New research suggests yes. We found out whether going with your gut could help with overcoming anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions

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Healthy gut, healthy mind? Recent research suggests that the brain-gut connection could be more complex than many originally thought.

Stress and its side-effects have long been established as some of the main contributors to poor gut health. According to Mintel , out of the 86% of Brits said to have suffered from a gastrointestinal problem in the past year, stress was seen as the most likely cause at 30%. However, new studies now point to an interesting development: boost your gut health and your mental health could also potentially reap the rewards to thereby create an overall healthier cycle for both body and mind.

“It’s been known for a while now that a state of anxiety, or long-term stress can affect our gut health,” says Joanna Lutyens, Nutritional Therapist BANT CNHC. “For example, anxiety can manifest itself as ‘butterflies in the stomach’; this being a natural response. However, this becomes an issue when stress is chronic leading to longer term imbalances in our gut health.

“More recently however, the balance of bacteria in our gut has been linked to our state of mind and mental health. There is growing research underlining this connection and also suggesting that certain strains of bacteria can help to improve anxiety, depression and stress.”

What do the studies exactly show? “A French clinical trial(1) looked at the anxiety levels and performance in participants who were under pressure. They found that a combination of the two strains of bacteria Lactobacillus acidophilus Rosell-52 and Bifidobacterium longum Rosell-175 - which can be found in the product, OptiBac Probiotics ‘For every day’ - significantly helped participants perform under pressure and perceive less stress,” explains Joanna.

“Other research has found similar connections(2,3,4). It is thought that gut bacteria influence mood in several ways including directly producing neurochemicals such as serotonin and GABA which affect our mood. They also activate neural pathways between the gut and brain, reduce inflammation which is damaging to the brain as well as reduce toxicity and improve the absorption of much needed nutrients, also vital for our mood.”

gut bacteria influence mood in several ways including directly producing neurochemicals such as serotonin and GABA

While the reasons for depression, anxiety and other mental health problems are vast and far-reaching, the new findings make for an interesting resource for sufferers looking for additional ways to strengthen defences from a physical perspective. “This is a hot topic, illustrated by the US National Institute of Mental Health spending US$1 million on researching this connection between the microbiome and brain,” says Joanna. Considering the level of investment in the area, it seems apparent that the findings are more than just a gut feeling.

MORE GLOSS: 10 ways to overcome anxiety

How to improve your gut health

Diet, lifestyle and savvy supplementation seem to be the ingredients for a healthier gut.

“Our gut health is compromised by many things prevalent in modern western life such as antibiotics, other medication, sugar, alcohol, and even stress,” says Joanna. “These all contribute towards a diminishing diversity of bacteria in our microbiome, which in turn leaves our digestive system more vulnerable to infection, dysbiosis, inflammation and intestinal permeability. This is being connected by research to many chronic diseases as well as our mental health.

“The way to safeguard our gut health from this situation is to reduce our intake of the above, including stress, as much as possible. However, what we add into our diet is as important as what we take out. ‘Clean eating’ is an excellent way of building up gut health with lots of fresh vegetables and organic meat where possible, reduction of grains and dairy and eating homemade food as much as possible. Read the labels on the foods you buy to check sugar levels too. Supplementing with a quality probiotic is also an excellent way of keeping your gut bacteria healthy, as well as other supplements and teas such as peppermint, fennel, aloe vera, and ginger which are all beneficial to gut health too.”

MORE GLOSS: Could these supplements hold the secret to a sickness-free holiday?

What makes a good probiotic?

With health food shelves seemingly overflowing with gut-boosting supplements, the probiotic is currently living in an age of prosperity. What should you look for though to ensure you’re getting the best (good) bacteria for your buck? Joanna Lutyens recommends the following:

• “When choosing a probiotic, look for a brand that is reputable. You can do this by looking for a product that is well-researched and supported with clinical trials. Customer reviews are also good evidence for the efficacy of a product.”

• “The strains of bacteria in the product are important as different strains tend to have unique actions and therefore help with varying symptoms. Check that the product contains the right strains of bacteria for you.”

teas such as peppermint, fennel, aloe vera, and ginger are all beneficial to gut health too

Our top 3 probiotic picks? Firstly, Joanna’s choice - OptiBac Probiotics, For Every Day , from £11.29, from a mental health perspective, as it contains the unique strain combination found effective for boosting daily wellbeing. Secondly, Symprove , from £79 - a firm nutritional therapist favourite as seen in this article  for those looking for relief of IBS symptoms and keeping digestive systems smoothly ticking over. Thirdly, Bio-Kult Advanced Multi-Strain , £9.49, comes with nutritionist Vicki Edgson’s seal of approval  for delivering delicate living probiotic organisms to where they’re needed most.

Whichever you choose to take though for whatever the reason, a probiotic shouldn’t be viewed as an instant solution and is best used in conjunction with the recommended lifestyle and nutrition modifications detailed above to achieve optimum results. “It’s important to manage your expectations to avoid ‘giving up’ too quickly,” Joanna says. “The body can undergo a long time of stress or compromised diet before it becomes imbalanced and in the same way, it takes time, patience and self-care to reverse this process.”

Disclaimer: Certain supplements are used for different reasons and a one-size-fits-all approach shouldn’t be adopted. In addition, pregnant women and anyone on medication should always consult a doctor before embarking on a supplements programme.

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1. Messaoudi et al., Assessment of psychotropic-like properties of a probiotic formulation (Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175) in rats and human subjects. British Journal of Nutrition, 10.1017/S0007114510004319 (note these strains have changed their names).
2. Akkasheh et al, (2015) ‘Clinical and metabolic response to probiotic administration in patients with major depressive disorder: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial’, Nutrition, September 25, 2015.
3. Lisa M. Christian, et al (2015), ‘Gut microbiome composition is associated with temperament during early childhood. Brain, Behaviour, and Immunity’, 2015; 45: 118 D.
4. Ohio State University Center for Clinical and Translational Science. "Toddler temperament could be influenced by different types of gut bacteria."  ScienceDaily, 27 May 2015 .
Reardon, S.,(2015),  Idea that intestinal bacteria affect mental health gains ground. Nature, 12 November 2014 ,