How to Improve Mood and Cognition Through Gut Microbiome Health - Yuri A/Shutterstock

Gut microbiome health is directly related to mental health and cognition, according to Amy Shah, MD, a double board-certified medical doctor and wellness expert specializing in allergy and immunology, hormones, and gut health in Glendale, Arizona. Emerging research suggests that altering the gut microbiome could be revolutionary for the treatment of complex mental health disorders.

“The possibilities are just endless,” said Shah at the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine Annual Conference in San Diego, Calif. “We're not just talking about digestion and nutrients, which are super Important; we're talking about changing your entire mental health, changing how you're feeling at this particular moment, your cravings, your desires, the people you interact with.”

It’s no surprise that mood and the gut microbiome are connected. Shah explained that dopamine and serotonin are largely produced in the gut, and through various methods such as neurotransmitters, hormones, and short-chain fatty acids, the gut and the brain are in constant communication.

The gut microbiome has a role in mental health and brain disorders like depression, ADHD, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and even schizophrenia. According to Shah, studies have shown distinct differences between the gut microbiomes of patients with mental health disorders like schizophrenia. In experiments, when mice were given fecal transplants from humans with schizophrenia, they began to exhibit characteristics of the disorder, reinforcing the connection between the gut and brain functions.

Over time, the number of human gut microbes has decreased. Research indicates that we have at least 50 percent less biodiversity in our microbiome than the microbiome from our ancestors 1000s of years ago, said Shah. She explained that antibiotics, pesticides, and modern lifestyles have diminished the diversity and strength of our gut microbiomes, potentially contributing to the increasing rates of mental health conditions.

“We have a huge and robust army protecting the insides of our body, but in our modern world, we are both purposefully and inadvertently killing this army,” said Shah. “We have at least 50 percent fewer microbial species than our ancestors. That thick layer of protective cells is now just half.”

The future of gut microbiome research is endless, but much remains unknown, and fecal transplants for mental health disorders are still in the beginning stages of trials. In the meantime, simple diet and lifestyle changes have proven benefits for gut microbiome health and overall health and well-being.

"We know that these work,” said Shah. “Through improving the gut microbiome, we can actually change your mood, cognition, cravings, disease risk, body, and athleticism." For better gut health, Shah suggested:

Increase Fiber Intake: Microbes feed on fiber. Consuming 30 different types of plant fibers weekly can help enhance the gut microbiome.

Consume Fermented Foods: Two to four servings daily of natural probiotics found in foods with live bacteria, like yogurt and kimchi, is excellent for gut health. “The products with live bacteria in America have to do labels, making it easy.”

Eat foods with polyphenols: Foods rich in polyphenols, such as blueberries, teas, and spices, can increase biodiversity in the gut microbiome.

Exercise: Regular physical activity can boost gut health and benefit the brain. "Exercise is the best probiotic you can be using. With exercise, the gut bacteria proliferate.”

Increase intake of Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to be very helpful in improving gut and brain health.”

Add prebiotics to diet: Foods containing prebiotics, a special type of fiber, like artichokes and asparagus, help support beneficial gut bacteria.

Circadian Rhythms and Intermittent Fasting: Maintaining regular eating and sleeping schedules and incorporating intermittent fasting can benefit the gut-brain connection. “Our gut needs rest. We are short-changing our gut-brain connection just by eating all the time. Patients should be fasting 12 hours a day.”

Limit Harmful Substances: Reducing the intake of pesticides, harmful emulsifiers, and unnecessary antibiotics can prevent unnecessary harm to the gut.  

Editor's note: This article is part of our live coverage of the 2023 Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine Conference. Click here for a list of full coverage.