How often have you heard someone describing their emotion in relation to their gut?
I’ve got this sinking feeling in my stomach …
I wish these butterflies would stop …
I feel sick to my stomach …
I am full of dread…
So why are the emotions created by the brain, physically felt in the stomach?
The answer is simple – The gut-brain connection!
The gut-brain axis is the super highway that connects your gut to your brain or brain to your gut (whichever way you want to look at it). What happens in the brain impacts the gut and vice versa. The gut-brain axis has attracted lots of attention over recent years and for good reason. We have become more curious about the role that the gut microbes play and how they impact the brain and our mental health.
What is the Microbiome?
The term microbiome refers to all the microorganisms and their genetic material that reside in the body. When we refer to the gut microbiome, we are referring to the organisms in the gut.
At present it is believed that there are ten times more organisms in the gut, than there are human cells in the body. Amazingly these microorganisms contain 150 times more genes than the human genome. This is really important when we try and understand the connection that the health of our gut has on the rest of the body.
Poor gut microbiota and disease
There is a strong connection between a poor gut microbiota and obesity, diabetes, autism, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and autoimmune disease to name a few. We are only at the very early stages of trying to make sense of the role that these microbes play in our overall health and how they impact the immune system and also the brain.
There is evidence highlighting that the microbiota directly activate the immune and central nervous system, therefore not surprising that there is a strong connection between the health of your gut microbes and development of autoimmune disease.
So why is there such a strong connection between the gut and our mood? The key connection is serotonin.
Serotonin and the gut
Did you know that 90% of your serotonin is produced in your digestive tract and only a small percentage in the brain. The serotonin made in your gut is structurally the same as that made by the brain. They are just located in different places and made by different cells, but ultimately they perform the same function in different parts of the body. It is believed that certain microbial species from the gut microbiome stimulate gut endocrine cells in order to produce serotonin. It seems that yet again your good bacteria have a lot to answer for.
Understanding the role of the gut in serotonin production is really important when we start to look at ways in which to support individuals with low mood, anxiety, depression or mood disorders. Very often this factor is overlooked in conventional medicine and poor gut health is hardly ever a consideration when someone is looking for support for their mental health. This is why the gut-brain axis should be the first consideration when looking at ways to support mental health in any form.
Over and above serotonin, your gut microorganisms are also capable of producing and delivering gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is a really important inhibitory neurotransmitter that is largely responsible to keeping your neuronal excitability at bay. When you don’t have sufficient GABA in the body, you can present with symptoms of anxiety, nervousness, ADHD and more. This is why the health of your gut and diversity of gut microbes are KEY when you want to optimise your mental health or get to the root cause of your ongoing mental health symptoms!
The health of your gut
The human gut microbiota contains more than 1,000 species and over 7,000 subspecies. The diversity of species is constantly changing and are easily influenced by drugs, diet, sleep, lifestyle factors, thoughts and stress. We know that simply separating rhesus monkeys from their mothers changed their microbiome and decreased levels of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium levels. This experiment was replicated in rats and again the separation led to decreased levels of Lactobacillus on the third day after separation, which was maintained for an extended period of time.
It is therefore not surprising to learn that the microbes in your gut influence the messages in your brain, which can change your emotions, thoughts and behaviours.
The food you eat has a direct impact on the health of your gut microbes and increase problematic bacteria, which can crowd out the good bacteria. This can lead to a dysbiotic state, that can lead to increased intestinal permeability (aka leaky gut), and leaky gut can lead to a whole host of health problems and diseases. What’s also important to consider is that these problematic bacteria produce something known as Lipopolysaccharides (LPS) that can interfere with the uptake of serotonin and dopamine by the brain. These LPS can also increase neurotransmitters that can cause anxiety and depression.
The question we all need to be asking is, how can we keep our gut healthy in order to optimise our mental and brain health?
There are many things you can do on daily basis to keep your gut healthy, but I am going to share my top 10 top tips on how you can optimise your microbiome and therefore your mental and physical health.
10-top tips to achieve a more diverse microbiome
- Avoid antimicrobials incl. antibiotics as much as possible as these kill off the beneficial bacteria in your gut.
- Enjoy a diet rich in diverse nutrients & fibres. The greater the variety of vegetables, fruit, pulses, the more these microbes will flourish. Aim to add one new food a week that you wouldn’t normally eat (fruit, vegetable, fibre).
- Limit your intake of sugar and processed foods as this will provide food for all the problematic bacteria, yeast and fungus, which can produce LPS and ultimately crowd out the good bacteria.
- Include prebiotic foods in your diet daily – onions, garlic, artichokes, asparagus, leeks, oats. For a more compressive list click here.
- Including probiotic foods – yoghurt, kefir, kimchi, kombucha, natto, miso, sauerkraut. For a more compressive list click here.
- Add 2 tablespoons of stewed apple to your diet every day (great for increasing the levels of good bacteria in the gut). Link the recipe is here.
- Look at your personal care products. If they contain any of the following then best to look at switching for a natural product. I love Tropic skincare.
- Phthalates (dibutyl, diethyl, dimethyl)
- Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)
- Fragrance, propylene glycol
- Diethanolamine (DEA)
- Triethanolamine (TEA)
- Monoethanolamine (MEA)
- Mineral oil if there is anything in there that kills stuff. Avoid antibacterial products. Don’t need to sterilise the environment
- Learn to manage stress and find ways where you can mitigate the impact on your body. Consider things like yoga, meditation, journalling, breathing, walking in nature, sitting outside barefoot, spending time with friends, dancing, laughing. As shown in both the rhesus monkeys and rats, stress can ultimately reduce the balance of beneficial bacteria in your gut.
- Aim to clock 8 hours of sleep each night. Sleep deprivation has been shown to alter the microbiome and can also lead to increased levels of stress and inflammation.
- Exercise your body in a healthy way. Healthy exercise can positively impact your microbiome, but in the same breath strenuous exercise can also damage the bacteria in your gut. Find the sweet spot that works for you!
Mental Health & your gut
In light of mental health awareness week, I think it is really important that you consider the role of the gut-brain axis when looking at ways in which you can support your mental health. There is also a really strong connection between thyroid and mental health and very often an underactive thyroid or hashimoto’s is diagnosed by a psychiatrist rather than a doctor. So always be mindful of considering the health of your thyroid when you are looking at ways to improve your mental health.