“Think with your gut.” “Gut instinct.” “Feel it in your gut.”
We use these terms and phrases in our everyday conversations all the time. But did you know that your brain and gastrointestinal (GI) system really are closely connected? In fact, as shared in a Healthline article, scientific research has highlighted many connections between gut health, the microbiome, and mental health symptoms and conditions such as anxiety, depression, mood disorders, and bipolar disorder.
This is significant when you consider 15.7% of adolescents ages 12-17 experienced at least one major depressive episode in 2019, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Your teen’s mental health is being affected by their gut health, and it’s important that you learn how gut health and mental health are connected and how you can improve both in your child.
This article sets you up for success by exploring the connection between gut microbiomes and mental health. We also look into how making certain dietary changes and using probiotics can promote a healthy gut and help your teen feel better and think clearer.
How Gut Microbiomes May Affect Mental Health
“In our society, we tend to compartmentalize things and unfortunately look at things too narrowly,” said Rob Gent, Embark Behavioral Health’s chief clinical officer. “Mental and emotional health in adolescents — and young adults, for that matter — need to be looked at holistically by assessing what’s going on in the whole body.”
One area that deserves special notice is the gut-brain axis (GBA), the pathway between the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system, the part of the nervous system that orchestrates gastrointestinal behavior independently of the central nervous system.
Sometimes referred to as the “second brain,” the GBA links the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with surrounding gut functions. Research suggests that gut microbiota, or all the microorganisms that live in your digestive tract, influence the interactions in the GBA.
While some of these microorganisms are harmful, others protect against harmful pathogens, produce vitamins, enhance your metabolism, and aid in digestion. Sometimes, however, problems can occur that create an imbalance between the beneficial and harmful microorganisms in the gut microbiome.
The cells that form a barrier in the intestinal lining, for instance, may have weakening bonds and gaps, resulting in what is called a “leaky gut.” This allows harmful bacteria and toxins to enter the bloodstream and flow to other parts of the body, including the brain.
Because the gut microbiome is connected to the brain and every major organ of the body by the vagal nerve, what affects your gut can influence your physical health and your mental health. For example, according to a study published in 2018 in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, gut microbiota abnormalities can directly induce mental health conditions such as depression. In addition, a review of 21 studies conducted by researchers at Shanghai Mental Health Center found that in most of the studies, regulating intestinal microbiota had a positive effect on anxiety symptoms.
Determining If Your Child Has a Gastrointestinal Disorder
Your child may be showing issues with their GI tract that are affecting their emotional and mental well-being. According to the American College of Gastroenterology, the most common pediatric functional GI condition is abdominal pain. This pain is recurrent, is often in the middle of the abdomen, and commonly results in a child missing school and other activities.
If your teen is experiencing such symptoms, a physician can take a physical exam and detailed history to help determine the cause. Screening tests, including tests on blood, urine, and stools, as well as imaging of the abdomen through X-rays or ultrasounds, may be involved.
It’s often helpful for your child to keep a “symptom diary.” Symptom diaries can track a variety of data, including what they ate and drank each day, the activities they participated in, the consistency of their stools, and their mental state. This promotes better communication between your teen and your doctor and provides valuable information about treatment.
Depending on what the tests reveal, your child may need to make certain lifestyle changes. For instance, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder affecting the large intestine that causes cramping, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and/or constipation. Based on the severity, those diagnosed with this disorder may need to control their symptoms with medication. In other cases, the diagnosis may be less severe, and you can help your child improve their gut health through dietary changes, for example, by going gluten- and dairy-free, if that is recommended.
What Parents Can Do To Promote Better Gut and Mental Health
While seeing your teenager in mental or emotional distress can be alarming, the link between gut and mental health offers parents a way to help their children feel better not only through seeking treatment and therapy but also through healthy eating. Keep the following strategies in mind.
Make healthier diet and lifestyle decisions
Adopting a healthier diet improves overall well-being and gut health, leading to a better gut-brain connection and improved mental health. A Harvard Medical School article examining how food affects the way we feel offered several suggestions for a healthier gut and improved mood, including eating whole foods, fiber, seafoods, lean poultry, and fresh fruits and vegetables.
Meanwhile, packaged and processed foods like microwave meals should be avoided, as they contain food additives and preservatives, which disrupt the healthy bacteria in the gut. Sugar intake should also be limited. For example, your teen could eat oatmeal with fruit and cinnamon instead of prepackaged breakfast cereals.
In a Healthline article about probiotics, Dr. Asim Shah, professor and executive vice chair in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine, said, “there’s a lot of hope that we’ll be able to use probiotics down the road to treat anxiety or depression, maybe even as a first-line treatment.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, good probiotic sources include fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kombucha, and kimchi.
While probiotics are also available as dietary supplements, keep in mind that the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate supplements. If, after addressing your teen’s diet, you’re considering adding supplements, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative health recommends consulting with a health care provider first.
Despite the potential benefits of probiotics, Gent said, “The most effective means of creating gut health and overall health is to eat a diet filled with whole food, plant-based diversity.”
Encouraging teenagers to eat healthier
Improving your teen’s mental health by improving their gut health might sound good, but it can be difficult to get teenagers to adopt healthy habits and turn those habits into a genuine lifestyle change. So, how can parents get their child to follow a dietary plan on a regular basis?
One of the best ways to promote healthy eating habits is to have the whole family follow good dietary practices. Purchasing more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole foods for everyone to consume while reducing the number of soft drinks and processed foods you purchase allows your entire household to promote a healthier lifestyle.
The problem with eating a standard American diet (SAD) is that the high fats, complex carbs, and sugars become addictive, and the discomfort felt by eating these food is combated by wanting to eat more of them.
Likewise, eating healthy meals together as a family shows your teenager that consuming a healthy diet is a normal practice that everyone should take part in. And since this helps promote a healthy gut in all family members, everyone benefits.
Final Thoughts to Consider
Dealing with mental health issues is always concerning. However, discovering the connection between mental health and gut health helps you be more proactive when helping your teenager through struggles with depression, anxiety, and other mental and emotional conditions.
Along with treatment and therapy, providing your child with a diet that improves the gut-brain connection can result in many benefits to your child’s mental health and overall well-being so they can lead healthier, more meaningful lives.