The Mind & The Gut
You’ve probably often heard phrases that relate our feelings to our stomach or “gut”; “I feel sick to my stomach”, “that was gut wrenching” or “I have a gut feeling”. But did you know that the connection between our gut and our emotions is actually real?
Mental health problems are strongly associated with gastrointestinal symptoms such as heartburn, indigestion, bloating, pain, constipation, diarrhoea, and acid reflux. People with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) — which affects your large intestine, or colon — frequently suffer from anxiety and depression.
What Is the gut and the gut microbiome?
Our “gut” is made up of our digestive system and includes organs such as the oesophagus, gallbladder, liver, pancreas, stomach and the small and large intestines.
Inside our digestive system there is a vast collection of microorganisms including bacteria, archaea, viruses, and fungi. The “microbiome” is the name given to all of the genes inside these microorganisms. We are all born with between 10 and 100 trillion microbial cells in our gut, which are vital to normal human health.
For example, the microbiota plays a role in a number of diseases and is important for nutrition, immunity, and it even affects our brain and behaviour. There’s still an awful lot that we don’t yet understand about what the gut microbiome does and there’s ongoing research into this very area. It’s estimated that we understand 10% at best of what the system can do
How the gut connects to our brains?
Your brain and your gut communicate both physically and chemically:
Physically, the vagus nerve connects your brain and gastrointestinal tract. This nerve oversees bodily functions, including digestion, mood, heart rate, and immune response.
The chemical connection is via hormones and neurotransmitters which send messages between the gut and the brain. The makeup of your gut microbiome can affect those chemical messages.
The digestive system is sensitive to emotion. Anger, anxiety, sadness, elation — all of these feelings (and others) can trigger symptoms in the gut. You may have felt nauseous in certain stressful situations? Or has worry given you a funny tummy? This is because the brain has a direct effect on the stomach and intestines. For example, the very thought of eating can release the stomach's juices before food gets there. This connection goes both ways. A problem in the intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a person's stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause of or the result of anxiety, stress, or depression.
In recent years, researchers have found that the microbiome may play a role in autism, depression, dementia, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
How to look after my gut microbiome?
There is still a lot we don’t understand about the microbiome, but it is believed that changes in your diet can alter your gut microbiome, which can then impact your mental wellbeing. For example, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, diet can have some positive influence on symptoms of hyperactivity, and neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism.
Taking care of your gut health starts with eating a balanced and nutritious diet. You’ll also need to eat a mix of foods containing prebiotics and probiotics.
Prebiotics: these help to feed the good bacteria in your gut. They can be found in high-fibre foods such as whole grains (barley, oats, quinoa, rye and wheat), fruit and vegetables including apples, asparagus, under-ripe bananas, berries, carrots, garlic, jicama, mangoes, onions, and tomatoes. For the most prebiotic benefit, eat these foods raw or lightly steamed.
Probiotics: these are live microorganisms that supply good bacteria to your gut. Fermented foods are high in probiotics. These include yoghurt with live or active cultures such as kefir as well as other fermented foods such as kimchi, kombucha, and sauerkraut.
Preserving your gut health also means avoiding unnecessary antibiotics, which kill both bad and good bacteria. Antibiotics are appropriate in the treatment of some bacterial infections, such as Strep throat and urinary tract infections. However, most common infections such as the common cold and flu are caused by viruses, are self-limiting and antibiotics will not have any effect on your symptoms. So make sure you’re not taking antibiotics when you don’t need them to help protect the delicate balance of bacteria in your gut microbiome.