Brain/gut connection: Why health experts say it can impact your mental health

Published: May. 12, 2022 at 10:15 AM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Health experts say your mental health is directly linked to your gut health.

According to a recent report from the Harvard Medical School, a troubled intestine or stomach can be a direct link to poor mental health.

Think of your gut as a second brain. Dr. Kumkum Patel, a gut health expert, says we have a network of nerves in our gut, always communicating with our brain, and it can impact your mental health.

“Together they have something called the vagus nerve, which works bi-directionally, which means that messages go from the gut to the brain and back from the brain to the gut,” said Dr. Kumkum Patel, a board-certified gastrointestinal doctor.

Researchers believe the gut is sensitive to emotion. Anger, anxiety, sadness, depression— all these feelings and others can trigger symptoms in the gut.

“The gut bacteria are actually responsible for making the chemicals or the neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, GABA ---are happy hormones. And these chemicals are the ones that are bringing the messages back to the brain,” said Dr. Patel.

Dr. Patel believes there are 3 things people can begin doing now to treat their guts right:

“The thing that I talked to my patients about are exercise, sunshine, and fiber, and the reason why is because aerobic exercise has actually been shown to actually increase the diversity of the bacteria in our gut, specifically the form acuity species, and that can help make those good mood hormones,” said Dr. Patel.

She says getting 20 minutes of natural sunlight each day can also help release happy hormones from your brain.

“Getting that natural sunlight can push melanocytes to push out those endorphins,” said Dr. Patel.

Fiber is also key.

“Fiber is what is feeding that gut bacteria. So, it helps the gut bacteria make what we call short-chain fatty acids and that’s what keeps the lining of our gut healthy,” said Dr. Patel.

Dr. Patel also suggests getting 7-9 hours of sleep every day.

“Studies have shown that getting a full night’s rest can actually help regenerate that gut bacteria and help your gut microbiome diversity. And unfortunately, sleep deprivation is so detrimental then it in as little as 48 hours, your gut microbiota composition can start to change,” said Dr. Patel.

Dr. Patel says a good way to help your mood or stressors is to do deep breathing exercises.

One exercise is called diaphragmatic breathing.

You place one hand on the top of your abdomen, and the second hand on top of your chest. Then you’re going to take in deep breaths through your nose and exhale out through your mouth, and close your eyes. While you’re doing so, make sure you’re feeling your abdomen rise, not your chest. By doing so, Dr. Patel says it should help calm your nerves and help you relax.

To learn more, you can reach out to Dr. Patel, by visiting her website.

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