Think back to a time when you had butterflies in your tummy – maybe an important job interview, or when you first fell in love. Those fluttery feelings are your gut and your brain talking to each other.
In the same way that stressful, exciting or nerve-wracking situations cause changes in your digestive system, your gut health can affect your mood. This two-way communication superhighway is known as the gut-brain axis.
In this article, you’ll discover more about this connection between your gut and your brain, and how supporting your digestive health can boost your mood.
Your central nervous system consists of your brain and spinal cord, while your enteric nervous system is made up of millions of nerves throughout your digestive system. Your gut communicates with your brain via your vagus nerve – your body’s longest and most complex nerve. It forms part of your parasympathetic nervous system, overseeing bodily functions like your digestion, heart rate, immune system and your mood.
Your gut microbiome is made up of as many as one thousand different species of bacteria, but the proportion of these species varies from person to person.
The trillions of microbes living in your gut have all sorts of roles, including keeping your immune system healthy and controlling chronic inflammation, as well as directly affecting your vagus nerve.
Some species of bacteria are connected with depression and anxiety. When scientists examined the gut bacteria of people suffering from depression, they found similar species of bacteria were elevated or missing.
Frequently, people suffering from mental health disorders have less diverse gut bacteria – in other words, they have fewer species living in their intestines than the wider population. This mirrors findings that less varied gut bacteria are connected with increased susceptibility to chronic diseases in general. The missing or reduced bacteria in both cases were those producing substances with anti-inflammatory properties, like short-chain fatty acids, while the types of bacteria releasing inflammatory substances tended to be elevated in mental health conditions.
Your gut bacteria influence your mood in many different ways not yet fully understood. Changes in gut bacteria have been found to be connected with happiness, motivation, sociability and emotional attention.
One short-chain fatty acid is known as butyrate, and it’s only produced by certain species of gut bacteria. It appears to help regulate with the immune system in the intestines, preventing it attacking harmless parts of your body instead of invaders.
Butyrate also reduces inflammation, and plays an important role in nourishing your intestinal lining, keeping it healthy. An unhealthy intestinal lining means you’ll absorb fewer nutrients, and if its permeability increases, toxins, bacteria and other undesirable substances will be absorbed into your bloodstream, potentially irritating nerves and putting your entire immune system on red alert.
Serotonin is a chemical helping your brain cells communicate with one another, and it’s best known for its role in mood and regulating sleep. Too little serotonin is linked with low mood and depression. Most of the serotonin in your body is manufactured in your gut, where it helps move food through your digestive system. It’s believed some types of gut bacteria help to produce serotonin. Scientists believe this serotonin can be carried to your brain along your vagus nerve.
All this means altering the population of bacteria in the gut, which differs slightly between every individual, could help alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Your gut bacteria are affected by many situations – medicines, food, alcohol, even stress. By far the most effective way of balancing your microbiome is by eating plenty of fibre-rich plant foods. It’s best to eat a wide range of plant foods to encourage a more diverse microbiome. That way, you’ll naturally increase the amount of butyrate-producing bacteria while keeping harmony in your microbiome.
Other ways to boost microbiome health include consuming fermented foods and drinks like kefir or kombucha, avoiding sugar, processed foods and alcohol, and taking a supplement of probiotic bacteria.
Beware, though, increasing fibre can sometimes cause bloating, gas and even cramping and diarrhoea. If this happens to you, it’s likely you have significant disturbances of your gut bacterial population, known as dysbiosis. In this case, it’s best to work with a practitioner who can determine the foods most beneficial for you while working with you to restore a healthy microbiome.
Functional testing can reveal if your microbiome is out of balance by examining the types of bacteria in your stool as well as the messenger substances they’re producing to build up a picture of the health of your bacterial ecosystem.
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