COVID-19, the Gut-Brain Link, and Your Mental Health

With many Australians still in lockdown, we need to talk about COVID-19 restrictions, the gut-brain link, and how you can support your mental health.


PictureRU really OK? This year, more than ever, we need to look out for each other. Melbourne’s on track to gain the title of the most locked-down city in the world, surpassing Buenos Aires 234-day lockdown on September 23. As a Melburnian, I can confirm—we’re exhausted. The lack of certainty and the loss of control over how we do life are taking a toll on everyone.

Every day, I speak with patients and clients trying to stay healthy—physically, emotionally, and mentally while coping with the very real stressors associated with extended lockdowns. Over and over again, they report the same symptoms.

“I’m exhausted—all the time. I’m struggling to get motivated, my sleep patterns are disrupted, I don’t have a regular routine, and I’m not eating well.”

Sound familiar? If you’re struggling, you’re not alone. On August 3, Lifeline reported the highest daily number of calls in its 58-year history. Most Australians have never experienced this kind of sustained, unrelenting uncertainty around many basic aspects of life, so it’s not surprising that we’re stressed.

The gut-brain link and your mental health

PictureYou may have heard of the gut-brain link, also known as the gut-brain axis (GBA). This refers to the incredibly close connection between your gut and your brain. For instance, 95% of serotonin, the ‘happy’ hormone generally associated with the brain, is produced in your gut. In comparison, brain production accounts for a mere 5%!

What does this mean for your mental health? At the most basic level, a stressed gut sends signals to the brain, and a stressed brain sends signals to the gut. Your gastrointestinal tract (GIT) is sensitive to your emotions, positive and negative. The interplay between mental health is complex, and gut problems may be the cause or the result of anxiety, depression, or stress.

Here are a few ways stress affects your GIT!

  • Decreased saliva production
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of breath—fast and shallow breathing

While you can’t control most of these symptoms, you can do something about your breathing. Taking deep, slow breaths will activate your parasympathetic nervous system—helping you to relax.

Fight or flight?

The fight or flight reaction in your body comes from a sudden release of hormones due to extreme or acute stress. This triggers your sympathetic nervous system to stimulate your adrenal glands, releasing adrenaline and noradrenaline, also known as catecholamines, into your body. At the same time, it shuts down your digestive system diverting blood and oxygen to aid you in your fight or flight.

The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, stimulates digestion and rest. Now, remember what my patients are telling me?

“I’m exhausted—all the time. I’m struggling to get motivated, my sleep patterns are disrupted, I don’t have a regular routine, and I’m not eating well.”

The vicious cycle

Lack of appetite is a common sign of stress. The problem is that your body needs the right kind of nutrition, in the right amounts, at the right time to help reduce stress and support your mental health. Not eating makes the stress response worse and contributes to fatigue and interrupted sleep patterns. This, in turn, can increase anxiety and depression – and the vicious cycle repeats.

Comfort eating is another typical response to stress, which can then lead to overeating. In addition, overeating can negatively impact your gut bacteria and increase fatigue or tiredness and feelings of guilt.

Help is at hand

There’s a lot we can’t control at the moment. Still, you can disrupt the vicious cycle by establishing a couple of healthy routines. Here are a few simple keys to help get you back on track to optimise gut health and support good mental health.

  • Get 7-9 hours of sleep and go to bed at a regular time.
  • Get your sleep at night. Your body works best if it’s awake in daylight and asleep when it’s dark!
  • Regular meal patterns help set the rhythm for your day. I recommend three meals and three snacks.
  • Get outside in the fresh air and exercise daily if you possibly can.

While you can’t control most of these symptoms, you can do something about your breathing. Taking deep, slow breaths will activate your parasympathetic nervous system—helping you to relax.

What you eat helps your mental health

Eating well and enjoying your food is just as important as eating regularly. Again, it’s simple and doesn’t cost the earth.

  • Increase your intake of fruits, vegetables, and fish.
  • Eat moderate amounts of poultry and low-fat dairy.
  • Decrease your intake of red meat.
  • Use things like extra virgin olive oil instead of butter and cream.
  • Consume caffeine in moderation – 40-400mg/per day can increase alertness and reduce fatigue.
  • Limit the amount of high sugar, high-fat foods—make them occasional treats rather than your go-to for an energy hit.

There’s a lot of emerging research indicating the benefits of sharing meals with other people— so why not organise an online dinner party with friends and family!

A happy gut helps support a healthy brain

Life is a bit crazy right now—but there are things we can do to help our brain and gut do what they do best! The bottom line (dietitian pun intended!) is that taking care of your gut health will help your brain and mental health.

We need each other more than ever right now. So if you’re struggling today, reach out to a friend, a family member or to one of the great organisations set up to help! You are not alone.

