Is your mental health on the decline? You’ve got to do more than just being gentle with your mind—you should also give your gut extra TLC.

“The gut-brain axis has been known to us for a very long time. It’s how the gut communicates with the brain and allows it to control the digestive processes,” explains Dr Melvin Look, the director or PanAsia Surgery and a consultant surgeon in gastrointestinal, laparoscopic and obesity surgery.

Otherwise known as the enteric nervous system (ENS), this axis is made up of more than a hundred million nerve cells that line the gastrointestinal tract from esophagus to rectum. It forms the largest network of nerves outside of the brain and acts as an independent ‘second brain’ within our gut.

What’s the connection?

“It’s only recently that we are beginning to understand how the ENS mediates multiple signals to the brain from the gut and even the intestinal microbiota,” says Dr Look.

He shares that poor gut health can affect our mood and emotions because of the gut-brain axis, and that it can trigger or exacerbate anxiety and depression. It can also affect other psychiatric and neurologic disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, autism spectrum disorders and schizophrenia.

That said, gut issues aren’t the main cause of poor mental health. Not usually anyway.

“Gut issues are rarely the primary and only cause of a person’s anxiety or depression, but it can be a significant contributory factor. There is a good number of scientific data to suggest that we should treat the gut as well when we treat patients for anxiety and depression,” he adds.

“Our emotions and mental health are intimately linked to the digestion system by the gut-brain axis. Many digestive problems can be worsened by stress and emotions. There are also specific functional gut disorders that are due to problems in gut-brain interaction that leads to impaired motility of the bowel or hypersensitivity to pain.”

How to care for your gut

Keeping your gut healthy can make a whole lot of difference to your well-being.

“A healthy gut has an impact on our bodies beyond the digestive processes. For example, our gut barrier helps to regulate many immune and allergy functions. It also connects with the brain to affect our mood and energy metabolism,” says Dr Look.

He stresses that a key thing you can do to achieve that is to have plant-based balanced diet with high vegetable and fibre content. You should also avoid excessive red meat, alcohol and tobacco.

Try exercising and meditating to reduce stress, and consuming foods such as yoghurt and sauerkraut to ensure a regular intake of probiotics or probiotic. If you want to be able do both efficiently, include synbiotics to your diet—these supplements contain a combination of probiotics and prebiotics.

And make sure that you don’t suffer from leaky gut, a condition that is very much preventable.

“This medical condition increases permeability in the intestines, allowing substances such as undigested food particles, toxins, waste and bacteria to pass from the gut and into our body’s blood stream,” he explains.

“You can prevent this sort of disruption to our gut barrier by avoiding foods such as refined carbohydrates, sugar, processed meats, fats, seed oils and grains.”

So don’t just work on a healthier mind, but also a healthier gut, OK?