A healthy gut can lead to improved mood, reduced stress and better overall mental health.

Did you know that there is a two-way communication pathway directly between your gut (your stomach) and your brain? This gut-brain pathway or axis plays a key role in many aspects of our health, including digestion, metabolism, immunity and our mental health. Keeping your gut healthy is therefore an important secret to ensuring your overall health.

How does it work?

The gut flora is made up of trillions of bacteria that live in the gut and play a key role in the gut-brain axis. It produces a variety of neurotransmitters and other signalling molecules that communicate with the brain.

The gut flora also influences the immune system. When the gut flora is imbalanced, it can lead to inflammation, which has been linked to several chronic conditions including mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.

What the research says

A number of recent studies have investigated the link between the gut-brain axis and mental health. For example, a 2022 study published in the journal Nature Communications found that people with depression had lower levels of certain types of bacteria in their gut. It also found that giving probiotics, which are live bacteria good for the gut, to people with depression improved their depressive symptoms.

Another study, published in 2023 in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, found that people with anxiety had higher levels of inflammation in their gut. It also found that giving probiotics to people with anxiety reduced their anxiety symptoms.

Both these studies suggest that the gut flora plays a vital role in the development and treatment of mental health conditions.

How to improve your gut and brain health

There are a number of things you can do to improve the overall health of your gut and brain:

  • Eat a healthy diet. A healthy diet includes plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains to improve gut health. It is also important to limit processed foods, sugary drinks and unhealthy fats, which negatively affect the flora in your gut.
  • Get regular exercise. Exercise helps to reduce inflammation and improve gut health.
  • Manage stress. Stress can disrupt the gut flora and lead to inflammation.
  • Take prebiotics and probiotics. Together, these help to grow the friendly bacteria in the gut and can be found in certain foods (see below). While it’s better to take these in the form of food, you can also use good-quality supplements.

Top foods that help you heal your gut

  • Fermented foods: Fermented foods such as yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi contain probiotics. Maize, sorghum and millet are also commonly fermented across Africa. To try a delicious Ogi Uji porridge recipe, click here.
  • Prebiotic foods: Prebiotic foods are foods that contain fibre that cannot be digested by humans. Prebiotics feed the probiotics in the gut. Good sources of prebiotics include fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Soups and broths: Soups and broths are easy to digest and can help to soothe the gut.
  • Bone broth: Bone broth is a good source of collagen, which can help to heal the gut lining.
  • Leafy green vegetables: Leafy green vegetables are packed with nutrients, including vitamins A, C and K. They are also a good source of fibre.

Worst foods for your gut

  • Processed foods: Processed foods are often high in unhealthy fats, sugar and salt. They are also low in nutrients and fibre.
  • Sugary drinks: Sugary drinks, such as soda and juice, can contribute to inflammation and disrupt the gut flora.
  • Unhealthy fats: Unhealthy fats, such as saturated and trans fats, can increase inflammation and damage the gut lining.
  • Artificial sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners have been linked to gut dysbiosis, or an imbalance in the gut flora.

By following these tips, you can improve the health of your gut and brain.