchers have begun looking into how the food you eat can have a direct effect on your brain. But the research isn’t limited to how food can help your brain work better. Some researchers are actually looking into how the right changes to your diet can improve mental health.
A lot of research has indicated that inflammation in the body can contribute to mental health problems. Some experts even believe that inflammation can negatively affect a developing brain, which can lead to minor neurological, cognitive, and psychological problems to become more visible. According to these experts, there may be a connection between inflammation and problems like depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.
For example, one expert states that “depression is associated with elevated levels of lipopolysaccharide (LPS), a nutrient-binding, inflammatory toxin produced by bacteria that are intended to remain in the gut.” Basically, depression (a purely mental condition) is directly influenced by the bacteria in your intestines.
Another study found that “Patients with major depression have been found to exhibit increased peripheral blood inflammatory biomarkers, including inflammatory cytokines, which have been shown to access the brain and interact with virtually every pathophysiologic domain known to be involved in depression, including neurotransmitter metabolism, neuroendocrine function, and neural plasticity.”
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What’s the solution? “Preliminary data from patients with inflammatory disorders, as well as medically healthy depressed patients, suggest that inhibiting pro-inflammatory cytokines or their signaling pathways may improve depressed mood and increase treatment response to conventional antidepressant medication.”
Or, in simpler terms: fight inflammation to improve mental health!
One 2013 study found that probiotics (food with live bacteria) can do wonder to improve mental health as well as physical. The study includes a long list of everything these probiotic foods can do:
Protect the intestinal barrier, preventing undigested nutrients from leaking into the body
Indirectly influence the production of neuropeptides and neurotransmitters
Reduce lipid peroxidation
Directly affect antioxidant activity in the body
Increase neurochemical production
Stop stress from altering the intestinal microbiota
Activate the neural pathways between the brain and the intestines
Prevent the malabsorption of carbohydrates
Modulate neurotrophic chemicals, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor
Limit the production of inflammatory cytokines
Stop the overgrowth of intestinal bacteria (the bad ones)
Decrease gastrointestinal pain
Reduce the burden of toxicity caused by uric acid and amino acids
Improving the nutritional status of the body by aiding in the absorption of minerals, phytochemicals, fatty acids, and more
That’s some pretty amazing benefits listed right there! As you can see, many of them deal specifically with the health of your brain. In fact, many of those benefits (#2, #5, #9, and #10) are all directly linked to brain function and its role in mental health.
One study sums it up nicely:
“Rodent studies have provided suggestive evidence that probiotics (e.g. lactobacillus and bifidobacteria) can influence behavior. More importantly, emerging clinical studies indicate that the administration of beneficial microbes…can influence end-points related to mood state (glycemic control, oxidative status, uremic toxins), brain function (functional magnetic resonance imaging fMRI), and mental outlook (depression, anxiety).”
While there is a lot left for science to uncover, it’s enough to know that there is a direct link between the food you eat and your mental health. That should help you to understand the importance of adding gut-friendly foods like probiotics to your menu. Just a few changes in diet could have much farther-reaching results than you’d expect—not just your gut, but all the way to your brain!
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