Reducing stress may be as easy as eating better according to a mounting body of evidence that links anxiety, depression, and even sleep deprivation to gut health. It’s long been known that the quality of microorganisms in our gut impacts digestion, but researchers now believe gut bacteria affects the brain.
“Wherever there is mental distress, there is digestive distress,” says integrative medicine and mental health expert Dr. Leslie Korn. “The brain is not always the cause of mental illness.”
A study earlier this year from Victoria Deakin University shows how simple improvements in diet can treat cases of major depression, especially the introduction of fresh, pesticide-free vegetables, which aid gut flora and improve gut health.
Multiple studies show us that people who eat a balanced diet with all the usual good stuff (fiber, fresh fruit, and vegetables) have lower rates of mental illness.
Another recent study that appeared in the Journal of Psychiatric Research showed that the feces of depressed patients contained microbiota much less rich and diversified than a non-depressed control group. Co-author of the study, world renown neuroscience expert Ted Dinan, calls the human-bacteria relationship a “deeply symbiotic one.” According to Dinan, there are more than 3.5 pounds of bacteria in the average gut that are “absolutely essential and produce products our brains and other organs need.”
For example, certain strains of gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters, chemical messengers that relay signals between the gut and brain. Bifidobacteria for instance produces the neurotransmitter tryptophan that regulates mood, appetite, and sexual desire among other processes that used to be associated with the brain rather than the gut.
Korn says healthy gut bacteria also “regulate inflammatory processes in the body,” which underlie depression, anxiety, and other mental and cognitive disorders.
That Lovin’ Feeling Between Gut And Brain
The belief that gut health is connected to mental well-being actually dates back more than a hundred years. In the early 1900s, scientists and clinicians emphasized the relationship between gastrointestinal health and mental health. But by 1930 opinions reversed and it was thought that gastrointestinal disorders were provoked by mental health disorders instead.
Today it’s known that the gut has a bidirectional relationship with the central nervous system, referred to as the gut-brain axis. This allows the gut to send and receive signals to and from the brain through the vagus nerve, a long meandering bundle of motor and sensory fibers that links the brainstem to the heart, lungs, and gut.
It’s still not completely clear how the gut microbiota alters the brain. Most researchers agree that microbes probably influence the brain via multiple mechanisms. Scientists have found that gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and GABA, all of which play a key role in mood. Certain organisms also affect how people metabolize these compounds, effectively regulating the amount that circulates in the blood and brain. Gut bacteria may also generate other neuroactive chemicals, including one called butyrate, that have been linked to reduced anxiety and depression.
Nutritionist and entrepreneur Dave Asprey, points out that the highest concentration of butyrate may be found in high quality grass-fed butter.
“Butyrate protects against intestinal permeability in rat models of ulcerative colitis,” says Asprey, Bulletproof Nutrition CEO and best-selling author of The Bulletproof Diet. “This shows that short-chain fatty acids, including butyrate, play an important role in the maintenance of gut barrier integrity.”
The influence exerted by the gut over the central nervous system is so important, scientists now refer to it as “the little brain” or enteric nervous system (ENS). And it’s not really so little. The ENS is two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract from esophagus to rectum. According to Dr. Jay Pasricha, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, “The enteric nervous system doesn’t seem capable of thought as we know it, but it communicates back and forth with our big brain with profound results.”
For example, Pasricha believes the ENS may trigger emotional shifts experienced by people coping with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other functional bowel issues such as constipation, diarrhea, bloating, pain, and stomach upset.
“For decades, researchers and doctors thought that anxiety and depression contributed to these problems,” says Pasricha. “But studies show that it may be the other way around.”
It is now believed that irritation in the gastrointestinal system sends signals to the central nervous system that trigger the changes in mood.
“These new findings are important,” says Pasricha, “because they may explain why a higher-than-normal percentage of people with IBS and functional bowel problems develop depression and anxiety.”
