Gut-brain link: Why poor digestion and mental health are intertwined

Gut-brain link: Why poor digestion and mental health are intertwined

Many of us are often quick to dismiss that what may be going on on the inside is having an effect on our mental health. Well, it’s no myth.

Of the one-third of Aussies who suffer from chronic digestive problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), women experience the highest rates of anxiety and depression.

What most people don’t know is that chronic stress and anxiety are the main drivers for many chronic digestive conditions, and that’s why more women need to educate themselves on the correlation between gut health and mental health.

Research has shown that one in six Australian women will experience depression during their lifetime. It’s a sobering statistic and lends weight to the need for women to press pause, focus on their gut and in doing so assist their mental health.

This is something that I teach my patients almost every day.

The mind-gut connection: What you need to know

Chronic digestive issues may not seem like a big deal, but the butterfly effect they can have on our quality of life – for example, interfering with healthy eating habits – must be recognised.

When food is poorly digested it sits in the digestive tract for quite a long time, resulting in the body being unable to process and assimilate nutrients where they need to go, extracting all of the healthy supplements.

When our body is unable to digest food, the nerves in the intestine talk constantly with the brain (a process known as neurotransmission). When the brain believes something is wrong, your stomach may feel it.

I often explain to my patients that’s why you feel butterflies when you’re nervous or nausea if you’re really panicked. This is due to what is known as the mind-gut connection — the intimate link between the brain and our gastrointestinal systems.

What are the symptoms of an unhealthy mind-gut connection?

The mind-gut connection is more prevalent than many people realise, and it can have negative impacts on our mind and body long-term if not properly dealt with.

When we are under stress or our nervous system is triggered, we experience metabolic dysfunction.

I’m seeing an increase in patients presenting with a range of gut-related symptoms such as bloating, constipation, heartburn and leaky gut, and they all have anxiety or depression – sometimes both.

This is just one effect of the mind-gut connection. The other is an increased risk of poor mental health.

Think of your gut and brain as dance partners, both responding to each other’s movements across the busy dance floor. They’re partners operating in a give-and-take cycle. Essentially, when your gut is unhappy, your brain is unhappy and vice versa.

How you can nourish the gut-brain connection

Ensuring you have a healthy gut should be the first step when it comes to looking after your mind and body.

This deep connection between the brain and gut means that when you prioritise your gut health, it’s easier to maintain your mental health and holistically for perimenopause and menopause.

It’s not uncommon for women to shrug off these symptoms, but as a wellness practitioner I’d warn against it. It’s vital to pay attention to your body and listen to what it’s telling you.

I recommend using your symptoms as signals — just ‘getting on with it’ is not beneficial.

My 5 tips for improving gut health naturally

1. Drink bone broth

Bone broth is super easy to make your own or pick up in the store. Choose organic and free-range options when possible.

Bone broth is full of gelatin for collagen production which is incredibly healing to your mucosa (the inner surface of the stomach) and, as a bonus, is excellent for skin health. Try this bone broth recipe.

2. Eat more bitter foods

Did you know that our digestive tract has bitter taste buds? When these are stimulated, we produce digestive enzymes that support healthy food breakdown with the help of the liver.

Think cruciferous vegetables (sprouts, cabbage, kale broccoli), cacao, grapefruit, citrus fruits, chicory, cauliflower, artichokes, and dandelion root tea.

3. Eat fermented foods regularly

When we eat fermented foods, we eat the beneficial bacteria – the probiotics – that the food contains.

This is important because we need a diverse population of bacteria in our gut for better digestion, improved mood, and increased immunity. Try adding kombucha, kimchi, or a probiotic yoghurt to your diet.

4. Choose cooked over raw

Try to limit your intake of raw foods. This will help promote blood flow to your abdomen and help your digestive system to break down and absorb nutrients more easily.

Think soups, roasted veggies, stir-fried foods, stews, curries and anything cooked in the slow cooker.

5. Drink herbal tea

A small cup of herbal tea such as peppermint, chamomile, ginger, cardamon, fennel, or cinnamon (all without black tea) can enhance digestion. One tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in water before meals also works well.

For further information or advice, connect with Tahlia via the Happy Healthy You Community groups or listen in to the Happy Healthy You podcast.  

If you feel like you’re not firing on all cylinders, it’s worth doing an assessment. Tahlia and her team at Happy Healthy You offer a free online health assessment. It takes just a few minutes and could be a game-changer.

The wellbeing team also offers a full suite of free resources, from articles to recipes, access to clinicians. For more details and to see the products they offer, head to the website at

Tahlia Thomas

This article was written by Tahlia Thomas, an Integrative Nutritionist with a BHSc in Nutritional and Dietetic Medicine who specialises in GIT function and women’s health.

She is a women’s health coach and nutritionist for Happy Healthy You, an Australian-based health and lifestyle company, established by Olympian Lisa Curry and Naturopath, Women’s Hormonal Specialist and Author Jeff Butterworth, to provide women with information, products, and natural alternatives to hormonal imbalance.

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