It’s no secret that a healthy gut is correlated with increased energy levels, a strong immune system, maintaining a healthy weight, and so much more. But one thing researchers are starting to understand now more than ever is that our gut health has an enormous impact on happiness. “In general, I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable saying that virtually 80 percent of your mental state, well-being, and happiness is controlled by how happy your gut is,” says microbiologist Kiran Krishnan.
Knowing gut health has such an enormous impact on happiness, what can we do to make our gut as healthy as possible? Let’s dive in.
The science behind gut health and your happiness.
First things first: Why does our gut health have so much control over our happiness? “We know a healthy gut microbiome controls our ability to deal with stress, and that starts in your gut,” says Krishnan. “If you have messed-up digestion, you’ll have a diminished ability to deal with stressful situations. And without the ability to release stress and get to a happy mind space, you end up building a higher and higher threshold for stress.”
Plus, your gut health affects your “feel-good” chemicals. According to Krishnan, dopamine production starts in the gut. “The reward centers depend on dopamine, which is released when you eat good food—hence, why we all enjoy a good meal and get a heightened sense of elation from it. If you have severe dopamine issues, you go looking for it in the wrong places, so you drink, overeat, and turn down your sensors.”
Further, serotonin, the other “feel-good chemical,” begins with our gut health. “Serotonin is coined as the ‘happy hormone,’ and 95 percent of it is produced in the gut.”
The top foods for a healthy gut.
While there’s no question that certain foods are more helpful for a healthy gut than others (looking at you, fiber), Krishnan says the most important thing you can do when it comes to food and your gut health is aim for diversity. “A diverse set of fiber-rich foods is key,” he says. “Ultimately, a healthy gut is a very diverse microbiome. I would suggest that instead of eating one sweet potato a day for fiber, eat a small portion of a sweet potato but also add in a carrot, celery, and a mango. All these sources of fiber will give you that diversity.”
He adds that in our Western culture, finding diversity among our food choices is difficult. “For the largest part of human evolution, our ancestors ate 600 types of foods on an annual basis. For context, the average Westerner eats 15 different types of foods.”
How exercise and gut health are intertwined.
One of the biggest issues with having an unhealthy gut is that it leads to leaky gut syndrome, which in turn leads to toxins entering the circulatory system and eventually the brain. This causes lower levels of happiness, mood disorders, and disease. And exercise is a great way to prevent and ease symptoms of leaky gut syndrome. “All you need is 30 minutes of mild intensity exercise,” says Krishnan. “Do it before breakfast, or your largest meal of the day. That seems to reduce the leaky gut effect of eating a meal.”
He also adds that the release of endorphins is great for gut health. “Those endorphins supply the reward centers of the brain and make you feel good about yourself. And when you get your lymphatic system moving, it drains the toxins from your body,” he explains.