Sleep Issues May Be All In Your Stomach
New evidence suggests that gut microbiota influences sleep quality and the sleep-wake cycles (our circadian rhythm). In a breakthrough study this year, researchers examined patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and found they tend to have an excess of a specific strain of bad gut bacteria. Not coincidentally, 90 percent of people with CFS also suffer from IBS.
“I would definitely say that most people who suffer with CFS also have IBS, and a lot seem to have constipation rather than diarrhea,” says certified health coach Tom Shearer.
Shearer himself has suffered from insomnia, anxiety, and severer depression — conditions he feels were brought on by an imbalance in his gut health after taking strong antibiotics to eradicate a parasite.
“I had a Genova stool test, which showed that I had no Lactobacillus bacteria left in my gut,” says Shearer, who decided to undergo a series of fecal implants to restore this beneficial bacteria.
“There was a noticeable difference in my energy levels after the first treatment,” says Shearer.
The importance of beneficial gut bacteria cannot be overstated. Another recent study has shown that certain good gut bacteria can produce extra levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which has long been associated with better sleep.
There is also ample data from animal studies that show an unbalanced gut microbiota can lead to circadian misalignment.
But Is Conventional Medicine Paying Attention?
Leading experts deem gut health and the gut microbiome a new frontier in neuroscience. Among holistic practitioners, this “brain in your gut” concept is revolutionizing medicine’s understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health and even the way we think. However, conventional medicine, as usual, is slow to accept new ideas. Certified integrative nutrition coach Connie Rogers believes this needs to change.
“Unfortunately, medical professionals may not let you in on what can truly help heal your mental health,” says Rogers.
Our gut microbiome is what determines our physical health and how mentally stable we are. Medication may be only partially effective in varying subsets of patients suffering from stress-related disorders (anxiety) of the brain-gut axis. The fact is, our central nervous system can be profoundly disturbed by the absence of a healthy gut microbiota.
Rogers believes many people suffering from cognitive-related illnesses who are currently being treated with strong conventional medication, could benefit from a more natural approach that focuses on improving gut health.
Such is the case with autism. For decades, researchers have noted that about 75 percent of people with autism also have a gastrointestinal abnormality. This has led to several recent studies that show the microbiome of autistic people differs significantly from control groups. A paper published in the journal Cell reports that mice with symptoms similar to autism become less anxious and more communicative with other mice when they are fed the gut healthy bacteria Bacteroides fragilis. On the other hand, mice with autism-like symptoms produced a bad for the gut chemical called 4-ethylphenylsulphate at a rate 40 times higher than normal mice.
Microbiome specialist Sarkis Mazmanian at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena says this animal study demonstrates a “potential breakthrough” in understanding how microbes contribute to autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. According to Mazmanian, the results suggest that adjusting gut bacteria could be a viable treatment for autism, at least in some patients. “We may be able to reverse these ailments.”
According to Rogers, research shows that other cognitive diseases that could benefit from a healthier gut microbiome include:
10 Ways To Improve Gut Health
According to the American Psychological Association, Americans are more stressed than ever. Clearly, a well-balanced microbiota is crucial. The food we eat and lifestyle choices we make play important roles in our mental health by balancing the 40 million bacteria that live mostly in our guts. For better gut health, give these recommendations a try:
1. Eat fermented foods — Choose ones that contain live cultures and have not been pasteurized, since pasteurization kills the beneficial bacteria. Good choices include sauerkraut, kimchi, coconut kefir, and kombucha. Many of these foods are rich in lactobacilli, a type of bacteria that can benefit your gut.
2. Eat organic fruits, legumes, beans, and vegetables – Many holistic practitioners believe fruits and vegetables (especially artichokes, peas, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts) are the best sources of nutrients for a healthy microbiota. They are high in fiber, which can’t be digested by your body, but fiber can be digested by certain bacteria in your gut, which stimulates growth. Organic is better because pesticides, which destroy good bacteria, are not used in cultivating the plants.
