As a mental health therapist, I spend my days chatting with people who are struggling with depression or anxiety or going through a tough time. And what drives me bonkers is how quickly many practitioners prescribe antidepressants, anti-psychotics, and anti-anxiety medications – without first exploring the constellation of holistic factors that contribute to mental illness.
Rarely do we consider diet, exercise, sleep, toxins, relationships, hormones, grief, stress, purpose, substance use (caffeine, alcohol, marijuana, and nicotine being common ones), past trauma, or gut health. It just seems clinical practice has yet to catch up to the research. Or maybe the influence of the pharmaceutical industry is just too strong.
Of course, like most things, making changes in these areas is easier said than done, especially without professional support. Despite the challenge though, I’ve never met a person who’s regretted the time and money they’ve invested in making a change. Still, if you’re not ready to commit to completely revamping your lifestyle, improving gut health (or “microbiome”) there is a simple, research-supported and inexpensive avenue toward better mental health. Numerous studies confirm probiotics (live bacteria that keep our guts healthy), have a positive effect on mood, and consuming them is as easy as adding certain foods to your diet or taking a supplement.
So how exactly do our guts (and probiotics) affect our mood?
Well, anyone who’s ever had a “stress tummy” knows first-hand how our mind can affect our gut. However, in recent years scientists have proven the connection is actually bidirectional: our gut affects our mind as well! According to Frank Lipman, a leading functional medicine doctor, 70% of serotonin (the “feel good” chemical in our brain) is made in our gut. So, unhealthy gut = unhealthy mind, and vice versa.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 5 Americans experience mental illness such as anxiety or depression within a given year. Possibly related is the high-sugar, processed diet most of Americans consume causes an imbalance in our gut bacteria. About 100 trillion bacteria (about three pounds’ worth!) live in our gut. Some of these bacteria are “good” bacteria that help us digest the food we eat, while others are considered “bad” bacteria. This bad bacteria lives on and multiplies off of sugar, crowding out our good bacteria and leading to digestive upset, inflammation, cognitive impairment, lethargy, higher incidence of illness, and more.
But when these bacteria are balanced, our digestion functions optimally: we don’t experience gut-related anxiety and depression, and we boast a stronger immune system, higher energy levels, clearer skin, and fresher breath. Preliminary research even suggests probiotics may help prevent breast cancer.
It’s a no-brainer – even doctors who don’t endorse supplements recommend probiotics for optimal mental and physical health. Personally, I notice when my gut bacteria is “off” and thus take a probiotic supplement daily. But if you’re not into supplementation, at least consider including probiotic foods in your diet. The research proves such an accessible change to our daily routine can truly alter how we feel physically and emotionally, both in the short and long-term. If you can tolerate dairy, include yogurt and kefir (make sure the probiotics are actually listed in the ingredients–for example, “lactobacillus acidophilus, bifidus,” etc. vs. “active bacteria culture.” If dairy is not your thing, there are tons of other sources of probiotics including raw, unpasteurized sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and kombucha.
Creating optimal mental health is no small feat. For most, it’s an overwhelming, frustrating, and at times defeating process. Know that it is not your fault, you are not alone (remember, 1 in 5!), and there are changes you can make toward experiencing a calmer and more joy-filled life. If it’s within your means, I strongly encourage reaching out to a therapist who can help you better understand the more complex causes of less-than-optimal mood. And if nothing else, consider including probiotics in your daily routine. They might just be the missing piece.
Megan Bruneau, M.A. RCC
Megan Bruneau, M.A. RCC is a mental health therapist, writer, wellness coach, and podcast host. Through her own recovery from perfectionism-fueled depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, Megan discovered a different way of relating to herself and the world – one she now teaches her clients and readers. Megan's work has garnered upwards of 15 million views and has appeared in The Huffington Post, MindBodyGreen, Forbes, Entrepreneur, Thought Catalog, Gaia, Bustle, Psych Central, Elephant Journal, Thrillist, and more. Work with her 1:1 or read, listen, and watch more from her at meganbruneau.com.