Our Mighty Gut Microbiome- What Is It & Why it’s Important for Your Mental Health
If you’re feeling stressed, anxious or depressed, it’s very likely your gut has something to do with it. Ever wonder why we use expressions like, Follow Your Gut -when we’re considering making a decision or, I literally had butterflies in my stomach, when expressing excitement. When things are not going so well – you often hear people say, It makes me sick to my stomach, or, There’s a pit in my stomach.
Although we make these statements with our brain, they all involve our gut microbiome, which is the community of about 100 trillion microbes living in your gut – and it’s what we call the Gut-Brain axis – which is the communication between your gut and your brain.
How Does the Gut Communicate with the Brain?
Recent research suggests that the connection actually goes both ways. The Gut-Brain axis is a bidirectional link between the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system of the body. The Gut-Brain axis is essentially the line of communication the highway between the gut and the brain.
There are now increasing bodies of research that are showing that the Gut-Brain axis is not only the direct line of communication between the gut and the brain, but also our gut health, and our overall brain and mood health.
There are 2 other components that connect the brain to the gut and dictate how the gut and the brain effectively communicate, which are the Vagus Nerve (VN) and the Enteric Nervous System.
The VN is a wandering nerve, a major two-way conduit between your brain and your internal organs, including your gut. The VN is a sensory nerve and the longest cranial nerve in the body. It starts at the base of the brain, travels down both sides of the neck and the heart, all throughout the stomach area, and into the intestines. The VN can be overactive as well as under active, but the great news is that it can be toned, strengthened, and stimulated similar to any muscle in your body. Some of its functions range from helping to regulate heartbeat, speech, sweating, and various other gastrointestinal functions.
More specifically, the VN is responsible for the following:
- Keeps the larynx open for breathing – feeds the lungs and diaphragm
- Slows/regulates the heartbeat
- Stimulates the secretion of saliva
- Releases bile
- Peristalsis (contraction) of the bowels
- Contracts the bladder
- Sends messages to the brain to produce/release Oxytocin (feel-good/bonding hormone)
- Reduces anxiety and depression
- Reduces stress and inflammation
- Increases immunity and longevity
The Enteric Nervous System is a network of nerves, separate from your central nervous system, that operates completely separate from the brain and calls its own shots, it’s essentially a brain in the gut. It connects with the central nervous systems and it contains about 200-600 million neurons. They have their own ability to be motor neurons and dictate what the gut does outside of the brain’s control, that’s why it’s called your second brain.
So for example, if your gut recognizes something, it has the ability to operate completely autonomously from the brain and dictate its course of action. This basically means that the gut has the ability to influence its own activity but also influence the activity of the rest of our body. The Enteric Nervous System also enables motor neurons to influence the activity of the smooth muscles in the gut wall and glandular secretions such as digestive enzymes, mucus, stomach acid, and bile.
So worthy to recap here the importance of this trifecta of the VN, Enteric Nervous System and Gut-Brain access is almost entirely dictating what your body does just by what goes in your gut and the diversity of your gut microbiome.
What Does Our Gut Microbiome Do?
Bacterial microbes are everywhere, you have friendly bacteria living all over and in your body like your skin, mouth, vaginal area and of course the gut. Our gut microbiome, which consists of trillions of microorganisms and can weigh up to 6 pounds and are vital to the development of the immune systema and various neural functions.
This bacterial population lives in your intestine and we acquire much of this bacteria as infants when we pass through the birth canal during delivery, but other factors, such as antibiotic overuse, birth by Caesarean section, eating a SAD diet, hormonal birth control methods, little time spent outdoors, chemical and pesticide exposure, and of course stress can all influence bacterial levels. More on how to support the healthy bacteria later.
