Have you ever caught yourself saying “I have a gut feeling about this”, “I have butterflies in my stomach”, or “I'm 'hangry'? Without realizing it, we actually refer to our gut-brain connections quite frequently. And this isn’t just a coincidence.
The more you learn about your gut and the microbiome, the more you unveil reasons why your gut is considered the “second brain” of your body. Just as leaky gut syndrome is linked to serious health problems, the overall connection between our brain and gut can have a significant effect on our mental health as well.
What Is the Gut-Brain Connection?
The microbes in our gut play a significant role in overall human function. As we know, our gut is responsible for nutrient absorption and digestion. The gut and brain work in a “bi-directional manner” which controls depression, cognition, anxiety and stress.
Studies show that our gut is a part of the enteric nervous system (ENS) which is separate from the central nervous system. Here, the ENS is made of two thin layers with more than 100 million nerve cells - which is more than what the spinal cord contains.
These millions of cells line the gastrointestinal tract, control blood flow and secretions to help you digest food. This is why you might say you have a 'gut feeling'!
Impact on Depression
Ever wondered why people with inflammation and other health diseases seem to be more likely to fall into depression? Beneficial microflora has proven to support mental health by gradually improving the microbiome in our GI systems. Researchers also show that healthy gut microflora transmits signals involved in brain neuron formation and behaviour control.
This also explains why 20% of inflammatory bowel disease patients suffer from depression. One study illustrated how the gut and brain are connected by looking at the effects of probiotics on people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome as well as depression.
Researchers also found that twice as many patients saw a lift from depression when they opted for probiotics compared to those on a placebo. In this specific study, patients were asked to take probiotics on a daily basis.
Improvement in the gut flora can have a drastic improvement on your mental health, which is critical to overcoming any disease.
Impact on Anxiety
Your body uses a fight or flight system to combat stress, which is directly related to cortisol levels. When something unexpected or unpleasant happens, your body sees it as an intruder and tries to fight it and therefore you feel symptoms like a quickened heartbeat and sweaty palms.
Typically, after you have familiarized yourself with this “unexpected” event, your body goes back to normal. Think of these as episodes that strike every time you are under pressure.
However, if you stay under this stress for too long, and cortisol remains high, your body is stuck in that phase for longer periods of time. What makes it worse is our mind makes it difficult to distinguish the mental and physical impacts of anxiety. When you hate your job, it’s not just your mental health that gets affected, but your physical body as well.
This chronic state of anxiety can cause inflammation and lead to a host of other problems like blood pressure and autoimmune disorders.
In a nutshell, anxiety helps to alert your body of perceived dangers, but if you remain in this state of extreme stress, it can trigger inflammation which inevitably becomes the root cause for many illnesses.
This is why doctors and other healthcare specialists focus on eliminating anxiety and stress as a first step to becoming well.
Let's talk about some solutions.
Natural Ways to Improve Your Gut-Brain Connection
Here are some of the natural proven ways that can enhance your gut-brain relationship.
1. Avoid Processed Foods
Processed foods are just a single gateway to numerous health problems in the future. A whole-food-based diet can lead to a gut with a very different makeup than the one that’s been fed refined foods. Up to 60% of the average American's diet consists of ultra-processed foods like chips, snack cakes and white bread.
Refined sugars can further increase the problem by causing type 2 diabetes, obesity and migraines. Therefore, just by cutting down on processed food and replacing it with healthier alternatives, you will not only benefit your physical health but mental health as well.
2. Add Probiotics
Probiotics are good bacteria that can be used to balance the bad guys. They line your gut and are responsible for nutrient absorption and making it easier for the immune system to do its job. This, incorporating probiotic-rich foods like kefir and sauerkraut can play a HUGE role at improving our mood.
3. Swear Off Gluten
There was a time when grains were pretty healthy. However, for many people limiting gluten nowadays could rapidly improve their health. Gone are the traditional methods of soaking and sprouting grains to make them more digestible and nutritious. Modern manufacturing processes have taken many shortcuts for the sake of mass production and convenience.
4. Eat Healthy Fats
Healthy fats can be key in supporting brain development and repair. Incorporating fats like extra virgin olive oil, coconut and avocado can protect your cells from damage due to their high amounts of antioxidants. Healthy fat can help with digestion and even improve memory after prolonged use.
5. Consume Mushrooms
The shiitake mushroom provides large amounts of vitamin B6. Why is that useful? Vitamin B6 can have a positive impact on the production of serotonin and neurotransmitters. Therefore, it is said that having good levels of vitamin B6 in your body can impact your overall mood and reduce stress.
In some research, mushrooms have been proven to cure depression in animals.
6. Eat Nuts
Nuts are a great source of healthy fats. As they are full of serotonin, make sure you eat a handful of walnuts, brazil nuts, or almonds to help you feel good about yourself and avoid depression.
7. Add Sesame Seeds
Sesame seeds contain tyrosine, which is an amino acid that is used to boost the dopamine levels of your body. It can also balance out the good hormones to reap benefits in the long term.
The microbes in your gut are the building blocks to making or breaking your health. They are not only essential for digestion and nutrient absorption, but for your mental health as well.
Let's strive to improve our gut health, and watch our happiness and health soar!