Have you ever had a “gut-wrenching” experience? Do you feel nauseous when you’re nervous and anxious? Have you ever experienced “butterflies” in your stomach?
These descriptions aren’t figures of speech - your brain and your gut are actually intimately connected.
There is a tremendous amount of information that flows from the gut to the brain via the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve, and is essentially the captain of your inner nerve center. It’s responsible for overseeing a vast range of crucial functions, and communicating nerve impulses to every organ in your body. The point? This nerve doesn’t just concern itself with the brain - it actually connects the brain to the gut, so both are party to the information that flows along it.
The flow doesn’t just go from brain to gut, either: recent research suggests that the chemicals and nerves in the gut influence our emotional responses, whereas previously we thought emotions all originated in the brain.
For example, approximately 85% of the body’s serotonin (our “happy hormone) is found in the gut! Similarly, researchers have found that balanced gut bacteria in early childhood leads to adults with less anxiety, and general cheerfulness.
New research also shows that gut bacteria communicate with and influence brain function. An imbalance in the good and bad gut bacteria, termed dysbiosis, is associated with a variety of neurological and psychiatric conditions, as well as Type 2 diabetes, autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disease and even cognitive function.
Dysbiosis is also very strongly linked to mental or emotional disorders. For example, people with dysbiosis commonly have symptoms such as depression, insomnia, anxiety and mood swings, memory problems, “brain fog”, immune problems, inflammation, and intestinal disorders.
In fact, 20% of patients with functional bowel disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) have diagnosable mental disorders! Almost one-third of patients with IBS have been found to have anxiety or depression.
Gut health, then is crucial not just for physical well-being, but for mental health, as well.
What’s the cause of poor gut health?
Our modern society is rife with poor gut health, for a variety of reasons.
The overuse of antibiotics is destroying our gut bacteria and causing dysbiosis. Not only do antibiotics cause depleted immunity, but since the gut is often referred to as our second brain, antibiotics are also indirectly affecting our mental health.
Other medications that can destroy gut bacteria overtime include oral contraceptives and corticosteroid medications.
2. The Leaky Gut Factor
A study that was published in the popular journal Nature (2011) revealed that antibiotics are permanently destroying beneficial bacteria within the gut, causing leaky gut, a condition that scientists now link to mental illness.
When you suffer from leaky gut, leaked particles filter into the bloodstream and trigger inflammation in the brain – resulting in brain degeneration and changes in mood. This can also greatly affect our immune response, affecting our physical health.
3. Chronic Stress
Chronically elevated cortisol from chronic stress, which the vast majority of adults in North America experience, disrupt the delicate microbiome balance in the digestive system. This increases inflammation, possibly leading to brain disorders.
4. Excess sugar and refined carbohydrates
Sugar suppresses the activity of a key growth hormone in the brain called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
This hormone promotes the health and maintenance of neurons in the brain, and it plays a vital role in memory and learning by triggering the growth of new connections between neurons. Sugar also feeds the “bad” bacteria in the gut, thus disrupting a healthy digestive system.
Supporting the Gut-Brain Connection
A little freaked out by how your gut may be affecting your mental and physical health? Try not to let it stress you out - there’s a lot anyone can do to boost their gut health.
Research is showing that people treated with lactobacillus and bifidobacterium (two common probiotics) experience improvements in psychological distress, anxiety, depression, had decreased anger and hostility, and improvements in problem solving.
Support your Adrenals
Using adaptogenic herbs such as Rhodiola, Siberian ginseng, and Ashwagandha and stress supplements such as magnesium, B vitamins, L-theanine, GABA and vitamin C help keep the digestive system and immune system balanced as well as decreases inflammation by regulating stress hormones.
Identify food allergies
The importance of food allergies in irritable bowel syndrome has been recognized since the early 1900s. Later studies have further documented this and according to a double-blind challenge, approximately two-thirds of those with IBS have at least one food intolerance, and most have multiple intolerances. The most common allergens are dairy, gluten, fatty foods, alcohol and eggs.
Include omega-3 fatty acids in your diet
Depression and anxiety appear to be linked to lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Both depression and anxiety can enhance the production of pro-inflammatory compounds in the body, and omega-3s are a powerful anti-inflammatory.
Supplement with vitamin D
Vitamin D deficiency has been repeatedly observed in conditions involving inflammation, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, anxiety and depression. New research shows that low levels of vitamin D are associated with clinically significant symptoms of depression in otherwise healthy individuals (Psychiatry Research, March 6, 2015).
The digestive system itself is a center point of the nervous system, hormonal system, and immune system. Therefore, keeping it supported through diet, stress management and some nutritional supplements ensure the optimal functioning - not just for your stomach, but for your whole body, and mind.
Dr. Marita Schauch, Bsc, ND
Tall Tree Integrated Health Centre
5325 Cordova Bay Rd.
Victoria, BC V8Y 2L3