menu iconknow your dna logosearch icon
Can Poor Gut Health Cause Depression?
Updated on July 24, 2023
Back to top
back to top icon
At Home Health
Can Poor Gut Health Cause Depression?

Depression is a mental illness that affects 280 million people worldwide.1 It was previously thought to be caused by neurotransmitter imbalances in the brain.2

“According to the World Health Organization (WHO), major depressive disorder is a leading cause of morbidity worldwide,” says our in-house medical expert, Dr. Rizza Mira.

New research suggests that the gut microbiome may be essential to mental health and depression.3 

Is Gut Bacteria Linked to Mental Well-being and Depression?

Scientists have discovered an intriguing link between the gut microbiome and mental health over the last decade.3,4,5

A Rotterdam Study discovered that gut bacteria help produce mood-related brain chemicals linked to depression.6 Another study examines microbiota production of inflammatory signals that lead to brain inflammation.

We can safely say that gut bacteria and microbiome diversity impact our health, cognitive function,7 behavior, and mood.8

This discovery has opened up a promising new line of research. It's possible that focusing on a healthy gut may help prevent and treat depression.

The Gut-Brain Connection

The gut-brain connection is a two-way communication network. It connects the gastrointestinal tract to the central nervous system.9 This complex system relays information between the gut and brain via multiple pathways.

The gut microbiota can produce and respond to various brain-signaling chemicals. It serves as a vital communication system component.

Research reveals that the gut microbiome influences the production and regulation of several neurotransmitters.10 These neurotransmitters all play essential roles in mood regulation.11,12

Furthermore, gut bacteria can create special substances that help control specific brain activities. Some of these can influence brain disorders.13 

Role of Gut Bacteria in Mental Health

Compelling evidence links gut microbiota composition to mental health disorders such as depression.

For example, researchers found that some people with depression have imbalances in certain gut bacterial species.14

Animal studies show that an imbalance in microbiomes can induce depressive-like behaviors.15 This lends credence to the idea that gut microbes can contribute to depression development.

“The same study shows that an increase in infectious bacteria also boosts the symptoms of depression,” explains Dr. Mira.

The Gut and the HPA Axis

The microbiome can also affect the body's stress response. It does this via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis is a key stress response system.16 

Individuals with depression were found to frequently have imbalances when it came to the HPA axis.17 This means that the gut microbiome potentially influences an individual's susceptibility to depressive symptoms.

The Link Between Gut Bacteria and Depression Research

Researchers are still investigating the mechanisms underlying the relationship between gut bacteria and depression. However, it is becoming clear that a healthy gut microbiome is important for mental health.

Dietary interventions, probiotics, and prebiotics promote gut microbiome diversity. They have shown promise in improving depressive symptoms and overall mental health.18

Gut microbiome research has shed light on the impact of good gut bacteria on mental health and depression.

Know Your DNA Reviews

Best Gut Health Test

Our review of the best at-home Microbiome Tests.

Know Your DNA Reviews

Best DNA Kit

Don't miss out on the opportunity to learn more about yourself. Read our best DNA test page to find the best one for you.

How Does Gut Health Affect Depression?

The gut, frequently called the "second brain," is home to trillions of bacteria. These bacteria are collectively called the gut microbiota.19

These microbes are essential for many bodily processes. These include digestion, immune system control, and neurotransmitter synthesis. These processes all affect mood and behavior regulation as well as impulse control.

Dysbiosis in Depression

Dysbiosis is a disruption or imbalance in the composition and function of the gut microbiome.20 Individuals suffering from depression have been observed to have dysbiosis.

Evidence shows that depressed people have a lower diversity of good gut bacteria. They also have changes in specific bacterial species than those who are not depressed.14 

Gut imbalances contribute to inflammation, oxidative stress, and impaired gut barrier function.21 These have all been linked to depression.

Stress and the Gut-Brain Axis

The gut-brain axis is an important communication pathway that connects the gut and the brain. Acute and chronic stress can significantly impact the gut microbiome and its overall health. 

The body's stress response system includes the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This system gets activated when we feel stressed. This results in significant changes in the gut microbiome composition.22

These changes can exacerbate stress and contribute to depressive symptoms.

Chronic stress raises the production of stress hormones, which can weaken gut barriers. This can negatively affect the microbiome.22 

Cortisol levels that are too high can disrupt the balance of beneficial gut bacteria. They may also encourage the growth of potentially harmful gut microbes. 

When gut bacteria balance is disrupted, it can mess with the creation of important brain chemicals. Prolonged stress also leads to increased production of pro-inflammatory signals. In turn, this affects mood maintenance and overall mental well-being.

Neurotransmitter Production in the Gut

Serotonin, also known as the "happy neurotransmitter," is essential for mood, sleep, appetite, etc.23

While serotonin is most commonly associated with the brain, it is estimated that 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut.23

Serotonin is produced in the gut by specialized cells known as enterochromaffin cells. These cells directly contact the gut microbiota.24

Certain bacteria in the gut can promote serotonin production.25 Imbalances in the microbiome can disrupt serotonin production and availability. This potentially contributes to mood disorders and depressive symptoms.

