Headshot of Owen O'Kane

Mind Your Gut: The Link Between Gut Health and Mental Health

We asked Owen O’Kane, Psychotherapist, Sunday Times Best Selling Author, and former NHS mental health lead to explore the link between your gut and brain.

I’ve always been curious about the links between gut health and mental health. I’ve worked in physical and mental health for over thirty years and observed a definite relationship.

My medical training alluded to the link between body and mind and vice versa during my psychotherapy training. Ironically, neither explored in any real depth, detail, or interest the deeper significance. Thankfully that’s changing. 

My interest in this area started after a challenging period in my own life. I was experiencing low grade ‘gut’ symptoms that consisted of a mixture of bloating, gastric reflux (excess acid) and cramps. There were no medical explanations for my symptoms, but I had noticed there was a direct correlation between my symptoms and periods of stress. This was particularly heightened during a bereavement and period of excessive work demands. 

I asked for advice from a friend who works in the field of functional -nutritional medicine. She suggested SymproveI decided to give it a try. 

Gut health maintenance now forms part of my overall wellbeing routine.  

A little science: understanding the links between gut and mind 

The current research in the worlds of psychology, neuroscience, nutrition, and gastroenterology supports my experience that improving gut health improves mental health and vice versa. 

It is now widely accepted that many people with mental health conditions display brain inflammation at a cellular level. In other words when you experience periods of stress, anxiety, or depression it is likely you have increased inflammatory processes going on in your brain and body. To put simply, poor mental health is in part a state of inflammation. 

We also know from research that gastric symptoms are linked to inflammation and a lack of diversity within the microbiome (which is like the guts eco-system). The more varied and diverse the microbiome is, the healthier the gut functions. 

Interestingly we also know that many people with mental health symptoms have a lack of diversity with their gut microbiome. When this is treated (by feeding microbiome and encourage good bacteria to populate) mental health symptoms improve. It is believed that the increase in microbiome reduces inflammation which in turn improves mental health symptoms. 

There are however a few other factors worth noting. The gut and brain are a two-way street in which information is transmitting back and forward all the time. The enteric nervous system and vagus nerve play crucial roles in ensuring information can be passed back and forward. If the gut is healthy, information tends to get through more easily. Think of it like creating a clear passage to enable fluid communication. 

If the mind is healthy and less inflamed, this reduces sympathetic nervous responses that ordinarily aggravate the gut to prepare for fight, flight or freeze in times of stress or anxiety. Stress in many studies has been linked to aggravating gastrointestinal symptoms. 

So, a healthy gut, supports a healthy mind. A healthy mind equally supports a healthy gut. The two are synonymous with each other. Therefore, harmony is vital. 

It surprises me that many mental health treatments both therapeutically and pharmacologically still focus on the brain as a focal point of treatment. It is well documented that around 90% of serotonin and 50% of Dopamine is found in the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. These are just two of the chemicals associated with mood regulation and feeling ‘good.’ 

The conversation needs to change but you can get started today on improving simultaneously your gut and mental health. 

Here are my top four tips that I believe will help you on your way. I’m starting light but with guidance that I believe will support you best. 

Mind your gut: My 4 top tips

1. Self-care for reducing physical and psychological inflammation 

Self-care is often viewed as ‘fluffy’ or irrelevant in a world that applauds busyness, achievements and putting the hours in. We spend time everyday prioritising most other things in our life, but how often do we stop to take care of our minds and bodies?  I won’t be over prescriptive, but I encourage you to review the following researched-backed lifestyle suggestions in your daily life: 

  • Time for exercise 
  • Eating foods that support better gut and psychological health as opposed to foods that exacerbate issues i.e. high sugar, high fat, or over processed food 
  • Planning time out 
  • Creating boundaries e.g. saying no, healthy work life balance 
  • Micro moments of self-care. It could be a quick walk, a run, meditation, cooking, yoga, stretching or whatever it is that helps you switch off

2. Deactivating the state of alarm

A stressed mind is a stressed body and vice versa. The problem is, you can’t think your way out of stress when the body is in a state of alarm. Therefore, it’s important to stop and notice where you feel the stress in your body. When you do this, you can then use a few slow deep breathes to literally ‘breathe’ into the area of stress so you can help deactivate the sense of threat. Whilst doing this it can be useful to imagine being somewhere calm and relaxed as it will help with a deeper sense of relaxation. It will not only reduce gastric activity which will lower inflammation but simultaneously move your mind away from a state of threat. 

3. Speak and treat yourself as someone who matters

I hold a firm belief that no techniques, teachings, or treatments help in the long run unless you speak and treat yourself as someone who matters. Most people give themselves a really hard time. Learning to be self-compassionate is evidenced to support and improve both physical and mental wellbeing. It is the one of most important aspects of self-improvement in my experience.

4. Taking responsibility for your mind and body 

Our bodies and minds are an incredible gift. We sometimes unconsciously or consciously mistreat, disrespect, ignore, neglect, or damage them. It’s important to take responsibility for your actions, responses, and treatments of both. No one can do that for you. 

The decision to prioritise mind and body as both equals and interlinked can be an incredible step forward to a more harmonious state of being.  

I hope you take the next steps. Maybe like me, Symprove could be a great place to start.