The Mind-Gut Connection – The Power of The Gastrointestinal Tract
Most of us know that the digestive tract is very important for one thing, pooping! This is fantastic because poop is one of our most efficient ways to remove toxins from the body. However, most people don't realize the health of our gut directly plays a role in the health of our brain. Our microbiome, a symbiotic group of bacteria, live in harmony in our gut. These bacteria produce neurotransmitters (one of the many compounds they produce), which communicate directly with the brain. If our gut is out of balance we can begin to experience not only digestive issues, but also anxiety, brain fog and a heightened pain response. This article will explore how the mind and gut are connected, what things can go wrong and how you can begin to improve the communication between your gut and your brain.
Foundation for the Mind-Gut Connection
How is one of our most powerful organs, the brain, communicating with our gut? First we have to look at the "super-highway" or the actually pathway that provides a direct connection between the two. It's called the vagus nerve, it runs down the length of our back and provides the perfect path for neurotransmitters to travel to the gut and the brain. The most interesting part of this pathway is it's bi-directional, meaning the gut can send signals the brain can read and the brain can send signals the gut can read. That's pretty powerful!
Intuitively, we may all know the mind and gut are connected. We have a lot of phrases in the English language that highlights this connection:
bad taste in my mouth
getting our ass in gear
butterflies in my stomach
These are all common terms used to describe the connection between how we feel and our gut. While the gut does not control these areas directly, it does play a role in programing responses to certain situations. From an early age what we eat, going to the bathroom and feeling sick, all begin to build emotional responses associated with the gut. Our gut does this in two ways. One way is through millions of nerve ending sending direct responses to the brain and the other is through a bacteria population so large, the number of bacteria DNA cells outnumber our own human cells. This population of bacteria is often referred to as our microbiome. The bacteria in our gut not only produce neurotransmitters, our communication compounds, they also make vitamins, play a role in our immune system, breakdown foods, create short chain fatty acids that protect our colon and create many other metabolites that have a variety of health benefits. So what happens when things get out of balance?
When things go wrong
Many things can impact the healthy balance of bacteria in the gut. Stress, eating the standard America diet, hypothyroid (can decrease stomach acid levels), eating foods your body is allergic to or has a sensitivity too and taking PPIs or antibiotics, to name a few. Our goal is to have a diverse gut microbiome with many different strains of bacteria because each bacteria has a unique role. The bacteria in our gut impacts the way our bodies produce neurotransmitters which directly impact the way we feel.
Serotonin helps regulate our mood and is made in the gut by enterochromaffin cells. These cells depends on microbes in the gut to function and to produce adequate levels of serotonin. 90% of serotonin in the body is found in the gut!
Acetylcholine is involved with muscle contractions and activates pain response. It can increase gut motility causes diarrhea and discomfort which impacts the diversity of our microbiome.
GABA calms down the body and mind and low levels have been linked to anxiety and depression. Lactobacillus rhamnosus a bacteria in the gut has been found to upregulate GABA receptors in the brain.
Recent studies are exploring what happens you manipulate the bacteria in the gut and the impact it has on the body. For example mice that are raised in a sterile environment vs. those with a healthy amount of gut bacteria exhibit bizarre behaviors. Mice in a sterile environment produce higher amounts of stress hormones, are more anxious and are not able to assess and avoid potentially harmful situations. Another study took mice that were timid and afraid, altered their gut bacteria and they become avid explorers.
What can you do to have a healthy gut?
Maintain diversity and a healthy balance is ideal and here are some ways you can optimize the health of your gut:
Eat 5 cups of vegetables per day
Find ways to manage and decrease stress. This allows you to access your parasympathetic nervous system, or your rest and digest system
Meditation, float tanks, deep breathing, massage, walks in the sunshine, dancing, etc
Take a broad spectrum probiotic (my favorite is Klaire Labs Ther-Biotic) and a digestive enzyme (my favorite is Intolerance Complex by Enzyme Science)
Remove foods from your diet that your body has a negative reaction to
Include fermented foods in your daily diet
Kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, miso, natto, pickles
Eat a diverse diet of whole foods
Aim for 40 different whole foods per week (green apple, red apple, brown rice, red rice, etc).
The mind-gut connection is complex and we can safely say the gut plays a significant role in the way we feel. While we don't know every reaction that takes place in the gut, we know the power of a diverse microbiome. Fueling your body to support gut bacteria is crucial not only for your overall health but your mood too!