3. Use Probiotics — These are supplements that introduce live beneficial microbes into your digestive tract and help improve your gut health. It’s important to use probiotics that survive stomach acids. Just Thrive offers the only all natural probiotic-and-antioxidant combination product that 100 percent survives the harsh conditions of the stomach and arrives alive in the small intestine to get to work for you.
4. Use Prebiotics – A prebiotic is a specialized plant fiber that beneficially nourishes the good bacteria already in the large bowel or colon. While probiotics introduce good bacteria into the gut, prebiotics act as a fertilizer for the good bacteria that’s already there. An excellent prebiotic is in the mix of some superfoods, such as Equilibrium.
5. Molecular Hydrogen – The studies are many, this antioxidant supplement helps gut microbiomes stay healthy by reducing oxidative stress, which often leads to inflammatory conditions. Hydra molecular hydrogen tablets are potent and easy to use. Tablets are simply placed in a liquid beverage, preferably water, and take 10-15 minutes to completely dissolve.
6. Exercise – A particularly innovative study showed that exercise encourages beneficial bacteria to thrive in your gut while lack of physical activity has just the opposite impact. Exercise improves peristalsis — the movement of digested food through your digestive tract into the lower colon, which has more probiotic bacteria than anywhere in the body.
7. Eat foods rich in polyphenols – Plant compounds that help reduce blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol levels, and oxidative stress are called polyphenols. These compounds can’t always be digested by human cells so they make their way to the colon, where they can be digested by gut bacteria. Good polyphenol sources include green tea, almonds, onions, blueberries, broccoli, grape skins, and cocoa/dark chocolate.
8. Avoid processed/vary your diet – The term processed food refers to food that has been purposely changed in some way before consumption. Processed foods offer no to little nutritional value. Instead, they provide harmful chemicals, high-fructose corn syrup, and artificial ingredients which weaken the immune system and gut microbiota. A more varied diet with real food promotes good gut health because there are hundreds of species of bacteria in your intestines and, while each species plays a different role in your health, they also require different nutrients for growth.
9. Vagus nerve stimulation — The vagus nerve supplies motor parasympathetic fibers to all organs except adrenal glands, all the way from the neck down to the second segment of the transverse colon. It helps regulate heart rate, speech, sweating, and various gastrointestinal functions. Keeping the vagus nerve toned helps maintain a healthy gut – brain connection. The vagus nerve can be stimulated in many ways including practicing yoga, singing, massage, and by simply thinking positive thoughts. There’s even a product called Nervana that’s wearable and sends a gentle electrical wave through the left ear canal to stimulate the body’s vagus nerve while syncing with music, which in turn stimulates the release of neurotransmitters in the brain that generate a calming sensation throughout the body.
10. Avoid Toxins – Healthful gut bacteria are killed off by several different toxins including strong medicines like antibiotics. Pesticides are also problematic, especially those that contain glyphosate such as Monsanto’s Roundup, which is often sprayed on non-organic food we eat. Studies show glyphosate destroys gut health and kills healthy gut bacteria. The process is an insidious one where the body mistakes glyphosate for the beneficial neurotransmitter glycine and incorporates the weed killer into human metabolism. The outcome can be truly disastrous. Glyphosate has been linked to diabetes, obesity, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pulmonary edema, adrenal insufficiency, hypothyroidism, Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, prion diseases, lupus, mitochondrial disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, neural tube defects, infertility, hypertension, glaucoma, osteoporosis, fatty liver disease, and kidney failure.
Thomas Ropp Longtime journalist Thomas Ropp is an environmental advocate and proponent of living healthier. After spending most of his life in Arizona, he relocated to a Costa Rican rainforest ten years ago and helped with reforestation projects to expand the habitat of the endangered mono titi monkey. He has dual residency in the United States and Costa Rica.
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