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Nutrition Blog

Gut Health For Good Mental Health

Claire Chitham

We all know the saying “we are what we eat”. Yet a far more true phrase would be to say, “we feel what we eat”. What we choose to put on our plate every day directly influences our emotional state, the way we think and the lens through which we experience the world.

That’s because vital mood communications are actually happening in our gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) - the collection of organs that runs from the mouth, through the stomach then down into our small and large intestines and finally out the rectum.

Our guts are amazing - they are home to literally more than 100 trillion bacteria, contain more than 70% of our immune system and produce 95% of our serotonin - the good mood chemical that helps us “rest and digest”.

Yep, it’s a really important piece of internal plumbing and that’s why we gotta maintain it…
every day! 


The trillions of bacteria in our gut are just one of the many different sub-sets of microbiome around our bodies. These microbiome modify and respond to our environmental conditions (ie. the food we eat, what antibiotics we might take etc).

That’s why understanding the role of the bacteria in our guts (our gut microbiome) has become one of the hottest frontiers of medical research.

We spoke to good experts Associate Professor Justin O’Sullivan and Professor Wayne Cutfield to find out a bit more about the gut microbiome. Working out of The University Of Auckland’s Liggins Institute, they are currently conducting gut bug trials and feature on Three’s show, The Good Shit.

“Fundamentally, our gut microbiome is part of us. Fifteen years ago it was assumed that our gut bacteria fed on waste in our bowels and did not really contribute to our health and well-being. In essence they were thought to be well-behaved squatters.”

According to our experts, data from mouse gut microbiome treatment studies and human association studies suggests our gut microbiome plays a much bigger role in our health, how we feel and how we behave. “Our relationship with our gut microbiome is now thought to be symbiotic, in other words we each benefit from the other, conversely either we or our gut microbiome can have a negative influence on the other."

“Within our gut these bacteria can influence how many calories we get from our food (particularly fibre), how healthy our gut is by influencing the integrity of the gut, gut immunity and inflammation. Gut bacteria produce chemicals that not only act in the gut but can pass into our bodies and into our blood stream. They can influence fat formation, inflammation in our body, diabetes risk and signal our brains. These brain signals may influence appetite and mood. Our gut microbiome may also influence our risk of bowel diseases, extra weight gain, diabetes, allergic conditions and mood disorders.”

Over the past five years, armed with a little information and a thirst for learning more, I’ve learnt a lot and now research and write as much as I can about gut health and how good gut health can support us to have healthy bodies and healthy minds. 

I’ve tested the theories out and know eating foods that look after the health of my gut and produce the “happy chemicals” I need, is the most effective tool I use to look after my mental health. 

You see, to produce and regulate serotonin, we need certain strains of good gut bacteria, such as lactobacilli and bifidobacteria. Known as probiotics, these are live organisms found in fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kombucha and coconut yoghurt and probiotic supplements.

By combining probiotics with prebiotic foods (ie. onions and leeks) - the soluble fermentable fibres that provide “the food” for probiotics - we can use the way we eat to improve our brain health, get better sleep, lose weight and, most importantly for people suffering from anxiety and depression, manage our stress response. 

Conversely, when the gut experiences an invasion (usually through eating unhealthy, highly processed foods or drinking lots of alcohol), it becomes inflamed and we literally “spring a leak”.

Our stomachs can no longer adequately absorb the nutrients from our food and our serotonin signalling gets all messed up, kicking our “fight or flight” response into overdrive. 

In the early days of experiencing “full-on” anxiety, I was eating a high-carb diet full of sugar, supplemented with caffeine. Never one to drink a lot of alcohol, sugar was my vice and it had me in an iron grip. Especially if I’d finished a story or met an important deadline (hello, chocolate brownie!).

When I felt anxious, I ate something sugary and it caused an excitable surge of serotonin and other delightful neurotransmitters, but just as quickly as I rose, I fell. 

Every time I did this, little did I know, but I was further eroding the health of my gut microbiome and making my anxiety that much worse. 

By contrast, today I’m much more mindful. I think about the way my food has been grown, what it’s been sprayed with and the environments in which I choose to live and work in. 

I eat unprocessed, organic food because I know there’s no toxic sprays, such as glyphosate (the chemical in Round-Up), which one study suggests may be the reason for the rise of digestive disorders in the western world, such as Celiacs disease.

Other stuff I do to keep my gut health in check is eliminating dairy and gluten because both are allergens for me, eating fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, daily and kicking off my morning with a shot of apple cider vinegar in water.

It’s also why I regularly have bone broth because it helps heal and seal the gut.

Today, food choices remain one of the primary ways I manage my anxiety. Often when I get that all-too-familiar-feeling of butterflies in my stomach then I know maybe I haven’t had enough probiotics so I heap a big spoonful of sauerkraut into my mouth. I hope you’ll start to do it to!

Yours In Health and Happiness, KB xx

Tune into The Good Shit, Tuesdays in October @ 9pm or get it on demand.

For more on the good gut health work happening at the Liggins Institute, head here.


Five top tips to support good gut health:

  • Ditch the processed sugar and carbohydrates

  • Choose organic whole foods that aren’t sprayed with chemicals, such as glyphosate

  • Eat a few tablespoons of fermented foods every day. We love Be Nourished raw, organic sauerkraut. (Good tip: Choose your fermented foods from the ones stocked in the fridge at the supermarket - any shelf stable fermented food is likely to have preservatives in it.)

  • If you need more support, add in powerful probiotics, such as coconut kefir, and make sure you are eating enough prebiotics, such as onions and leeks. These foods contain the fibre that helps feed probiotic bacteria

  • Get bone broth into your food any way you can - drink it, add it to your dinners