Updated: Oct 29, 2020
How The Bacteria In Your Gut Influence Your Mental Health
It’s a relatively new scientific discovery that the bacteria living in your gut influence your overall health and according to a growing body of research, your mental health too. But the relationship between the feelings in your gut and what and what goes on in your brain is nothing new.
I'll bet you can remember a time when you had one of those strong, unshakeable gut feelings - completely different from brain logic.
I’m sure you’ve experienced the unmistakable flutter of butterflies before a first date, had a queasy stomach upon receiving bad news, or felt cravings so strong you almost felt possessed.
Well, turns out there’s a valid basis for these experiences.
You have a brain in your belly.
The Brain In Your Belly When it comes to your brain, you literally are what you eat.
Despite making up only two per cent of the body’s weight, your brain is an energy hog gobbling up more than twenty per cent of your daily energy intake.
Because of this, the foods you consume directly affect your brain’s functioning, including everything from learning to memory to emotions.
You can promote quicker thinking, better memory and concentration, improved balance and coordination, sharper senses, and the activation of your feel-good hormones just with the food you eat.
When food hits your mouth and as it moves through your gastrointestinal tract, many resulting changes happen in your body and brain.
Your gut has a “second brain,” called the enteric nervous system, made up of sheaths of neurons embedded in the walls of the intestines.
The enteric nervous system consists of a network of some 100 million neurons -- more than in your spinal cord.
Your gut-brain can function without any input from the central nervous system and actually transmits information to it.
Just like the brain in your head, the brain in your belly uses over 30 neurotransmitters including dopamine and serotonin. In fact, 95% of the body’s serotonin, largely responsible for mood, is found in the bowels.
Studies have confirmed undoubtedly that the foods you consume affect the structure and function of your brain.
The Connection Between Gut Bacteria and Mental Health
The trillions of microorganisms that inhabit your body are collectively called the microbiome. They outnumber your own cells ten to one. Most of them live in your gut and intestines, where they help digest food, synthesise vitamins, and ward off infection.
We’ve always known these little guys play a major role in your overall health, but now we know that they greatly impact your mental health too.
Science has shown a complex signalling system between your microbiome and brain, which influences anxiety, depression, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, and other mental disorders.
The trillions of bacteria inside you eat what you eat, and turn meals into molecules that influence your brain through what's known as the “gut-brain-axis” which happens through the stimulation of your vagus nerve.
Each person's microbiome is unique and varies depending on many factors, including stress, age, exercise, drugs you ingest, and even your family pet.
Maintaining flourishing gut bacteria with healthy habits and probiotics (good bacteria) is showing promise to improve many aspects of physical and mental health.
In One Billion Reasons Probiotics Protect Your Brain, Dr Sarah McKay, neuroscientist, explains the gut/brain connection:
A healthy balance of gut bacteria contributes to normal behaviour, cognition, emotion and a well-functioning immune system.
Poor balance of the bacteria (perhaps brought on by stress, disease or antibiotics) disrupts the gut-brain signalling pathways.
Disruptions in gut-brain signalling may lead to abnormal brain function, changes in our behaviour, thoughts, emotions, our perception of pain, and may also impact our immune system.
Managing Your Microbiome
Your body’s unique collection of microbes is partly inherited from your mother at birth and partly determined by your lifestyle.
The modern lifestyle can be incredibly toxic to your gut bacteria.
Antibiotics, prescription, over-the-counter, and recreational drugs, pesticides and other chemicals, douches and colon cleanses, colonoscopies and other medical procedures, chemotherapy and radiation, antidepressants and sleeping pills, altered fat in food, sugar and carbohydrate intake, and many other things drastically change the diversity and number of bacteria in your gut.
It’s possible that one day in the future, altering gut bacteria could be a treatment for neurodevelopmental disorders and mental illnesses.
Research has shown beyond any doubt that talk therapy successfully helps a person change their brain and behaviours.
I also help people conquer other addictive behaviours, as well as anxiety and depression.
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