We’ve heard these sayings: “Trust your gut.” “I have a gut feeling.”
\But what does the gut have to do with emotions and mental health? Plenty, said the founder of a digital therapeutics company. Digbi Health founder and CEO Ranjan Sinha told InsuranceNewsNet that maintaining a healthy gut is the key to help lift brain fog and improve overall mental health.
Anxiety, depression and insomnia are what Sinha called “whisper illnesses” that take a toll on focus, productivity and motivation — often known as the combination of malaise and exhaustion that we call brain fog.
“We are seeing about 40% of the population we deal with is on antidepressant or antianxiety medication,” he said. “And in most cases, mental health is a part of some other comorbidity. We see high numbers of people who are dealing with mental health and dealing with a digestive disorder, such as irritable bowel syndrome. And we see people with mental health issues who also are dealing with obesity. We call digestive health, mental health and obesity issues ‘whisper illnesses’ because there often is a stigma associated with them and people don’t want to talk about them.”
Changing your diet and focusing on gut health may help alleviate some of these symptoms, Sinha said. He cited studies suggesting that the human gut microbiome is responsible for the synthesis and metabolism of critical neurotransmitters and hormones such as serotonin. This forms what he called “a gut-brain axis” where the gut is a factor in someone’s mood and emotions.
Nearly all of the body’s serotonin, also known as the mood stabilizing hormone, is produced in the gut, Sinha said, with gut bacteria playing a role in the production of that hormone. People who experience depression and brain fog typically have low serotonin levels.
“The gut and the brain are highly interlinked,” he said. “And we have always known it instinctively. We call it a gut instinct, when we feel anxious, we feel queasy in the stomach. And there is a very clear physiological connection between the brain and the gut, through the vagus nerve. So it’s not surprising that when you’re anxious, your bowel becomes more irritable, or if your gut health is not adequate, you may not have enough serotonin to keep your mood and your anxiety in control.”
Sinha said that although many people who experience anxiety and related issues are prescribed antidepressants, the drugs often don’t heal the root causes of the disorders. He presented a research paper to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration showing that improving the body’s gut microbiome — or the “good” bacteria living in the digestive tract — led to a reduction in generalized anxiety or depression in 68% of the research participants.
How do you improve your gut health? Sinha listed three main ways.
1. Consume probiotics and whole foods.
The preservatives and additives in processed foods might make them taste better and stay fresh longer, but they play havoc with the digestive system’s microbiome, he said. Eating fresh, unprocessed foods is a way of replenishing the good bacteria.
But variety is the spice of life where the microbiome is concerned, he cautioned. Thousands of different types of bacteria live in the microbiome. Eating a diet limited to only a few types of fruits, vegetables or whole grains does not add to the diversity of that bacteria. “So it’s really important to maintain a diversity of consumption versus eating only lettuce and spinach every day,” he said.
2. Identify diet deficiencies and food sensitivities.
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can have an influence on brain fog, with vitamin B12, vitamin D and iron most likely to be lacking in someone who is experiencing it, Sinha said. Food sensitivities, such as gluten intolerance, lead to inflammation in the body, leaving one with a foggy brain.
A blood test can reveal a vitamin or mineral deficiency, he said. Taking a supplement can help relieve the deficiency, he said, but a more effective way of dealing with it is to make modifications to the food you already eat to make sure you add more sources of the vitamin or mineral into your existing diet.
Food sensitivities can be tricky to diagnose, but the most common food sensitivities are to lactose, casein (a protein found in milk) and gluten. Eliminating a potentially sensitive food from your diet for a period of time can help determine whether food sensitivity is contributing to your brain fog.
3. Intermittent fasting.
Intermittent fasting — an eating pattern where you cycle between periods of fasting and eating — is a popular health and fitness trend. Sinha said intermittent fasting gives your digestive system a rest while contributing to greater brain health and clarity.
“Every time you take a bite of food, your body must produce insulin,” he said. “Because the body has to deal with the food that you’re eating, break it down, convert it into energy — that’s a fundamental role of why we eat food. So if you’re eating five times a day, that’s five times when your insulin is spiking. And insulin takes time to come back to normal levels. What intermittent fasting does is maximize the time where your body has the right insulin level.”
Sinha said intermittent fasting goes back to the early days of human existence, when humans usually ate only once a day. “It’s aligning our eating habits to what the instruction manual of our chemical factory is, so the chemical factory tends to operate better.”
“Comfort foods” are familiar foods we crave when we are sad, and those foods typically are high in fats or carbohydrates. But Sinha said comfort foods don’t have to be bad for the body’s gut microbiome.
“In many cultures, potatoes or rice are considered comfort foods but because they are high in carbohydrates, many of us consider them to be unhealthy,” he said. “But they actually contain a form of starch called resistant starch. The body does not metabolize it but it is a form of starch that your gut bacteria needs.”