These little guys are an astonishing variety of life forms and are like another organ of your body but its composition changes with every meal. They break down and absorb nutrients in the food we eat, communicate with the brain and immune system, produce sex hormones, produce waste, extract calories from food, control weight gain and fat loss hormones like leptin and ghrelin, so it also impacts what foods you crave, when you hungry and when you’re full, remove used hormones from the body so that levels don’t rise too high, manage inflammation, and the most relative to mental health is that the gut microbiome produce the brain’s chemical messengers including 90% of Serotonin. In a 2011 experiment, the research found that healthy mice who consumed a specific probiotic displayed more relaxed behavior than mice who did not consume the bacteria.
The probiotic bacteria, called Lactobacillus rhamnosus, contains a neurotransmitter called GABA that helps regulate brain activity and can calm anxiety. Based on the reactions of the mice that consumed L. rhamnosus, researchers concluded the bacteria were affecting their brain chemistry. Other chemical messengers produced in the gut microbiome are Acetylcholine, Noradrenaline, and Dopamine. These are the hormones that control mood and anxiety.
There is strong evidence from animal studies that gut microorganisms can activate the VN and play a critical role in mediating effects on the brain and behavior. These gut microbes produce chemical information relayed to the brain primarily via the VN.
Multiple studies have demonstrated that people with depression and anxiety have different microbiome than those without the conditions and there is even some promising research that supplementing with probiotics reduce feelings of depression and anxiety.
Research shows that altering bacteria in the gut through specific diets may help to treat stress-related and neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism and hyperactivity. Yes, you can change the composition of your gut bacteria by simply feeding the good guys and starving the bad guys. Show your gut who’s the boss by supporting your gut microbiome.
How Can You Support Your Gut Microbiome?
According to Ted Dinan and John Cryan, leading researchers in the field, coined a new word to name the microbes that can improve your mood: psychobiotics. These microbes are major players in the Gut-Brain axis. Below are a number of ways we can engage in to help support psychobiotocs and our mental health:
1. Reduce / Remove Inflammation
The #1 cause of death for chronic degenerative conditions is inflammation. Inflammation in the gut is inflammation in the brain. Chronic inflammation produces stress hormones indefinitely, leading to a surprising number of mental issues. Reducing or eliminating sources of inflammation such as refined sugar, refined wheats, ultra-processed foods because they are devoid of fiber, bad oils, managing blood-sugar, lack of quality sleep, vitamin deficiency especially Vitamin D, overeating due to emotional eating, lack of physical activity, and so much more, but I will leave it at that.
Eating foods that help to boost Glutathione – which is an endogenous anti-inflammatory antioxidant – such as Cruciferous Vegetables like in the Cabbage family is highly recommended. These veggies containing sulforaphane activate the NRF2 pathway that increase antioxidant production, enhance our ability to detoxify, and reduce inflammation. Sprouts are even better and more nutrient dense – did you know that 1/8 cup of broccoli sprouts equals to 1 cup of the broccoli – crazy!
2. Eat a FIBER rich diet!
Just like us – bacteria require food to survive! Some of their favourite food is FIBER! Actually a lot of the fiber we eat is broken down by the bacteria in our gut. In the large intestines, the microbiome consumes fiber and converts to Short Chain Fatty Acids which play a critical role in overall health. So whenever possible opt for whole grain over refined grains.
Some Fiber Rich Foods Are:
- Fermented Foods (Probiotics) – Sauerkraut, Yogurt, Kefir, Kombucha, Kimchi, Pickles
- Vegetables & Fruits – Asparagus, Onions, Garlic, Artichokes, Leeks, Chicory, Endive, Cabbage, Lentils, Lima Beans, Flaxseeds, Beets, Fennel Root, Broccoli, Apples, Oranges and Bananas. Eat the skins, whenever possible.
- Whole Grains: Quinoa, Brown Rice, Bulgur.
3. Eat Health Fats
Our brain is made up primarily of FAT! So it makes sense to eat healthy fats like olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds, coconut oil, ghee, and the oils naturally occurring in fish that are anti-inflammatory and promote the natural production of Serotonin – more on this later. These healthy fats also have high amounts of antioxidants that protect your cells from oxidative stress and are essential for brain health and development.
