You may have heard that “the gut is the new brain.” What you may not have heard is that there are specific bacteria, which doctors call psychobiotics, that confer a mental health benefit on people who have anxiety and depression. Psychobiotics are particular bacterial species shown to have a positive impact on mental health that can be found in the food you eat and the beverages you drink. You can set yourself up for gastrointestinal success by following a few simple steps.

With roughly 100 trillion unique organisms living in the gut, 99% of the genes in your body are actually not human - they are from microbes that take up residence in your intestines (aka gut) according to Scott Anderson author of The Psychobiotic Revolution

Unlike the DNA that gives you brown eyes or freckles, the genetic makeup of the bacteria in your gut is in constant flux. Think about your gut like a big nightclub and the bacteria as different groups of people. For the best time, you want there to be a variety of different groups of people for everyone to socialize with. But if the bouncers let in trouble makers, or if too much of the same group is dominating the dancefloor, things are going to get out of balance. That’s like your gut: A few bad apples can upset all the good vibes.

Your food and health decisions have a major impact on your gut bacteria. Decisions like what to eat, how much you exercise, how much to sleep, and how much to mitigate the level of stress in your life. Too much external stress can affect the speed of digestion and also increase inflammation in the gut, and these problems are compounded over time. But it’s a two-way street.

The Gut-Brain Connection

Stress can cause you to want certain “comfort” foods high in fat or sugar, and then those foods can feed gut bacteria that can compound stress. Put simply, this two-way street between how what you eat impacts your gut microbiota and consequently your brain is a constant feedback loop. 

The gut and brain communicate using the same language–via chemicals that in your brain are called neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Roughly 90% of the body’s serotonin is found in the gut. While there’s still much to be discovered about how this affects the brain, we know that having a healthy microbiota with a healthy diversity, especially psychobiotics, can help you manage stress and anxiety and be more resilient and better able to cope with uncertain events. 

How to eat to be resilient, less stressed and brain-healthy starts with foods that create these psychobiotics. Here are 6 plant-based foods that will help you to feed your gut with pre and probiotics for better mental health. It’s by no means exhaustive but these are a great place to start!

Sauerkraut

This fermented cabbage not only contains 4 grams of beneficial fiber in each (1 cup) serving but it is also loaded with probiotics including L. rhamnosus, which is considered a psychobiotic, since in early studies it’s shown to help decrease anxiety and depression.

Water Kefir

Studies done on kefir’s impact on the gut microbiota were done with yogurt kefir, but water kefir (also known as Tibicos) contains the same beneficial bacteria. Among these is L. casei, which has been shown to improve mood in a study of people suffering from depression.

Tempeh

A plant-based protein staple hailing from Indonesia, tempeh is actually a ferment! So on top of being loaded with plant-based protein at 31g per cup, it also has probiotics and has been shown in a study to stimulate the growth of Bifidobacteria, which are considered a keystone species of bacteria in the gut

Collard Greens

Collard greens are loaded with fiber: They pack 8g of fiber into 1 cooked cup, representing or about 30% of your recommended daily value. A diet rich in fiber is great for the gut because beneficial microbes digest the fiber and excrete a fatty acid called butyrate, which contributes to a healthier gut lining.

Lentils

In addition to being another great source of plant-based protein (with 18 grams per cup), lentils are another great source of the type of fiber that gut bacteria love and keep the gut lining healthy. A healthier gut lining prevents pathogenic bacteria from making it into the bloodstream thus protecting the body from an inflammatory response kicking off a vicious cycle negatively impacting the body and the mind.

Oats

Oats are actually packed with the prebiotic fiber that your gut loves with 7.5 grams in a cup of rolled oats (link). For an extra boost, add berries or half a banana to your oatmeal and kickstart your day with a gut happy meal.