As a whole western culture spends a lot of time talking about our physical wellness. We spend a lot less time talking about our mental health or our emotional wellbeing. We spend even less time talking about the connection of the two. Today we’re going to spotlight one specific, oft overlooked area that is a direct link between the emotional and the physical: your gut.
Did you know your gut is a key regulator of many crucial bodily functions and is foundational to your overall health? In fact, the gut microbiome is actually coined as the “second brain”! In science it’s referred to as the “gut-brain axis.” It’s been proven that signals from your brain are influenced in part by signals received from your gut (brings a new perspective to the old saying “follow your gut!”).
What is the gut microbiome?
The microbiome is the ecosystem of microorganisms (primarily bacteria) found in your body. There are literally trillions of these little guys moving around inside of you. The gut microbiome is primarily focused in your digestive track but evidence shows that the bacteria present in the gut is also found in your mouth - so it’s one big happy family in there supporting your body and digestion from start to finish. This microbiome is shaped from VERY early on - it begins at birth (and some evidence shows that it forms while you’re in the womb!) and initial research shows that it’s fairly stable throughout your life - in some studies roughly 70% of the gut bacteria was present throughout all stages of life.
The microbiome is responsible for many things - almost too many to really nail down concisely. The bacteria’s main job is to support digestion - not like breaking down food per say, but true processing and synthesis on a microbe level - converting fats, proteins etc. But that’s really just the start of it. A simple way to think about the microbiome is balance and efficacy - in other words a healthy microbiome keeps your entire body in balance and in working well. It’s that fundamental.
How is it connected to the brain?
Ok, but so how does the bacteria in your gut impact your brain? At the macro level, it’s about balance and creating a healthy ecosystem for your body. But there’s also a direct physiological link between your gut and your brain through indirect and direct links. Indirectly, as part of the “balance of the ecosystem” your gut and microbiome are producing / releasing chemicals that cue signals in your brain. Directly, your nervous system connects your brain and your gut - primarily through your vagus nerve.
What’s it control?
In addition to the obvious - all things digestion, our gut produces 90% of the neurotransmitter serotonin which contributes to happy feelings. It also produces another neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) which helps control feelings of fear and anxiety. This means that the state of your gut health is having a direct impact on your emotional highs and lows. In studies, mice who lacked the appropriate balance in their microbiomes showed more stress when put into compromised situations.
In addition to mood control over 70% of the immune system resides in the gut. A healthy gut contains a diverse and flourishing microbiome and immune cells that ward off infectious agents like bacteria, viruses, and help prevent inflammation.
Healthy levels of bacteria act as a wall between digestion and the blood stream. If the negative bacteria starts to leak out of the gut, it can cause inflammation which has been linked to a number of brain disorders including severe depression, dementia and schizophrenia.
A healthy gut microbiome also feeds on proteins that assist in the production of short-chain fatty acids. These fatty acids reduce the risk of inflammatory diseases as well as type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
How can I take care of it?
Now that we understand why a healthy gut microbiome is so important, how do we improve and nurture our gut health?
Eat the right foods, namely fiber: It may be obvious, but it’s critical - making sure that you put the right food in your body is critical to your gut health and ultimately your emotional health. There’s perhaps no more important nutrient than fiber. The right fiber fuels gut health giving and research is showing that we may not be getting enough of this critical ingredient. One study shows that most of America is only getting half of the fiber they should. Not just any fiber though, it is important to also focus on eating fiber with prebiotic properties. Probiotics feed on the nondigestible prebiotics which encourages beneficial bacteria to multiply in the gut. Probiotics get all the attention but prebiotics are what allow them to flourish! Pro tip - fermented foods are also fantastic!
Sleep and exercise: Like we said before, a big part of a healthy microbe is balance. If you’re not supporting your body’s natural rhythms with the appropriate amount of sleep and exercise. You’re throwing things out of whack and that will have negative consequences on your overall health, but especially your gut health. Stress has also been shown to have a negative impact on gut health.
Avoid taking antibiotics unnecessarily: Antibiotics kill bacteria. That’s their job but they also may kill the good bacteria in your gut crucial for your health!
Let’s pause for a moment:
We are not mental health experts. This goes without saying but, mental health is sensitive and critical and requires care. is If you, or anyone you know, are feeling depressed or need help. Actively seek it. This writer does. It’s beautiful and empowering. Call someone and take care of yourself. You deserve it. Here’s a list of resources.
We are not pretending that maintaining your mental health is easy; it’s not a one size fits all solution and it’s not as simple as downing a few prebiotics and a bowl of chicken soup. This is serious business. We’re here to inspire and inform, if there’s a single take away from this - it’s this: be an active participant in your mental and emotional health. You deserve it.
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