How is our gut related to our mental health?

Many people with mental health issues, particularly anxiety and panic disorders, experience gut problems. For example, loss of appetite, stomach pains and Irritated Bowel Syndrome (IBS) are the most commonly discussed. This is because there is a link between our mind and gut.

The Enteric Nervous System (also known as our second brain located in the gut) communicates with our (actual) brain via the central nervous system, so if there is an issue with one, it impacts the other too. Furthermore, if there is a strong link between our mind and our gut, investigating this link could improve our understanding of our mental health and subsequent treatment.

How does our mental health affect our gut?

For many, having a mental health disorder means the added stress of stomach issues as it is common symptom. Here are few examples of how different disorders lead to different gut problems:

  • Anxiety. When you are anxious, a surge of hormones are released into the stomach such as cortisol and adrenaline. This causes a slight hormone imbalance, as well as interfering with digestion. An anxious individual, therefore, may experience certain discomfort in the gut, such as ‘butterflies’ or even nausea.
  • Stress. Both stress and anxiety can lead to slower digestion, stomach pains, and can cause diarrhoea and constipation. Although it is not a cause, stress in particular can contribute to IBS, leading to painful flare ups, and bloating. Further, if you are stressed or anxious, you are more likely to be aware of IBS spasms.
  • Depression. The most commonly associated stomach issues with depression is loss/increase of appetite. Some individuals try to tackle their low mood through comfort eating. More commonly, many experience a lack of energy, leading them to skip meals as eating and cooking may seem too big a task.

Can the gut impact our mental health?

Although it has been suggested mental health affects the stomach, new evidence suggests that it could also be the other way around. Researchers have found that there is likely a bidirectional relationship between the brain and gut. This means that similar to mental health issues leading to health problems, the state of someone’s gut can affect their mood.

  • Pains and discomfort. Possibly the simplest explanation- when there is inflammation or irritation, it is unsurprising that this would lead to feelings of sadness and low mood. It could also exacerbate our anxiety, especially if we do not know what is causing the pain.
  • The Gut Microbiome. The bacteria in our gut is involved in the production and release of neurotransmitters, including dopamine and serotonin. These are critical for a mood and anxiety levels, as well as our concentration, and motivation. Imbalances of this ‘good bacteria’ within the stomachs therefore, have an impact on our mental wellbeing.

Treatment implications

As the above indicates, this allows us to reconsider the treatments used. As we know, mental health treatment could assist with gut issues too, as a secondary outcome. There is a possibility as well that physical treatments can improve our mood too.

Physical health treatments

  • Changes in diet. Establishing a healthier diet may induce the production of healthy gut bacteria. To influence this production further, try increasing prebiotics (e.g.bananas, asparagus, onions, tomatoes) and soluble fiber into your diet.
  • Basic tips to aid digestion. Do not rush when eating, drink plenty of water and exercise regularly.
  • Medication. Fibre medications are recommended/prescribed to aid if you’re constipated, but be weary of laxatives as these can cause extreme abdominal discomfort, cramps and pain. Antispasmodic medication can be used to reduce spasms and pain, but only if taken as prescribed. Furthermore, antidepressants have previously been used to treat IBS too.

Mental health treatments

  • Use of therapy such as CBT: This therapy has been used to improve quality of life, including by alleviating anxiety responses to bowel difficulties as well as psycho-education on managing IBS symptoms. It also highlights the connection between our mental wellbeing and physical wellbeing.
  • Anxiety-reducing tips. As a daily technique, reducing anxiety tips can impact gut discomfort. This can be through meditation, deep breathing and yoga.

How can Brighter Life Therapy Help?

As previously discussed, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a common way to tackle these issues and discomforts with professional help. Brighter Life Therapy provides fast access to CBT and counselling treatment, which you can read about here. If you are interested, please do not hesitate to contact us on 0118 40 50 108, or by emailing info@brighterlifetherapy.co.uk.

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