Good Gut = Healthier Brain + Happier Life

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Doing the work to maintain our mental health can sometimes feel too challenging as we try to balance the demands of everyday life – whether related to work, family, or an unforeseen furnace issue.

Living a healthy lifestyle, through physical activity, eating healthily and maintaining our social lives, can feel like an added burden.

However, those aspects of our lives are critically important for both our physical and our mental health. That’s because they all play a role in reducing inflammation. 

When stress is severe and chronic, an inflammatory cycle can develop in the brain. Ultimately, that inflammation can cause changes in how the brain is structured and how it functions. This increases our risk for physical illness, as well.

This post will cover how a good gut = healthier brain. 

Turn your gut into a mental health superhero

There are several steps we can take to boost our immune system, but one we seldom think of is actually critically important: maintaining a healthy gut microbiome.

The bacteria that make up our gut microbiome are the unsung heroes of mental health.

In fact, these healthy bacteria, which live inside the gut, play a crucial role in both physical and brain health. 

You can take charge of your own gut biome, so your heroic gut bacteria can do their best work. 

Good gut = healthier brain. Here are some simple tips for feeding your gut bacteria, and turning it into a superhero in your health journey: 

  • Stay well hydrated, especially by drinking lots of water. 
  • Keep your consumption of carbohydrates, such as alcohol, bread, cereal, rice, pasta and simple sugars, as low as possible. I know how good these all taste, and thus make us feel, but they drive both unwanted weight gain and inflammation. 
  • Eat tons of vegetables – and some fruit is good too. That’s because vegetables are generally more nutrient dense and contain more fibre and fewer calories. However, fruit contains more antioxidants and consumption of both has been associated with lower mortality.
  • Eat healthy fats, which actually support weight maintenance vs. carbs, which promote weight gain. Good fats (AKA unsaturated fats) also lower the risk of heart disease and include fish, nuts, seeds and vegetable oils (olive, canola, sunflower).
  • Consider shifting towards a Mediterranean diet. Plant-based foods, such as whole grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices, are the foundation of the diet. Olive oil is the main source of added fat, while fish and other seafood, dairy and poultry are eaten in moderation. Red meat is eaten less often in a Mediterranean diet. 
  • Most store-bought probiotics have little or no evidence for their effectiveness. However, probiotic foods that are high in fibre are great for your gut microbiome. While sauerkraut isn’t to everyone’s taste, other foods such as yoghurt, pickles, olives and miso are known to support a healthy gut microbiome. 
  • Aim to get 6-8 hours sleep a night. Sufficient sleep reduces inflammation, improves brain function and reduces risk of dementia. 
  • Be physically active every day. Just 30 minutes a day of mild to moderate intensity physical activity promotes the growth of new brain cells and protects against anxiety and depression. Regular exercise also combats immunosenescence, the immune system’s gradual deterioration as the body ages, and heightens the ability to fight off infections.
  • As much as possible, try to eat as a family. If you’re a parent raising young children, communal eating is generally healthier and also creates opportunities to share ideas, teach critical thinking and communication skills and build stronger bonds.

Why being healthy matters to everyone

Working towards a healthier lifestyle has impacts beyond just one person. Healthier lifestyles support a healthier society,  reducing the load on our health care system and improving workplaces by reducing absenteeism and long-term disability. 

If you’re wondering about how to change your approach to eating and other lifestyle choices, there are many excellent websites, including by the Dieticians of Canada or your provincial health information website, such as HealthLinkBC.

If you have employee benefits, they may cover a consultation with a nutritionist or personal trainer.

Finding an accountability partner, someone who wants to make similar changes, can help you to keep on track, as you help them to do the same.

Most importantly, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Taking small steps, especially earlier on your journey, might mean you’re more likely to stick with your plan. You’ll be making a long-term investment that can pay real dividends for your mental and physical health.

This blog post is part of a series looking at the state of our mental healthcare system and ways we can create sustainable change to improve quality and outcomes for anyone impacted by mental illness. 

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