Additionally, the gut microbiome can directly metabolize tryptophan.26 Tryptophan is an amino acid precursor for serotonin.27 Gut bacteria can convert tryptophan into substances that break down food. Some of these have been shown to affect brain function.28

Will Improving My Gut Health Help My Mental Health?

Improving gut health has been shown to improve mental health. Gut bacteria are essential in neurotransmitter production, immune system function, regulating inflammation, and overall gut-brain axis communication.29

A healthy gut microbiome reduces the risk of mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and stress-related disorders.

While improving your gut is not a cure-all for mental health issues, it can aid mental health. 

Integrating gut-health strategies may contribute to a more balanced and resilient mind-body connection.

How Can I Improve My Gut Health Naturally?

Fortunately, several natural ways exist to improve your gut and support healthy gut microbiomes. Here are some crucial strategies.

Probiotics for a Healthy Gut

Probiotics are beneficial live bacteria or yeasts found in certain foods or supplements.30 These microorganisms can aid in restoring and diversifying gut bacteria. 

Probiotic-rich foods to look for include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha. Probiotic supplements can also help, but consult your doctor before taking them. 

Prebiotics and Dietary Fiber

Prebiotics are nondigestible fibers that feed healthy gut bacteria.30 You can encourage the growth and activity of these beneficial bacteria by eating prebiotic-rich foods. 

Prebiotics are abundant in onions, garlic, leeks, bananas, oats, and legumes. Including a variety of dietary fibers can also help maintain a healthy gut environment.

Managing Stress for Better Gut Health

Chronic stress can affect your gut and lead to gut problems.31 

Discovering effective stress management techniques can help reduce stress and promote a healthier gut. These include exercise, meditation, deep breathing exercises, or participating in hobbies.

Mind-body practices such as yoga or tai chi can also help manage stress and improve the gut-brain axis connection.

Balanced and Nutrient-Rich Diet

Your gut requires a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of whole foods.

Consume fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. These foods supply essential nutrients while also providing healthy gut bacteria.

Avoid consuming processed foods, refined sugars, and artificial additives. This can help improve your gut and prevent obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

“Food that contains refined sugars and trans fats are pro-inflammatory. When taken in excess, they can cause inflammation that contributes to illness,” says Dr. Mira.32

Adequate Hydration

It is critical to stay hydrated to maintain optimal health in the gut.33 Water is beneficial to digestion, nutrient absorption, and bowel regularity.34

Aim to drink at least eight glasses of water throughout the day and limit your intake of sugary beverages. 

What is the Best Diet for Gut Health and Depression?

There is no one-size-fits-all diet for gut health and depression. However, specific dietary patterns can promote healthy gut microbiome composition while supporting mental health.

Foods That Support Gut Bacteria

The following are some critical considerations for a gut-healthy and depression-friendly diet:

  • Fiber-Rich Foods – Incorporate fiber-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.35 These foods provide prebiotic fibers that nourish beneficial gut bacteria.
  • Fermented Foods – Include fermented foods in your diet as they contain probiotics. Examples include yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, and kimchi.
  • Polyphenol-Rich Foods – Polyphenols are plant compounds with antioxidant properties. They promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.36 Include foods like berries, dark chocolate, green tea, and colorful fruits and vegetables.
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Incorporate sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as fatty fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory effects37 and may make your gut healthier.

Anti-Inflammatory Foods and Mental Health

Certain foods can help reduce your risk for depression.38 The following are some anti-inflammatory foods that you should incorporate into your diet.

  • Healthy Fats Include sources of healthy fats like avocados, olive oil, nuts, and seeds. These fats have anti-inflammatory properties and can support healthy brain chemistry.
  • Colorful Fruits and Vegetables – Consume various colorful fruits and vegetables. They are rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals that help combat inflammation.
  • Spices and Herbs – Incorporate spices and herbs like turmeric, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, and rosemary into your meals. These have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and can affect mood and cognition.39
  • Protein Sources – Opt for lean protein sources such as poultry, fish, legumes, and tofu. These provide essential amino acids for neurotransmitter synthesis and support overall brain functions.40

Foods to Avoid for a Healthy Gut and Healthy Mind

Similar to foods that promote a healthy gut, some foods don't promote a healthy gut. It's best to limit your consumption of the following foods: 

  • Processed Foods – Limit or avoid processed foods high in added sugars, artificial additives, and unhealthy fats. These can disrupt the gut microbiota and contribute to inflammation.41 
  • Refined Grains – Minimize the consumption of refined grains like white bread, white rice, and refined pasta. Instead, choose whole grain alternatives that are higher in fiber and nutrients.
  • Excessive Alcohol – Moderate alcohol consumption can negatively impact your gut and exacerbate depressive symptoms.35
  • Artificial Sweeteners – Reduce the consumption of artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners can alter the gut microbiota and affect metabolic health.42

Remember that eating a healthy diet is only one aspect of promoting gut health and supporting mental health. 

Combining a healthy diet with exercise, adequate sleep, and seeking professional help is critical for maintaining your gut. 

Consult a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian for personalized dietary recommendations.