4. Eat Enough Protein – Good Quality!
Protein is broken down by the body into amino acids, which are the building blocks of neurotransmitters, like Tryptophan found abundantly in turkey, which is converted to Serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that functions as a mood regulator, and also plays a role in digestion and sleep. Often times, women don’t consume enough protein and therefore are not supporting the building blocks for healthy brain development to help control mood and reduce production of stress hormones.
5. Consume Mushrooms
Specifically the shiitake mushroom contains plenty of Vitamin B6, which impacts the production of Serotonin and other neurotransmitters helping with mood and reducing stress.
6. Intermittent Fasting
Refraining from eating may seem counterintuitive, but the research is clear that it can help reduce inflammation, maintain weight, increase neurochemical production and so much more. Your body undergoes a cellular repair or cellular self-eating process where sick cells kill themselves and are reabsorbed by your body during fasting, called autophagy. Autophagy, was a Nobel Prize winning discovery by Yoshinori Ohsumi in 2016. Autophagy is a natural repair mechanism that kicks in when cells are starved of food. It promotes cellular repair and detoxification, creation of new healthy cells, anti-aging, immune boosting effects and even cancer prevention.
Fasting also changes your microbiome, increasing levels of Akkermansia, a microbe known to encourage your gut to produce more mucus, proving greater protection from pathogens. Akkermansia is associated with a healthy gut and improved insulin sensitivity as well as increase levels of Lacto species with psychobiotic properties. So to sum up the benefits of fasting for gut health include: increased intestinal stem cells, healing in the intestinal lining, increased gut microbiome and diversity, decrease in anxiety and mood disorders.
7. Engage in Gut Microbiome Supporting Lifestyle Habits
- Drink plenty of good quality filtered water.
- Stress reduction techniques such as mindfulness or meditation.
- Daily joyful movement – modulate Dopamine, Serotonin and Noradrenaline.
- Time Outdoors in Nature and Sunlight – there’s actually a direct relation between sunlight and Serotonin – sunlight triggers its production.
- Contact with loved ones releases powerful feel-good Oxytocin.
- Gardening checks off a couple of boxes like movement, being out in nature and the microbes from the dirt that get onto your skin (so garden without gloves).
- Optimizing deep & restorative sleep – sleep compromises our empathy, our compassion and is directly related to the quality of our decision making – allows us to access the pre-frontal cortex that nurtures our empathic activity.
- Activating the Vagus Nerve – with essential oils, gargling, gagging, singing, humming.
- Reduce toxic exposure in your food, home, and personal care products.
Bring the body back to balance and allow it to self-heal by removing the interreference like toxins, stress and nutrient deficiencies. When the body is in alignment it can heal itself.
So support your body’s innate intelligence here are some things that you should be by avoiding or minimizing:
- Processed foods devoid of fiber and full of refined sugar.
- Alcohol because in excess it can diminish the health and diversity of your microbiome and suppress your psychobiotics.
- Emulsifiers, which are like the diplomats of the food world, bringing together oil and water and getting them to work together. That’s why reading labels is so important because the two most common ones are Carboxymethylcellulose (CMC) and Polysorbate 80 (P80), they have been show to negatively affect both the thickness of your gut mucus and the diversity of your microbiome, which can lead to a Leaky gut.
- Over hand sanitizing and avoid relying on antibiotics because they create dysbiosis, which means that the bad bacteria out numbers the good bacteria.
In summary it’s super important and recommended to eat a diversity of nutrient dense whole foods to improve the diversity of your microbiome. Our mighty microbiome may outnumber our human cells, but we can surely outsmart them. For good health, including mental health, the food you eat needs to be good for you and for your gut microbiome.
If you have any questions or want to dive deeper into your health, simply schedule your FREE Introduction Call. I’m here to help you embrace self-care and feel like your happier and sexier self again
Anderson, S.C., Cryan, J.F., Dinan, M.D. (2017). The Psychobiotic Revolution. National Geographic Partners.