Why better gut health equals better mental health
Have you ever been so nervous that you had to rush to the bathroom? Gastrointestinal discomfort during moments of high stress is very common. However, the relationship between the brain and the gut doesn't stop there — information pathways in the body are never one-way, especially when it comes to gut health.
In fact, a growing body of research shows that your gut is deeply connected to your brain, and one influences the other in positive and negative ways.
"You probably know that the brain sends messages to the body in order to control movement, behaviors, breathing, and even when and how to digest food," says Shawn Manske, ND, Assistant Director of Clinical Education for Biocidin Botanicals. "But, what you may not understand is that the gut — or gastrointestinal (GI) tract — communicates back to the brain."
"Recent studies show that our brain talks to our gut and vice versa," confirms Mahmoud Ghannoum, microbiologist and NIH-funded researcher at Case Western University. "We used to think top-down (brain to gut axis). However, we should also start thinking bottom-up (gut to brain axis). In reality, the two opposite directions mutually affect and depend on each
other." So, what is the gut-brain axis, exactly? To understand this concept, we must first start by explaining the gut microbiome.
What is the gut microbiome?
"Our bodies are host to trillions of microbes that live virtually everywhere, but primarily within our gastrointestinal (GI) tracts," explains Dr. Manske. Indeed, between 300 and 500 bacterial species and over 100 trillion microbial cells live in the gut. "These 'bugs,' known collectively as our microbiome, play a major role in the health of the gut-brain axis. How do they do that? By a) interacting with our immune cells and the cells that line our gut, and b) creating compounds that have whole-body effects — including influencing the brain and mood."
"When the microbiome is healthy, it has a good balance of good versus bad microbes ... If that shifts, the result is dysbiosis." Dysbiosis is an imbalance of bacteria — you may have too much of one bacterial species, or too little, for example. "Dysbiosis can develop slowly over time as a result of lifestyle and diet, or it can happen quickly — think medications or food poisoning," Dr. Manske says. What, then, does the microbiome have to do with the communication to the brain? A whole lot, as it turns out.
Here are the best ways to improve the health of your GI tract, according to our experts:
Get enough sleep. "Sleep helps our body maintain the detoxification pathways and proper movement of our digestive tract," says Dr. Jospitre.
Exercise. "Exercise and movement has a positive impact on gut health and the microbiome, in addition to supporting positive mental health," says Dr. Manske.
Drink enough water. "Drinking enough water allows hydration, which is important for robust secretion activity of enzymes," says Dr. Jospitre.
Reduce stress. "Meditation and psychotherapy are excellent ways to work on stress," says Dr. Jospitre.
Eat a diet high in vegetable fibers, whole grains, fish, and healthy oils. "Eating a Mediterranean diet is proven to lower inflammation in the body and keep mental illness at bay," says Dr. Jospitre.
Eat fermented foods. "Include fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha [in your diet]," says Dr. Manske. "These have all been shown to encourage the growth and diversity of the microbes in the gut and support optimal gut function."
Take the right supplements. "Probiotics plays an important role in alleviating depression. They help to serve the critical function of rebalancing the microbiome," says Dr. Ghannoum. Wondering what kind to get? Dr. Ghannoum recommends multi-strain probiotics, which may provide better benefits than single-strain products.