The exploration of the human microbiome — the colony of 100 trillion bacterial cells that reside in the digestive tract — and the vast array of impacts it has on physical, mental and emotional health is the focus of much research, with new findings and insights being reported with fervor on an almost daily basis.
We know now that the microbiome and the structures and systems that support it have a pivotal role in mental and emotional well-being. The health of the gut and the health of the mental/emotional body are inextricably linked, and there are several mechanisms through which this manifests. Fortunately, there are several tools and tricks we can utilize right now to ensure a happier gastrointestinal system and mind.
Your microbiome communicates with your enteric nervous system (ENS, the “second brain” of nerve tissue in the gut), your autonomic nervous system (the “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” branches of your nervous system) and your central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord).
This chain of communication is bimodal – it goes both ways, giving and receiving input. Butterflies in the stomach when you are in love or that sinking feeling when you get bad news are examples of the connection between the gut and mind.
Likewise, those with IBS, IBD, functional bowel disorders or digestive symptoms understand that when their physical symptoms are flaring, their mental outlook can crash.
Your gut flora spurs serotonin production and signaling. Serotonin is not the be-all and end-all hormone when it comes to depression, although conventionally it is often treated as such. It does play a role, however, and the gastrointestinal system has a large role in serotonin synthesis, use and cycling. Ninety percent of serotonin creation occurs in the digestive tract, which also houses the largest number of serotonin receptors — way more than the brain.
Certain bacterial strains in your gut actually “tell” cells in your digestive tract to make serotonin. The spore-forming bacterial strains Firmicutes and Actinobacter stimulate the enterochromaffin (EC) cells in the gut to make serotonin. These bacteria should be in a Goldilocks zone — not too many, not too few, but just right. Alterations in these populations of gut bugs confers higher risk of not just depression, but also obesity and functional gastrointestinal disorders like IBS. Imbalance of normal, healthy gut flora is called “dysbiosis” and is a root of much human suffering.
Your gut flora help keep the lining of your small intestine happy. The health and integrity of the lining of the small intestine is a major predictor of health, wellness and disease risk. The lining of the small intestine is the interface between your immune system and the environment, including all of the food and chemicals you ingest.
More than two-thirds of the immune system is found in the gut. Thus, immune provocation and stimulation, if left unchecked, will create a fire in the gut that spreads to the rest of the body. Inflammatory compounds are capable of loosening the tight junctions that help maintain good intestinal barrier function, can enter general circulation and cross the blood-brain barrier. In addition to altering neurotransmitter function and signaling, this creates oxidative stress in the brain, leading to a variety of symptoms ranging from anxiety and depression to brain fog. This is known as the “auto-intoxication” theory.
Compromise in the lining of the gut (often caused by the chronic inflammation) is known as leaky gut, or intestinal hyper permeability.
A wide range of things can cause dysfunctional permeability in the lining of the small intestine, including food rich in carbohydrates and sugar, and low in fiber and phytochemicals. Additional potential causes include binge drinking, chronic stress, a variety of pathogens and illness and drug use, including the appropriate use of antibiotics, acid-blocking drugs and other medications.
Your microbiome plays a crucial role in the health of the lining of your small intestine. Microbial balance — an absence of dysbiosis — is the key. Dysbiosis, an imbalance of healthy, beneficial flora or infection of the microbiome can interrupt a healthy lining. A dysbiotic gut flora means there are a higher number of bad guys on board than should be there. These bad guys are doing their bacterial thing, metabolizing and fermenting.
These bacterial byproducts from unsavory characters in the gut will create an inflammatory response in the immune system. Left unchecked, chronic dysbiosis will be able to generate enough immune provocation and inflammation to alter the integrity of the lining. That, in turn, spurs more immune activation and stimulation, creating a nasty feed forward cycle of inflammation that has ripple effects all the way up to your brain and your mental/emotional health.
On the other hand, a healthy, robust microbiome protects the lining of the small intestine by releasing anti-inflammatory compounds, maintaining appropriate pH and keeping the immune system balanced.
Keeping a diverse microbiome and an intact, functional gut lining are keys to mental well-being. This is well-established in mouse studies, and human studies are beginning to bear the same results: the more diverse the gut flora, the healthier the body and mind. There is less rumination and more engagement. There is less obesity and more leanness in those with a diverse gut flora.
You can’t look at the flora without looking at the structures that house them, and those with diverse gut flora also have a more functional intestinal lining and barrier. The two go hand in hand.
The good news is that the microbiome can be changed for the better, even after years of poor nutrition, infection, antibiotics or just the subtle and nefarious effects of living in the world we do. Research shows that diet-induced changes in the gut flora happen in as little as 72 hours. Utilizing nutrition and other lifestyle approaches, you can quickly increase beneficial diversity in your microbiome. And diversity, as in any ecological or social system, is the shield against ruin.
These 7 quick and easy tips will help get your gut happy and on track, and in turn promote emotional bliss as well:
1. Eat a variety of vegetables and fruits
This is prime fuel for your microbiome, which prefers fiber-dense foods. When you eat, you’re eating not just for yourself but for a hundred trillion. Eat within the context of your unique sensitivities, and know that many people with dysbiosis tend to do better on a low-FODMAP diet.
2. Eat fermented foods
Sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, real pickles, apple cider vinegar, yogurt and kefir (if you tolerate dairy products) are a few examples. Fermented foods help nourish and build a robust microbiome, because they contain healthy, beneficial bacteria and their metabolites.
3. Temper gluten and sugar with vegetables
These foods have been shown to select against a diverse flora and can contribute to motility problems, which can in turn worsen dysbiosis. When you eat these foods, if you do, make sure that you get in some vegetables with them to feed those good guys!
4. Use antibiotics judiciously
Indiscriminate killers of bacteria capable of altering the population of your microbiome enough to create dysbiosis, this class of drugs is incorrectly prescribed up to 40% of the time. Use antibiotics only if indicated, and be sure to take a probiotic along with them. The two will not cancel each other out, and the latter will offset negative side effects of the former.
5. Consider a shower filter
Chlorine is a major antibacterial compound, and you are exposed to a ton of it in an average ten-minute shower, which is all that is needed to negatively impact your microbiome. Shower filters are inexpensive and readily available.
6. Ditch Triclosan
Found in antibacterial hand soaps and washes, triclosan is implicated in the rise of antibiotic resistance, dysbiosis of the microbiome and increases risk of environmental allergies, asthma and eczema. Wash those hands with soap and water, or find a triclosan-free product.
7. Get some gut-healing nutrients on board
This will help restore the integrity of a dysfunctional intestinal lining. Zinc carnosine is a powerhouse against leaky gut. The amino acid L-glutamine is the preferred fuel for the cells that line the entire GI tract and is a gentle gut healer. The wildly popular collagen builders such as gelatin, bone broth and blueberries are easy foods to incorporate into your daily or weekly nutrition to help heal gut and brain alike.
The performance and well-being of the digestive system and the brain are intricately connected in a myriad of ways. Supporting one supports the other. Interrupting the cycle of dysfunction simmering in the gut leads to better clarity of mind, and dare I say, joy.
(Related: 7 Signs Your Gut Bacteria Are Out of Whack)