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The Gut-Brain Axis: What You Need to Know

Mental health problems like anxiety and depression might seem like they stem entirely from the mind—they’re called “mental” health problems, after all. But another part of your body—your gut—might be contributing to problems like anxiety and depression. And the connection between your gut and your brain goes both ways—your emotions can cause symptoms that you experience in your gut.

“There is a direct connection between the gut and the brain, so people who have anxiety and depression might also have gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea, abdominal pain, and constipation when their mood is not stabilized,” said Angela Puthenveetil, MD, a family medicine specialist who also specializes in integrative medicine at Banner—University Medicine Primary Care Clinic in Tucson, AZ.

Smart food choices help keep your gut healthy

A poor diet can wreak havoc on your gut microbiome—the healthy bacteria that live in your digestive system. That unhealthy microbiome, in turn, can lead to imbalances that trigger mental health problems, fatigue, and mind fog. “A good diet can create balance and help keep your symptoms at bay,” Dr. Puthenveetil said.

To keep your microbiome strong and support its connection with your brain, Dr. Puthenveetil recommends a plant-based diet. “Try to eat as colorfully as possible. Focus on fruits and vegetables that are in season—they provide important phytonutrients,” she said. She points to Dr. Weil’s Anti-Inflammatory Diet as a good resource. That diet recommends:

  • Variety
  • As much fresh food as possible
  • Little or no highly processed food and fast food
  • Lots of fruits and vegetables

Keeping your gut healthy can help it send the right signals to your brain so you can get control over your mental health problems. “It’s extremely important to try and clean up our diets and make this a cornerstone of our health. Food is medicine and can be used to help prevent and treat a number of disorders,” Dr. Puthenveetil said.

Exercise and meditation can calm your stress response

Along with improving your gut health, it’s important to improve your mental health. Turning down your stress levels may help alleviate gastrointestinal symptoms like cramps, indigestion, or diarrhea.

“There is a large connection between gut health and brain health,” Dr. Puthenveetil said. “Trying to find some form of exercise that is enjoyable will help keep stress at bay, which can affect the gut.” Aerobic exercise is especially helpful, so try walking, biking, swimming, or other activities that raise your heart rate.

Meditation can also help decrease stress and inflammation. If you find it difficult to practice traditional meditation, give these techniques a try:

  • Yoga
  • Mindfulness
  • Walking meditation
  • Deep breathing

Your gut health and your mental health are intertwined. Good nutrition, exercise, and stress reduction techniques can improve your physical health and your mental health. Give it a try—your belly and your brain will thank you.

To find a Banner Health primary care provider or mental health professional near you, visit BannerHealth.com.

For tips on improving your diet, check out 5 Ways to Kick Your Soda Habit for Good and 7 Ways to Lower Your Sodium Intake.

Anxiety Behavioral Health Depression Gastroenterology Wellness