The coronavirus pandemic has increased stress level, anxiety, and mental health in general for everyone in one way or another. Whether we are aware of it or not, the significant changes in work, home life, and ability to go places naturally cause increased stress. As the weeks have worn on with sheltering in place and trying to forge new routines, many people are struggling to navigate the continued uncertainty. Those with a prior history of anxiety and/or trauma may find themselves triggered by these new circumstances and frustrated with a sense of “going backwards” with their ability to manage life stressors. As things slowly begin to open up again, some people are noticing increased anxiety around figuring out how to return to their previous patterns, or whether they want to return to their old “normal” at all.
While there are thoughts and feelings that accompany an increase in stress and anxiety, many people are also experiencing the tangible impacts of increased stress. These can include sleep disruption, increased food cravings (typically for comfort foods), digestive issues, and increased sedentary activities. Each of these has an impact on stress and anxiety levels and, when not addressed, can make them worse. Increases in stress and anxiety also take a toll on mood, generally making it worse, as well as our physical health. Most people think of weight gain as a common physical issue associated with worsening mental health, but reduced immune function is just as significant – especially during a time like this when concerns about illness are at an all-time high.
Mental health and the gut microbiome
One of the most important, but often ignored, aspects of mental health is gut health. The gut-brain connection is well-established in the research and involves constant cross-talk between the brain and the gut. The microbiome plays a major role in this bidirectional communication. When the microorganisms in our gut are well-balanced they allow for healthy productive communication with the brain, which supports positive mood, reduced anxiety, and clearer thinking. When the delicate balance of microorganisms in the gut gets thrown out of whack, however, this communication breaks down in a way that can lead to higher anxiety, foggy thinking, poor attention, low mood, and more.
During periods of high stress, such as we are all experiencing right now, the body goes into a self-preservation mode, involving the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to help us manage. When these hormones are released more often than they should be, the body has difficulty clearing them out, and they circulate in our system causing a host of problems. One area impacted by these stress hormones is the gut microbiome, as these excess hormones can lead to imbalances in gut flora. These changes in the gut then add to the problem by disrupting GI function, which impacts neurotransmitters and brain function, all of which adds to the level of physical and mental stress.
Lifestyle strategies to support a healthy mind and microbiome
The relationship between microbiome health and mental health is bidirectional, meaning they each impact the other. There are many lifestyle strategies that support improved mental health by reducing stress level and improving overall brain function, which also supports a healthier gut microbiome. Here are some simple but powerful strategies to consider during this time:
- Sleep – Getting enough good quality sleep at night is essential for mental health. During this uncertain time, many people are out of routine and struggling to get a good night’s sleep. Sticking to a bedtime and wake time is important, even if you don’t have to be up to leave the house for work at a certain time in the morning. It’s also helpful to avoid caffeine in the later afternoon and evening and establish a wind-down routine in the hour before bed that doesn’t involve screen time, as this can make falling asleep more difficult.
- Movement – Make sure to get some kind of physical activity each day, even when stuck at home. Research has shown that physical exercise is as effective for improving mood and reducing anxiety as prescription medications. Building little movement breaks into the work day can make a positive difference. Try walking up and down the stairs several times, stretching, or even running in place for 2 minutes. Going outdoors to run, walk, or do some yoga provides a double-dose of mental health benefits, as you’re not only physically active but also getting exposure to nature.
- Diet – Food plays a critical role in mood, anxiety, focus, and every other aspect of mental health. While baking yet another batch of brownies may sound like a good idea, increased sugar intake can worsen mental health, not to mention reducing immune function. Focus on eating plenty of produce, staying hydrated with water, and reducing intake of heavily processed foods to boost mood and reduce stress.
- Stress-reduction strategies – There are many approaches and tools that help reduce stress and support physical and mental calming. Deep breathing, mindfulness activities, meditation, and tapping are simple to learn and can work quickly to reduce stress and overwhelm. Experiment with finding what works best for you, and then make time to use these strategies daily.
- Connect – Humans thrive on connection with others, and the isolation many are experiencing right now takes a significant toll on mental health. While you may not be able to physically connect with others outside your home during this time, it’s important to connect in other ways. Using technology to text, call, and video chat with those you care about can be helpful. Helping others is another way to support the need for connection and can be accomplished by even small gestures of leaving a kind note in a neighbor’s mailbox or doing some grocery shopping for an elderly family member.
- Reduce screen time – While this may seem completely implausible right now, when we are more dependent on technology than ever before, it’s important to recognize how excessive screen time impacts mental health. Research has shown that overuse of devices can lead to worse mood, anxiety, focus, behavior, sleep, and more. This holds true for children and adults. Taking breaks from devices throughout the day is beneficial, even for brief periods of time. Be intentional about stepping away from devices for at least a few minutes each hour, have device-free meals, and put devices away when you’re doing an activity that doesn’t require them.
How spores can help
Supporting our mental health with good nutrition and lifestyle strategies is important, but we can all benefit from some extra help – especially when navigating a global pandemic! Various nutritional supplements can be helpful during this time, including specific gut microbiome supports. Using MegaSporeBiotic during this time may positively impact the microbiome and mental health in several ways:
- LPS reduction – Research has shown that inflammation is a driver of mental health symptoms such as depression and anxiety. The gut microbiome plays a role in inflammation levels throughout the body, which can negatively impact brain function. Studies have shown that the reduction in butyrate produced by beneficial bacteria, combined with the increase in lipopolysaccharides (LPS) produced by problematic gram-negative bacteria, can lead to increased gut permeability and inflammation in the brain and body. MegaSporeBiotic has been shown to reduce metabolic endotoxemia and associated LPS levels, which in turn supports a healthy inflammatory response by balancing the gut microbiome. This reduction may have a beneficial effect on mental health.
- Healthy neurotransmitter levels – Neurotransmitters (ex: serotonin and dopamine) are necessary for healthy brain function, and help regulate aspects of our mental health such as mood, anxiety, and attention. It is well-established in the research that the gut microbiome plays a significant role in production and regulation of neurotransmitter levels. A well-balanced gut microbiome provides the materials needed for production of some of these neurotransmitters in the gut and brain and helps regulate the use of these neurotransmitters throughout the body.
- Diversity of microorganisms in the gut is also associated with better mental health and cognitive function, as greater diversity allows for production of beneficial neurotransmitters and hormones by the microbiota. MegaSporeBiotic increases diversity in the gut microbiome and, in combination with the MegaPre prebiotic, this increase in diversity is even more dramatic. Spores support a well-balanced and diverse gut microbiome, which in turn supports healthy neurotransmitter production and function, and ultimately better mental health.
- Healthy immune function – Gut health and immune health go hand-in-hand, so supporting a healthy gut microbiome makes sense now more than ever. Beyond physical health, the field of psychoneuroimmunology shows us that immune health is key to mental health and brain function. Research has shown that spore-forming probiotic bacteria play an important role in not only a healthy gut, but also in proper immune system function. Taking MegaSporeBiotic regularly can not only support healthy immune function, but it can also strengthen mental and emotional resilience during this time.
As if modern life wasn’t already stressful enough, the current pandemic has added to it in ways no one could have imagined just a few short months ago. During times of uncertainty when things feel out of control, it is beneficial to focus on what can be controlled. Diet, movement, sleep, relationships, screen time, stress reduction strategies, and taking microbiome-supporting supplements are all things over which we can exert at least some control. Take additional steps to support mental health and resilience during this time, and you may discover that you are even healthier on the other side of all this.
— Written by Nicole Beurkens, PhD, CNS