This week, on October 10, we celebrate Mental Health Awareness Day. In recent years, we have become increasingly mindful of how our mental state affects our overall health and wellbeing. Over the past six years, we have seen a rise in mental health disorders by 4.35%, with a total of 45 million Americans being affected (1). However, this year those numbers nearly doubled – with recent studies showing that since June of 2020, about 40% of adult Americans report having symptoms of depression and anxiety (2). The challenges and uncertainty brought about by COVID-19 have certainly illuminated how vulnerable we all are to problems with our mental health.
The good news is that our lifestyle choices can significantly impact our physical and mental health, meaning we can take control of our sense of wellbeing. Diet is one thing that most people associate with physical health. However, it can also play a massive role in improving your mental health!
Maintaining your digestive system’s health is necessary for more than merely keeping you regular in the bathroom. The link between mental health and gut health comes down to a single chemical – serotonin. Nicknamed “the happy chemical,” serotonin is one of the most critical factors we know for maintaining mental health. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, meaning it helps the brain communicate with itself and the body. Low serotonin levels are associated with mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and others (3).
So how does the gut relate to serotonin? Recent studies show that up to 90% of serotonin is made in the lining of the intestines, which contradicts previous beliefs that it was made entirely in the brain (4). After special cells in the gut (endothelial cells) synthesize serotonin, it is then carried by blood platelets throughout the rest of the body, including the brain. This is why serotonin is also known to help with regulating body systems beyond mental health alone – such as cognitive functioning, sleep cycles, and even bone density. When the digestive system becomes unhealthy, it can therefore lower our serotonin output and disrupt various health pathways that allow us to live healthy and happy lives.
We have all heard that fruits and vegetables are an essential part of a healthy diet, which couldn't be more true! Fruits and Vegetables contain essential vitamins and minerals that help our body operate. We cannot synthesize many of these vitamins on our own – meaning we have to get them from the food we eat. Fruits and vegetables are also packed with antioxidants that fight stress and cellular damage in the body. This can help heal injuries, fight off infections, and even prevent cancer from forming.
Another important component of fruits and vegetables is Fiber. This is what helps maintain your gut’s health, and what's shocking is that only 5% of Americans get enough of it each day (5). Fiber is the part of food that cannot be broken down by digestive enzymes – meaning it passes through us entirely. This is beneficial because it helps remove toxins and excess food matter from our gut. Fiber is also one of the primary food sources for healthy gut bacteria, or microbes. Microbes do the actual extracting of vitamins and minerals from the food we eat (6). Gut bacteria are also what creates the very serotonin that gets sent to our brains and keeps our mental health stable over time (7)! Therefore, having a healthy intake of fiber is essential to both gut health and mental health.
Recent studies show that we should aim to eat about ten full servings of fruits and veggies every day (8). Produce is one of the most effective ways to ensure you get your daily fiber needs. The fruit and vegetable fibers act as a food source for the millions of beneficial bacteria that live in your digestive tract. The fiber found in produce will also help to clear any toxins out of your digestive tract, which can help prevent disease and inflammation. Both fresh and dried fruit and vegetables offer these benefits - meaning you have plenty of options to get your servings each day! Our healthy candy FAVES offers a full serving of fruits and veggies in the form of a tasty candy, which is perfect for picky eaters and fussy children!
Experts recommend we eat between 25 and 30 grams of dietary fiber each day (9). This should be a combination of soluble and insoluble fiber sources to ensure your gut (and the bacteria living there) get everything they need to thrive. You can opt for fiber supplements if you are having trouble getting enough fiber through your food choices alone. No research shows any adverse side effects from using fiber supplements. However, it is best to get your fiber from the foods you eat because fiber supplements lack the vitamins, minerals, and water found in fruits and vegetables (10).
*Using an application on your phone makes tracking your daily fiber a breeze! Myfitnesspal is an excellent app for iPhone and Android users – it is free and can track your daily intake of fiber and other key nutrients!
Our bodies have an excellent way of communicating with us - if we take the time to listen! Various symptoms may arise if you develop an unhealthy digestive tract. Indigestion and stomach pains are the more obvious signs that your gut isn't working right. Chronic fatigue is another sign that your gut is hurting, because your food isn't being broken down and utilized for energy correctly. Additionally, if you crave sugary foods, it may often be an indicator that your gut has an imbalance of healthy and unhealthy bacteria – an overgrowth of a kind of yeast called candida, can cause sugar cravings, inflammation, and low serotonin output (11).
Inflammation is the body’s way of protecting us from harm. It is how we heal from injury and fight off infection and disease. This is incredibly useful; however, it can cause us harm when inflammation persists in the body. Inflammation in the digestive tract can cause an unhealthy balance of bacteria and even damage to the intestines’ lining. This can make digesting the food we eat difficult – resulting in fatigue, abdominal pain, and stress. Many natural foods work wonders when it comes to reducing inflammation. This includes avocados, cacao, peppers, and tomatoes among others (12). Getting regular exercise, prioritizing restful sleep, and staying hydrated are all ways you can support your body and reduce inflammation.
As we mentioned above, having a healthy microbiome is key to digestive health. Along with eating enough fiber, you can provide your gut bacteria probiotics to help them thrive. Probiotics are essentially live bacteria cells that you can ingest from capsules, liquid supplements, or even fermented foods. These probiotics help to keep the balance of bacteria in your digestive system healthy, ensuring that your gut operates optimally over time (13). Having a healthy balance of bacteria ensures you properly absorb vitamins from the foods you eat, break down food thoroughly, and keep the lining of your gut in good condition.