Last modified on October 19th, 2023
Inflammation is one of the primary responses of the immune system to infection or injury and it may play a big role in mental health.
Issues like depression and anxiety are common mental health issues in the USA, to such a degree that at any given time, over 46 million Americans struggle with mental illness.
For decades, the medical treatment of mental illness focused on the brain, particularly how brain cells use chemicals called neurotransmitters to communicate.
Modern antidepressants attempt to treat depression by adjusting the levels of neurotransmitters available for brain cells.
But it’s increasingly likely that another area of the body has a lot to do with psychological disorders, although, at first glance, it might seem an unlikely location.
The digestive tract’s good health appears to have a huge effect on good mental health.
The digestive tract is part of the gut-brain axis, a complex union of nerves from the central nervous system and the nerves of the gut.
The human gut is rich with nerve receptors, most of which link to the brain via the largest single nerve in the body, the vagus nerve complex.
The gut and the brain are far more interconnected than researchers imagined just three decades ago.
Inflammation and Mental Health
The gut contains a whole ecosystem of bacteria and fungi that help the body digest food and absorb nutrients.
The helpful bacteria in the intestines and colon are vital to good health, but there are dangerous bacteria in the intestines as well.
Good health depends on a balance between harmful and helpful bacteria.
It’s also reliant on the lining of the intestines, called the intestinal mucosa. The intestinal mucosa is a thin membrane that prevents harmful bacteria from entering the bloodstream.
When there’s an overgrowth of harmful bacteria, and too few healthy bacteria to keep them in check, the lining of the intestines and colon become inflamed and irritated.
This inflammation leads to the intestinal mucosa developing microscopic holes that allow harmful bacteria, viruses, and toxins to enter the bloodstream.
This is common in a condition called leaky gut syndrome.
Leaky gut syndrome is associated with chronic, systemic inflammation throughout the body.
When our immune systems detect these harmful bacteria and toxins in our bloodstream, they produce cytokines, tiny proteins that rally the body to fight off an infection by producing inflammation.
Cytokines also shut down some processes in the body and re-route energy production to the inflammatory response.
This means that cytokines also have powerful, negative effects on most of the brain’s neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, serotonin, and glutamate.
Neurotransmitters are responsible for our moods, memory, our sleep and wakefulness, and much more.
When their production and effectiveness are reduced, our moods get worse, and we experience more anxiety and increased depression.
What harms the gut?
The foods we eat have the biggest immediate impact on the health of the intestines and colon. A diet that is loaded with sugar and fat while lacking fiber, is disastrous for the gut, leading to a condition called dysbiosis. Correcting this issue requires eating a diet rich in nutrient-dense, high-fiber foods.
Just a few issues that affect gut imbalance include:
- There’s no escaping the importance of a healthy diet. Foods that are high in sugar, loaded with fat, or highly processed have a serious negative effect on the bacteria living in the gut. Alcohol and foods cooked in highly refined vegetable oils also harm the gut.
- Infection and disease. Infections of harmful fungi, viruses, and bacteria reduce helpful bacteria and increase toxins leaking into the bloodstream. Some diseases do serious damage to the intestinal lining.
- Some medications, like antibiotics, can kill out helpful bacteria, allowing harmful overgrowth of disease-causing bacteria.
Helping Gut Health
What we eat has the biggest effect on the health of our intestinal biome and gut.
A diet high in fiber and low in fatty, processed foods is a great way to start.
What else can we do to keep our digestive tract healthy? Consider the following tips.
- Add probiotics to your diet. Probiotics are yeast and live bacteria that help gut health. Helpful probiotic bacteria include lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, while Saccharomyces boulardii is a healthy yeast that helps fight digestive problems. Probiotics keep the nerves of the intestines that help move digested food along healthy and active. They also keep harmful bacteria and germs controlled, while reducing inflammation. Probiotic bacteria release chemicals that reduce inflamed intestinal tissues, especially those of the intestinal mucosa.
- Eliminate highly refined carbohydrates and sugar from your diet. Insulin tends to increase inflammation and a diet high in sugary, starchy carbs cause blood sugar spikes that lead to excessive insulin production.
- Eat less refined vegetable oil. Refined vegetable oils are full of omega-6 fatty acids that lead to the development of free radicals. Free radicals are highly energetic chemicals produced as a result of cellular metabolism. They’re known to cause and aggravate tissue inflammation. Refined vegetable oil is used in most snack foods and cooked fast food. Lowering your intake not only reduces your calorie intake, but it also reduces inflammation in your body.
- Eat more vegetables. High-fiber vegetables help the health of the digestive tract by providing insoluble fiber. They’re also rich in antioxidants that reduce inflammation.
- Add fatty fish to your diet. Fatty cold-water fish like salmon, trout, tuna, mackerel, sardines, and herring are all rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce inflammation throughout the body.
- Add fermented foods to your diet. Foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and yogurt are rich in lactic acid bacteria,
- Chronic inflammation of the gut leads to changes in the way brain tissue and vital brain chemicals work to moderate our emotions.
- Some foods can harm the health of the systems in the intestines and colon that keep inflammation under control.
- We can correct imbalances in good versus bad bacteria in the guy by changing our diets and eating habits.