You’ve heard that old saying, “you are what you eat”, but have you ever heard the saying, you ‘think’ what you eat? Or, you ‘feel’ what you eat? Well, new research is beginning shed light on the connection between your mental and psychological health and what is going on in your stomach-or more specifically-your gut. This connection between the bacteria in your digestive system and your thoughts and feelings is coined The Gut-Brain Axis.

Think about what happens when you have to give a difficult presentation to colleagues, or you when you are awaiting a call from your child the first time they are away from you, or perhaps when you hear the sirens going off behind you in the car. Where do you feel the anxiety? If you are like most people you feel it in your gut. Nausea, cramping and even diarrhea are common physical effects of anxiety. The notion that stress and anxiety can disrupt the digestive system is common knowledge, however we now know that a malfunctioning digestive system can cause emotional and psychological disruption-in other words, a troubled gut can cause a troubled mind.

There are millions of bacteria in your digestive system. Some of the bacteria are “good” bacteria. The good bacteria serve as the building blocks for various proteins and vitamins in your body that are involved in the immune system, tissue repair and blood cell regeneration. They are also essential to the synthesis of several brain neurotransmitters that help to elicit feelings of happiness, calm and pleasure. Many of these bacteria “communicate” with your brain via the vagus nerve as well. The vagus nerve is responsible for calming the mind and body and when you practice deep breathing, you are essentially activating the vagus nerve.

With the good comes the bad, and the intestines also house pathogenic, or “bad” bacteria. When the digestive system becomes unbalanced, either by the use of antibiotics, or infection, or poor nutrition, disruption occurs. The overgrowth of bad bacteria and the absence of good bacteria can cause many physical disruptions such as bloating, cramping, diarrhea and constipation as well as decreasing immune responses and increasing generalized inflammation. The research is also establishing a cause and effect relationship between mental and psychological disturbances and an unbalanced digestive system such as depression, anxiety and stress.

It is very possible that symptoms of anxiety and depression may actually be caused by the absence of the good bacteria in your gut. The way to make your gut happy, and ultimately yourself happy is to feed the good bacteria so it can flourish and destroy the bad bacteria. So how do you feed the good bacteria? First, make sure to include foods in your diet that have active probiotics. Probiotics are the actual good bacteria that you ingest. Yogurt, pickled foods, miso and dark chocolate (yea!!) all contain live cultures and are excellent sources of probiotics. Second, as well as adding good bacteria, you need to feed the existing good bacteria by eating foods that serve as prebiotics-or the fuel for the good bacteria. Onions, garlic, asparagus and artichokes (all raw) are excellent sources of prebiotics.

And finally, in order to keep the digestive tract balanced, get enough sleep, drink enough water, avoid antibiotics and eat a well-balanced diet. Talk to your doctor, or better yet make an appointment with your Registered Dietitian (me) to discuss taking probiotic supplements-they are not for everyone and can be harmful in some cases.

While further research is needed to determine the complexities of the gut-brain axis, it is clear that what is going on in our digestive system has a tremendous effect on how we think and feel and many now believe that if we can cure the gut, we can reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety and even depression.

By: Deb Ahola MS. RD, CDN