Your gut health can affect your happiness.

The billions of tiny organisms living in your gastrointestinal tract could be affecting your mental health.

Research into the human gut microbiome, and the connections it has to our health, has been a hot area for science for the last decade or more. Ecosystems of bacteria, yeast, viruses and protozoa consisting of thousands of species and trillions of organisms living in and on our bodies have been found to be necessary for human survival. Among the roles they play are: helping digest food, producing byproducts that are vitamins or neurotransmitters, helping fight off pathogenic microbes, and being necessary in building and strengthening our immune system. These important roles make it easy to imagine that the microbiome could be linked to a number of health problems if it was not a healthily functioning system. In fact, research has linked the health of the microbiome to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and more. Perhaps the most unexpected link to human health has been between the microbiome and mental health.

The mental health disorders that are being investigated for their ties to the gut microbiome include depression, anxiety, and related psychosis. Understanding the gut-brain-axis can help make sense of the potential for activity in our gut to impact the workings of our brain. Two-way communication between the gut and the brain exists, and it is thought that the gut microbiome is able to influence brain function through its roles in the immune system, the endocrine system, the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, neurotransmitter pathways, and growth factors. Basically, the chemical signals and the metabolic byproducts produced by these microbial organisms, as well as the physical interaction that occurs between them and human cells have the side effect of being able to communicate with our brain.

Knowing that there is a connection between the microbes residing in our gut and our mental health is interesting, but what would be more interesting is knowing how we can influence our gut to affect our mental health in positive ways. Scientist are very interested in answering questions such as this one, and they are working towards that understanding around the world. While the jury is still out on how to influence these interactions in specific and definitive ways, there are a number of things that clearly affect the health of the gut microbiome in both positive and negative ways. Here are three general guidelines to supporting a healthy microbiome:

1. Reduce the use of antibiotics and antibacterial products

We have mounted a war on microbes. We are over-prescribed antibiotics, and we use antibacterial products with ubiquity. While antibiotics have been, and continue to be, necessary for fighting off illness, they have the side effect of killing off beneficial bacteria in our gut. It is commonly known that antibiotic use often causes yeast infections. This is the result of the population of bacteria that keep the yeast in check being killed by the antibiotic. It is important to avoid taking antibiotics when it isn’t critical for the benefit of your microbiome.

2. Educate yourself about vaccinations

There are examples of pathogenic bacteria that reside in healthy individuals in low numbers. Vaccines created to kill these bacteria have the potential for unexpected side effects when those species are removed from microbial communities in healthy individuals. One is example is the vaccine for pneumococal disease to prevent pneumonia. While this is clearly a benefit, it is known that Streptococcus pneumoniae resides in healthy individuals and is a competitor of Staphylococcus aureus, which causes staph infections (including MRSA). It is important to educate yourself about optional vaccines, to understand the potential side-effects, and to take steps to support your microbiome surrounding vaccination.

3. Diet

Our Western high-fat, high-sugar, high-processed diet has a profound effect on the microbiome and its metabolic activity such as reducing the production neurotransmitters such as serotonin and GABA. These neurotransmitters, and other, are needed to maintain mental health. Much of the beneficial microbiota found in our gut thrives on plant-based energy sources. Eating a high fiber diet, rich in fruits and vegetables is thought to support and healthy gut microbiome.