If you found this article because you are experiencing symptoms of depression, inform your doctor as soon as possible.
Over the years, a few small studies have pointed to the possibility that depression might be linked to imbalances in the gut microbiome. These studies were met with doubt, because the connection between gut health and mental health is still fairly unclear.
In a more thorough study, a research team from China analyzed stool samples from over 300 people with major depressive disorder (MDD) and compared them with fecal samples of healthy controls.
The researchers were able to identify over 40 specific bacteria, 3 specific viruses, and 50 metabolites that were associated with MDD. They were able to determine specific microbiome patterns that they could accurately identify as a sample from a participant with MDD vs. a healthy participant from the control group.
This research is important because MDD can be severely debilitating or even fatal, and current treatment options are not 100% effective.
While we are a long road away from diagnosing mental conditions with a stool sample and coming up with a microbiome-centered treatment plan, it’s a good idea for overall health to give your gut some love. Being mindful of your microbiome means doing everything you can to ensure your microbiome has strong, diverse colonies of beneficial microbes and minimal harmful ones.
Here are some things to keep in mind if you want a happy gut.
- Eat a wide range of foods. Different gut microbes like different things, so making sure they’re all fed and happy can go a long way toward balancing the colonies in your microbiome.
- Avoid antibiotic overuse. Antibiotics have their place, but keep in mind that when you have to wipe out the bad, you’re probably wiping out some of the good, too. Use antibiotics when you have to, but talk to your doctor to determine if the course is absolutely necessary. Cut your foot in the river? Antibiotics are probably a good idea. Mild case of the sniffles? Ask your doctor if it’s better to try to ride it out. Of course, always defer to your doctor’s advice over what you read on the internet.
- Focus on fiber. A lot of beneficial species thrive on resistant starch, which is one type of fiber. Give them what they want!
- Add fermented foods. Yogurt, kimchi, kefir, and pickled vegetables could contain beneficial strains, and these tangy foods make great additions to your meals.
- Sleep. More and more evidence is showing that poor sleep affects gut health. So stop the mindless scrolling, and save some streaming episodes for tomorrow. Aim to get to bed at the same time every night so that you can set your circadian rhythm up for success.
While these practices won’t cure or prevent severe mental conditions, a strong gut microbiome could support overall health, and that includes mental health. The best approach is to align your diet, movement, and lifestyle practices so that you can be your strongest self in the face of adversity, both physical and mental.
And as always, ask for support when you feel that it would be helpful. There’s no shame in running something by your doctor or therapist when you suspect that something’s not quite right. No matter is too small—if it concerns you, it’s worth bringing up to your doctor or therapist.