Know Your DNA Reviews

Best Microbiome Test

Looking for the best microbiome kit on the market? Look no further! Our review round-up page has all the information you need to make an informed decision.

Updated on July 24, 2023
Minus IconPlus Icon
42 sources cited
Updated on July 24, 2023
  1. Depressive disorder (depression)”. World Health Organization.
  2. Pathophysiology of depression and mechanisms of treatment”. National Library of Medicine.
  3. Gut Microbiome and Depression: How Microbes Affect the Way We Think”. National Library of Medicine.
  4. How Gut Bacteria Are Linked to Mental Health”. Cornell University.
  5. The link between our food, gut microbiome and depression”. The Washington Post.
  6. Gut microbiome-wide association study of depressive symptoms”. National Library of Medicine.
  7. Impacts of Gut Bacteria on Human Health and Diseases”. National Library of Medicine.
  8. Evidence mounts that gut bacteria can influence mood, prevent depression”. Science.
  9. The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems”. National Library of Medicine.
  10. Regulation of Neurotransmitters by the Gut Microbiota and Effects on Cognition in Neurological Disorders”. National Library of Medicine.
  11. Neurotransmitters”. Cleveland Clinic.
  12. That gut feeling”. American Psychological Association.
  13. Regulation of Neurotransmitters by the Gut Microbiota and Effects on Cognition in Neurological Disorders”. National Library of Medicine.
  14. A Microbiome-Driven Approach to Combating Depression During the COVID-19 Pandemic”. Frontiers.
  15. Gut Microbiota Regulates Depression-Like Behavior in Rats Through the Neuroendocrine-Immune-Mitochondrial Pathway”. National Library of Medicine.
  16. The microbiome: A key regulator of stress and neuroinflammation”. ScienceDirect.
  17. Gut microbiota’s effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis”. National Library of Medicine.
  18. The Role of the Gut Microbiota in Dietary Interventions for Depression and Anxiety”. National Library of Medicine.
  19.  “Gut health – A key to well-being”. The Times of India.
  20. 36.5.2 Dysbios”. ScienceDirect.
  21. Oxidative Stress and Gut Microbiome in Inflammatory Skin Diseases”. Frontiers.
  22. Stress, depression, diet, and the gut microbiota: human–bacteria interactions at the core of psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition”. National Library of Medicine.
  23. Serotonin”. Cleveland Clinic.
  24. Enterochromaffin Cells–Gut Microbiota Crosstalk: Underpinning the Symptoms, Pathogenesis, and Pharmacotherapy in Disorders of Gut-Brain Interaction”. National Library of Medicine.
  25. Microbes Help Produce Serotonin in Gut”. Caltech.
  26. Microorganisms, Tryptophan Metabolism, and Kynurenine Pathway: A Complex Interconnected Loop Influencing Human Health Status”. National Library of Medicine.
  27. Tryptophan Metabolic Pathways and Brain Serotonergic Activity: A Comparative Review”. Frontiers.
  28. Tryptophan Metabolism: A Link Between the Gut Microbiota and Brain”. National Library of Medicine.
  29. The function of gut microbiota in immune-related neurological disorders: a review”. National Library of Medicine.
  30. Probiotics: What You Need To Know”. National Library of Medicine.
  31. How to improve your gut health”. VicHealth.
  32. How the Right Foods May Lead to a Healthier Gut, and Better Health”. The New York Times.
  33. How Hydration Affects Your Gut Health”. Pendulum.
  34. 6 Easy Ways to Improve Your Gut Health Naturally”. Banner Health.
  35. How To Improve Your Gut Health”. Forbes Health.
  36. Dietary Polyphenol, Gut Microbiota, and Health Benefits”. National Library of Medicine.
  37. 6 Health Benefits Of Omega-3 Fatty Acids”. Forbes Health.
  38. Pro-inflammatory diet and depressive symptoms in the healthcare setting”. BioMed Central Psychiatry.
  39. Health Benefits of Culinary Herbs and Spices”. National Library of Medicine.
  40. Amino Acid and Protein Requirements: Cognitive Performance, Stress, and Brain Function”. National Library of Medicine.
  41. Food Additives Associated with Gut Microbiota Alterations in Inflammatory Bowel Disease: Friends or Enemies?”. National Library of Medicine.
  42. Artificial Sweeteners May Change Our Gut Bacteria in Dangerous Ways”. Scientific American.
Dr. Rizza Mira
Dr. Rizza Mira
Medical Reviewer
Dr. Rizza Mira is a medical doctor and a general practitioner who specializes in pediatrics, nutrition, dietetics, and public health.

As a pediatrician, she is dedicated to the general health and well-being of children and expecting parents. She believes that good nutrition, a healthy lifestyle, and prevention of illness are key to ensuring the health of children and their families.

When she’s not in the hospital, Rizza advocates and mobilizes causes like breastfeeding, vaccination drives, and initiatives to prevent illness in the community.
Will Hunter
Will Hunter
Content Contributor
Will is a content writer for KnowYourDNA. He received his B.A. in Psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles. Will has 7 years of experience writing health-related content, with an emphasis on nutrition, alternative medicine, and longevity.
Back to top icon