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Can gut health affect mental health?

Samantha Wild
Clinical Lead for Women's Health and Bupa GP
12 April 2022
Next review due April 2025

It’s thought that gut health can affect lots of different aspects of your health. Here I’ll explain what gut health means, what is meant by ‘good’ bacteria and how your gut and brain might be connected.


What is meant by gut health?

The term ‘gut health’ refers to how well your digestive system is working. Your digestive system is also known as your gastrointestinal (GI) tract or your gut. Your gut is where your body digests food, absorbs energy and nutrients, and gets rid of waste products. It includes your throat, food pipe, stomach and intestines.

Your gut contains trillions of tiny bacteria and other microorganisms. But unlike harmful bacteria that can make you ill, the natural bacteria found in your gut are good for you. This is because they help to break down the food you eat. They might also support your immune system (your body’s way of fighting off infections).

You might also hear the bacteria in your gut called good bacteria, friendly bacteria, gut flora, microorganisms, microbiota or microbes.

What can affect my gut health?

There are lots of things that can change the balance of bacteria within your gut. This includes:

  • taking certain antibiotics 
  • having food poisoning 
  • having a health condition such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • having travellers’ diarrhoea
  • getting older

How can I improve my gut health?

One of the best things you can do to look after your gut is to eat a balanced and varied diet. Try to include lots of fruits, vegetables and wholegrains.

Probiotics

Some people also take probiotics to try and improve their gut health. Probiotics are ‘live’ bacteria found in some yoghurts and yoghurt drinks. They’re also found in fermented foods such as kefir, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso and tempeh. They’re also available as a supplement.

If you do choose to take probiotics, it’s important to know that there are lots of different types (strains). Not all probiotic products or supplements are made or work in the same way. If you’re a healthy person, taking probiotics is generally considered safe. But they may not be suitable if you have problems with your immune system, so speak to a GP before trying them.

Prebiotics

You can also include prebiotics in your diet. Prebiotics are a type of fibre that can’t be digested by your body. Instead, they feed the good bacteria in your gut and help them to grow. Prebiotics are found naturally in onions, garlic, asparagus, artichoke, chicory and bananas. They’re also available as a supplement.

Are gut health and mental health related?

Yes. There is a link between your gut and your brain. This is sometimes known as the mind-gut connection, the brain-gut connection, or the gut-brain axis.

Maybe you find that if you feel anxious or stressed you experience gut symptoms yourself. You might lose your appetite, get pain in your tummy, or experience diarrhoea. Research has also shown that some digestive conditions, such as IBS, are linked with both anxiety and depression.

Can probiotics help my mental health?

We don’t know yet. Some studies suggest that changing your gut bacteria could influence your mood. Many of these studies use probiotics to change the type or number of gut bacteria people have. But there‘s not enough evidence that probiotics are helpful in treating or preventing any mental health conditions just yet.

If you’re struggling with your mental health it’s very important to speak to a GP who can offer you advice and support.


If you’re worried about your mental health, our direct access service aims to provide you with the advice, support and treatment you need as quickly as possible. If you’re covered by your health insurance, you’ll be able to get mental health advice and support usually without the need for a GP referral. Learn more today.

Samantha Wild
Dr Samantha Wild
Clinical Lead for Women's Health and Bupa GP

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    • The Gut Microbiome in Integrative Gastroenterology. Integrative Gastroenterology. Oxford Medicine Online. www.oxfordmedicine.com, published March 2020
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    • Give your friendly gut bacteria a helping hand. British Dietetic Association. www.bda.uk.com, published 5 September 2019
    • Healthy Eating: Food Fact Sheet. British Dietetic Association. www.bda.uk.com, published 29 January 2021
    • Fermented foods. British Dietetic Association. www.bda.uk.com, published 1 October 2019
    • Anxiety. Young Minds. www.youngminds.org.uk, accessed 5 April 2022
    • Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Anxiety UK. www.anxietyuk.org.uk, accessed 5 April 2022
    • Cheung SG, Goldenthal AR, Uhlemann AC et al. Systematic review of gut microbiota and major depression. Frontiers in psychiatry 2019; 10: 34 doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00034
    • Yang B, Wei J et al. Effects of regulating intestinal microbiota on anxiety symptoms: a systematic review. General psychiatry 2019; 32(2) doi: 10.1136/gpsych-2019-100056


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