We often think of our physical and mental health separately, but they couldn’t be more closely connected. In Chinese medicine, the gut is referred to as the second brain. That’s because it can operate on it’s own and it constantly communicates with the brain. It is a vital conduit of information for the body.
Not only does the gut send information to the brain, it receives information as well. It’s sensitive to emotions like anger, anxiety, sadness, and joy. That’s why you might feel “butterflies” in your stomach when you feel nervous or scared. Or why you may lose your appetite or have an increased appetite when you’re sad or mad. The reverse is also true, that an unhealthy gut can contribute to depression and anxiety.
How are the brain and gut connected?
The vagus nerve is the gut’s direct connection to the brain. It also controls messages to the heart, lungs, and other vital organs. Everything in your body is connected and one system does not work totally independently of another. They all have their own jobs and processes, but they all affect one another to some degree, especially if they are not working properly.
The gut connects with the brain chemically through hormones and neurotransmitters that send messages. Those chemical messages can be affected by the gut microbiome, the bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live in the gut. Your microbiome is alive and it can be beneficial, harmless, or harmful to your body.
Mental Health and The Gut Microbiome
Scientists theorized as far back as the 1950’s that bad bacteria in the gut were the cause, or at least contributed to, mental illness. While their methods of treatment left a lot to be desired, they saw some proof that backed up their theories. Fast forward to today and so much more is known and understood about the gut and mental health connection.
Today we can clearly see that stress changes the gut microbiome because of what happens during the body’s stress response. There is a strong relationship between having mental health problems and having gastrointestinal symptoms like heartburn, indigestion, acid reflux, bloating, pain, constipation, and/or diarrhea. Recent studies in probiotic research have revealed the ability of probiotics to affect brain processes. An assessment of the psychotropic-like properties of probiotics showed that one month of probiotics was found to significantly decrease symptoms of anxiety, depression, anger, and hostility (talk to your doctor before you start taking probiotics).
Scientists are still theorizing on how intestinal bacteria may be communicating with our brain, but what we already know is enough to take action. Especially since improving your gut bacteria can be done by simply changing your diet. I would call that the least risky approach to improving your health and not even close to as disturbing as the 1950’s lobotomy or colectomy. In other words, we have options…good options.
How to Improve Your Gut Health
Eat fermented foods:
Common fermented foods are kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, tempeh, kombucha, and plant-based yogurt. Fermented foods are rich in probiotic bacteria so they will add beneficial bacteria and enzymes to your intestinal flora. Some people may take probiotic supplements instead of eating fermented foods. I don’t recommend that route because there just isn’t enough evidence to support the efficacy and safety of probiotic supplements.
Eat prebiotic fiber:
The good bacteria in your gut live off of prebiotics or non-digestible carbohydrates. It stands to reason that if you want to multiply the good bacteria in your gut, you have to feed it. So eat more foods like onions, oats, wheat bran, bananas, and asparagus.
Eat less sugar and artificial sweeteners:
Eating a lot of sugar or artificial sweeteners may cause gut dysbiosis, which is an imbalance of gut microbes. Eat more fruit, whose natural sugar is wrapped in fiber and benefits not only your gut microbiome but also your insulin sensitivity.
Avoid taking antibiotics:
Sometimes it’s necessary to take antibiotics for bacterial infections, but overuse is a significant public health concern. Never let a doctor prescribe antibiotics without testing for bacterial infections. There is a major difference between viral and bacterial infections. There is no benefit of antibiotics on a viral infection such a cold or even most sinus infections which are often caused by the common cold. Yet many doctors prescribe antibiotics “just in case” for things like sinus infections.
Antibiotics take no prisoners in your gut, meaning they wipe out bad and good bacteria. Leaving your gut defenseless. Avoid antibiotics as much as possible and always opt for a natural course of treatment when you can.
Exercise contributes to your overall health in a lot of ways, but research has shown that it may also improve your gut health. One study showed that athletes had a larger variety of gut flora than non-athletes. Their probable healthier diet could be the cause of this, but with all the other benefits exercise provides, I think we can all agree we should include it in our regular routine just in case.
Get enough sleep:
Getting regular and sufficient amounts of sleep can reduce stress and has a lot of benefits for your overall health. But one study showed that irregular and disruptive sleep patterns could have negative impacts on gut flora, increasing the risk of inflammatory conditions.
Your body’s stress response is pretty taxing on your organs and systems. Being in a continuous high-stress state doesn’t allow your body any time for recovery, making the effects even worse. Remember the brain and gut connection…your gut feels your emotions.
Be cautious of cleaning products:
Disinfecting cleaning products can disrupt the gut microbiome just the same as antibiotics. A study that analyzed the gut flora of over 700 infants ages 3-4 months found that those who lived in homes where disinfectant cleaning products were used at least weekly were twice as likely to have higher levels of Lachnospiraceae gut microbes, a type associated with type 2 diabetes and obesity. These infants were followed to age 3, where they were found to have a higher body mass index than children with exposure to such high levels of disinfectants.
Eat a plant-based diet:
There are many studies that show a significant difference between the gut microbiome of vegetarians and those who eat meat. One study showed that people with obesity who followed a strict plant-based diet for one month had lower levels of gut inflammation along with weight loss.
Maintaining Gut and Mental Health
We have enough evidence to clearly decide that number one, all of our organs and their systems affect one another and number two, maintenance of them all is important enough to put some effort into if we want to live healthy and happy lives.
The good news is, treatment and maintenance just require some simple lifestyle changes. But simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy. You aren’t just facing habit change, it’s not as simple as “do this instead of that.” You’re facing mental barriers and everything life throws at you daily. There is no one-size-fits all, step-by-step plan for lifestyle change. Your desires, preferences, schedule, family, priorities, responsibilities, career, challenges, fears, coping mechanisms, environment…they are all different from the next person’s. That’s why my approach to coaching each person is different. That’s why I call myself a collaborator.
With certifications in personal training, holistic nutrition, and life coaching, I may be the expert on the technical stuff, but I believe you are the expert on yourself and your life. I come alongside women like you, providing guidance and simplifying the process while we work together to get you where you want to be. If you know your mental or physical health, weight, routines, and/or habits need some attention, let’s work together to get you on track to the life you want. Start here.