Lifeline 13 11 14

Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

Headspace 03 9027 0100

We’re here to help

Make an appointment with our Accredited Practising Dietitians
​and let us help you support your mental health.

0423 206 939

Men’s Health –Top Tips for Managing Stress

Stress is killing us—literally. Cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, and anxiety are just some of the health problems associated with stress—with heart disease the leading cause of death among men.

What you eat matters

A poor diet is one of the leading risk factors for developing heart disease in men. Eating a balanced diet can help you maintain a healthy body weight, blood pressure, and healthy cholesterol levels, also reducing your risk of diabetes.

PictureHealthy eating doesn’t have to be complicated. Enjoy a wide variety of foods from all the different food groups, focusing on fresh, unprocessed produce.

​Here are a few basic principles for healthy eating.

Top tips for managing stress with diet

  1. Increase your intake of vegetables, fruits and whole grains: Packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre, these everyday staples protect your heart. Food’s high in fibre also help to keep you full and may help lower cholesterol.
  2. Include a variety of lean protein and low-fat dairy/dairy alternatives: Choose lean sources of protein and limit red meat to 1-2 times a week.  Eat more fish—up to three times a week and include plant-based proteins like beans, chickpeas and lentils. Make sure you include dairy products such as milk, yoghurt and cheese for calcium, protein and other minerals. If you have high cholesterol or are trying to manage your weight, go for low-fat varieties.
  3. Limit added sugars, salt and saturated fats: Limit discretionary and processed foods including take-away, baked goods, chocolates, chips, sugary drinks etc., as these are high in saturated fat and energy (kJ) and low in nutrients.
  4. <Include healthy fats: Healthy unsaturated fats, including avocados, fish, nuts and seeds, and healthy oils (e.g. olive, canola, sunflower), can help lower cholesterol.
  5. Watch your portion sizes: Controlling portion sizes and total energy (kJ) intake is important for maintaining a healthy weight. Aim for your main meals to be made up of ½ vegetables, ¼ carbohydrates, and ¼ protein.

Meal planning for stress management and a healthy heart

Taking care of your ​heart doesn’t have to cause you more stress or blow your budget! Here’s a simple example of how to pull our top tips together!

2 Slices of Wholegrain toast + 1 chopped tomato, red onion, herbs + ½ Tbsp extra virgin olive oil (or 2 tsp margarine
½ cup rolled oats + 1 cup low-fat or skim milk + 1 tsp chia seeds
tea or coffee + water
1 orange or 2 small mandarins + 30g Walnuts or almonds (unsalted)
1 cup legumes + 1 small can tuna in water or olive oil (drained) + 1 cup mixed salad vegetables
2 Slices wholegrain bread + Omelette (2 eggs) + 1 cup side salad
tea or coffee + water
¾ cup Low fat plain yoghurt + ½ cup mixed berries
1 cup couscous or ½ medium potato + 1 fillet (~100 – 150g) grilled or baked salmon + 1 cup steamed/baked vegetables.
1 cup of cooked basmati rice + Tofu stir fry with mixed vegetables + olive oil
2 small Kiwifruit or 1 apple or 1 banana

Top tips for managing stress with exercise

PictureStaying active is crucial to optimising not only your physical health but also your mental health. Regular physical activity reduces the risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol. It assists in maintaining a healthy weight and lowers your risk of diabetes and heart disease while helping to lessen the effects of anxiety and depression.

Exercise can help take your mind off daily stresses, reduce tension and boost energy. Running or walking with friends is also a great way to lower your stress—social connection is important!

Here are some of the Australia Government guidelines for staying active.

  1. Doing any physical activity is better than doing none. If you currently do no physical activity, start by doing some, and gradually build-up to the recommended amount.
  2. Be active on most, preferably all, days every week.
  3. Accumulate 150 to 300 minutes (2 ½ to 5 hours) of moderate-intensity (activities that increase heart rate without making you breathless) physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes (1 ¼ to 2 ½ hours) of vigorous-intensity (activities that make you “huff and puff”) physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both moderate and vigorous activities, each week.
  4. Do muscle-strengthening activities on at least 2 days each week.

Make friends with rest

In addition to having a healthy diet and exercising, taking time to rest and relax is equally as important. Having a good work-life balance is crucial to maintaining a healthy body and mind. Prolonged stress takes a toll on your body, so prioritising mental health and setting aside time to relax, wind down, and rest helps to prevent burnout. Activities that encourage rest include sleep, meditation/mindfulness practices or socialising with friends and family.

Balance is best and easier than you think. We’re here to help.

Make an appointment with our Accredited Practising Dietitians
​and let us take the stress out of looking after your heart.

0423 206 939