Mental health challenges affect approximately 1 out of every 5 adults in the U.S., and these numbers are unfortunately on the rise. Symptoms like anxiety and depression are a sign that something is out of balance within the body. There are many different factors that play a role in mental health including previous trauma, stress levels, nutritional status, lifestyle factors, and ideas of self-worth. While these factors are not within our control all the time, certain important steps can be taken to create an environment, both internally and externally, that supports a healthy mental state.
The Gut-Mind Connection
One of the biggest internal connections to the mind is the gut. The digestive system is responsible for breaking down the food we eat, and absorbing vital nutrients that get put to use in a variety of bodily functions. The gut is also home to a large portion of our immune system, and as the gateway to the outside world, plays a crucial role in defending against foreign invaders. Certain foods, known to damage the gut lining, cause inflammatory responses throughout the system. Prolonged consumption of inflammatory-causing foods creates a state of chronic inflammation originating in the gut, that can have major impacts on mental wellness. Certain key inflammatory markers have been associated with depression. Reducing chronic inflammation in the gut involves minimizing exposure to toxic foods and chemicals, and healing any damaged intestinal cells by using safe and natural treatments.
The Vagus Nerve
A major highway between the mind and the gut is the Vagus Nerve. This is a cranial nerve that connects the brain to many organs in the body, including those that make up the digestive system such as the stomach, liver, gall bladder, spleen, pancreas, and small and large intestines. The Vagus Nerve has parasympathetic activity, meaning it functions as part of our calm “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system that favors optimal digestion during a calm relaxed state. This connection also highlights how chronic stress can interfere with digestion and mood, and illustrates the importance of nervous system balance in optimal digestion and mental-emotional wellness.
Aside from digestive organs and their secretions, there is so much more to the human digestive system. The human microbiome is estimated to contain 100 trillion bacteria, which outnumber our own human cells 10:1. This mircoflora composed of bacteria, viruses, and fungi, exists throughout the digestive tract, and has a major impact on various metabolic processes in the body, including digestion, immune function, vitamin synthesis and inflammatory processes. The microbiome is dynamic, adaptive and individually unique from person to person. It is constantly responding to the types of foods eaten, toxic chemical exposure, antibiotic treatment, and stress. Certain microflora have been linked to positive mental health states and adaptability to stress so it’s important to keep it thriving.
Cherishing the gut is an extremely important piece of mental-emotional wellness. Maintaining a healthy digestive system involves minimizing major pro-inflammatory foods such as refined sugars and processed foods, and instead nourishing the system with naturally anti-inflammatory whole foods that are packed with nutrients beneficial for overall health and wellness. With the digestive system working well, key nutrients will be absorbed more efficiently, and the microbiome with flourish with beneficial strains of bacteria. There is no one diet perfect for everyone, but following a whole foods-based diet that emphasizes quality protein, healthy fat, and an abundance of colorful vegetables and fruits is a good place to start. Don’t be afraid to use your intuition, or “gut feeling,” as a guide on the specifics of which foods are best for you.
Apart from eating a healthy diet, other lifestyle factors can have a major impact on mental-emotional wellness. Balancing the nervous system and effectively managing stress is critical for supporting a healthy mood. Stress management strategies look different for everyone, but one beneficial technique is exercising both the body and the mind. Physical exercise produces endorphins that enhance mood, and also has benefits on energy, blood sugar balance, and cardiovascular health. Mental exercise can include meditation, deep breathing, grounding exercises, and setting appropriate boundaries in our personal lives. Another important part of mental health is keeping in touch with others in your community and creating social bonds that help your mental health flourish. The ultimate goal is to be aware of symptoms when they arise so they can be addressed quickly. Nurturing the body and mind with nutritionally dense food, regular exercise, and connecting with others helps to cultivate a healthy base of emotional and mental well-being which makes you more resilient to external disturbance.
Disclaimer: this information is meant to be general and for informational purposes only. It is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Consult a licensed healthcare practitioner for personal medical care and prior to starting new treatment.