The feeling of butterflies in your stomach is a sensation that most of us have experienced as we anticipate the drop on a roller coaster or while waiting in the lobby for that big job interview. Physical experiences like these are signals your gut is communicating with the brain. For a long time, researchers thought communication was just unilateral; from the brain to the gut. It has now become clear that there is a bilateral relationship occurring. Not only do our thoughts and feelings impact our gut but just as significantly, our digestive system influences our mental and emotional health.
One of the fundamental ways in which our gut health is important in the equation of mental well-being has to do with the microbiome. The microbiome is the ecosystem of about 100 trillion organisms consisting of microbes such as bacteria, yeast, fungi and viruses. The large majority of these organisms, which collectively weigh about two kilograms, reside in our digestive tract. Amazingly enough, recent research has found that we are more microbe than human! This is why the gut microbiome is becoming known as the 2nd genome. A healthy gut flora, another term for microbiome, has an abundant representation of a diverse variety of species. While an imbalanced flora is known as dysbiosis. It is challenging to think of modern-day chronic disease without consideration of the gut, which includes many mental health conditions. Anxiety, depression, PTSD, autism, ADD, neurogenerative disease, as well as OCD have been linked to the gut microbiome.
We continue to learn more about the mechanisms supporting connection of the gut microbe and mental health. One method is through the vagus nerve which is the information pathway between the gut and brain. Gut microbiome help produce neurotransmitters and metabolites that communicate to the brain via this gut-brain axis between the central nervous system (CNS) and the enteric nervous system (ENS) in the gut. The ENS is embedded within the digestive tract walls and contain more neurons than the spinal cord. With recent advanced studies, we have learned that 95% of our serotonin production occurs in the gut, not the brain! Additionally, the bacteria, both good and bad, housed in our gut influence our ability to digest and absorb food. Whether this is running optimally or subpar directly impacts our absorption of the vital vitamins and minerals our body needs to do it’s 1000s of functions each and every day -- many of which relate to how we feel and function mentally. Even further, a healthy gut flora can support a reduction in inflammation in the gut and throughout the body resulting in improved brain functioning.
There are several ways in which we can best support the health and diversity of our microbiome and in turn take a holistic approach toward mental wellness. Our choices of food are one of the most essential steps that either support or hinder the delicate gut microbe balance. Foods that promote inflammation and diminish our health can damage our gut flora. Eating a diet that focuses on real, whole food sources while decreasing or even eliminating sources of refined sugars and flours, as well as processed foods, will best set us up for optimal gut health. For many, it can be helpful to consider probiotic food sources which introduce the healthy bacteria back into the body. Kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir are some examples of food sources that are good forms of live microbe cultures. Probiotics can also come in supplement form. Although individual needs differ, most people do best on a supplement form of probiotics that offers several strains of bacteria (which you will read on the label) and have at minimum 1 billion colony forming units (CFUs). As important as it is to introduce new sources of the good guys to our digestive tract, it is equally imperative to limit killing off these important players in our ecosystem. Take a cautious and considerate look at when to use antibiotics, sanitizers and harsh chemicals. For some, it is worth considering working with a functional medicine provider to learn more about your own gut ecosystem. Additionally, continued and intensive levels of stress is a common experience in this day and age. It is important to continue to develop strategies to limit our exposure to stressors, when possible, and to consider our individual ability to manage the stresses that are inevitable. Working with a SonderMind provider is a great opportunity to explore this key area of mental health and, bidirectionally, gut organism health.
We have come a long way from the time that we considered that our brains were the ultimate driver of thoughts and emotions. Yet, there is still so much to learn when it comes to understanding the role of gut microbiome in mental health. Current day researchers are exploring specific species of microbes and how they link with particular mental health diagnoses. Understanding more around the cause and effect of each type of bacteria will lead toward more effective routes of treatment. An emerging field, called psychobiotics, is a form of psychiatry in which mental health providers are boosting mental health via probiotic support rather than solely relying on psychotropic medications. As we all seek to live our best lives, having a more broad and whole-person view of mental health support will offer the best opportunity for optimal health.