The gut and brain talk and sometimes it’s not pretty
For years Naturopaths have talked of the gut-brain connection. How the health of the gut health will influence mood and mood will influence the gut.
With the increase in research into the interplay between humans and bugs – the human microbiome – comes some really exciting findings that back this traditional concept.
Though more research is required to get all health care professionals on board, it may not surprise you that many people have made this connection for themselves. They work to set their gut and mind up to talk nicely to each other for happiness and best of health.
The balance of the bugs
It is said that our body has 10 times the number of bugs than human cells and 150 times as many genes – wow that’s a lot of bugs. Now before you start scratching and head for the shower, know that when the bugs play nicely together they support our health in a wide range of ways. It is only when the bugs are out of balance that things go array, including negatively impacting your mood.
Research has shown the link between the overgrowth of specific bugs and an increased prevalence of anxiety, an increased sensitivity to pain, memory dysfunction, autism, IBS – irritable bowel syndrome – and IBD – more serious inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. This list melds both conditions of the mind and of the gut and supports the gut-brain link.
Make a happy gut home to support your mood
If it’s not just about the bugs, but the balance of the bugs in the gut that’s important. Here’s what can you do to make a happy, balanced bug home.
- Optimise the transfer of bugs from mother to baby at birth
Yep it starts way back then. Vaginal birth, as opposed to a caesarian, is the best way to optimise baby’s bug balance. Now you can’t go back in time for yourself but if you are having a child remember that if all is well with you and baby, natural birth is best.
- Clean but not too clean
Being too clean can be just as bad as being not clean enough. This is known as the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ and has been linked to anxiety and depression as well as a range of allergies and autoimmune conditions. Minimising the use of antibacterial soaps and sprays is a great place to start.
- Avoid the Western diet
The Western diet – high sugar, excess additives and preservatives, too many baked and fried foods (trans-fats) – drives an imbalance. Make the majority of your daily food intake from nature and minimise the amount of packaged and take away food.
- Antibiotics and probiotics
Antibiotics are powerful but ruthless. They aren’t clever enough just to target the bug that is causing the symptoms and kill off the good with the bad. The culling virtually leaves an empty space for the bad bugs to multiply, leading to an imbalance.
If antibiotics are the best solution ensure you use a probiotic formula with as many bugs from the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species – best known as a multi-strain probiotic. This tops up the gut with good bugs and minimises the likelihood of the bad bugs multiplying excessively.
- Increase your intake of foods that feed the ‘good bugs’ – the prebiotics
Great prebiotic foods are chicory root, dandelion greens, Jerusalum artichokes, garlic, leeks, onions and banana that many people don’t eat
Using a prebiotic long-term can be the best thing for mood if you know you have a gut-mood link. Discuss this with your health care practitioner to determine the best prebiotic for you.
- If it’s been more than 12 months since you’ve ‘serviced’ your gut with a tailored gut and liver detox then this should be the place to start. Just as you have your car serviced each year, consider an annual detox as a gut and mood health insurance. (See the Vibe Naturopaths for a healthy, safe detox program.)
A brain on fire
One of the byproducts of a bug imbalance is inflammation. Think of inflammation as a fire that is the result of your immune system protecting your body. Sometimes the fire is small and easily put out, other times large with the potential to go out of control. The fire can impact the local area or spread throughout the body, including the mind. Out of control inflammation is linked to many conditions, from arthritis to hay fever, migraines to heart disease, but is also linked to depression and anxiety. What’s really interesting is that many of antidepressant medications act as anti-inflammatory; think of this as putting the fire out and leaving the brain to be calm.
One of the key reasons for inflammation is an unhealthy gut. Not only does this inflammation come from an imbalanced bug community but a range of other gut issues. Poor digestion of foods, the continued intake of foods that your body is intolerant or allergic to, weak and damaged gut walls (‘leaky gut’) and/or chronic constipation can all lead to inflammation. No matter what inflammatory condition you or a loved ones may be living with, always work find and fix any areas of gut imbalance to help put out the fire and calm the inflammation. Take care not to just band-aid with antidepressant or anti-inflammatory medications or supplements. Use them for short-term relief but work to address the gut function – the key to long-term health.
Another role of many antidepressants is to keep a ‘happy hormone’, serotonin, alive and functioning for as long as possible. Serotonin deficiency is linked to depression, anxiety, migraines and many other conditions. Working to increase the production of serotonin rather than simply slow its break down is a different approach that is more long-term and beneficial to the whole body. What’s fascinating is that around 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut – yep the gut, not the brain. So an unhealthy gut can decrease this production and lead to mood disorders.
Serotonin levels are also linked with IBS. In the gut serotonin acts as an important signaler and plays a role in the health of gut wall cells (enterocytes) and smooth muscle tissue. The aches and pains that often accompany IBS have been linked to a serotonin deficiency. Serotonin is not the only signaler but certainly an important part of the signaling group. So optimise gut health to optimise your happy hormone.
Which comes first, the gut or the brain?
Alas this is a question that can’t be answered as yet. The communication between the gut and the brain is two-way so difficult to know which is the key factor. It doesn’t mean that you can’t trace which is likely to be your key factor and get to work putting things right. With a range of tests available to assess the health of your gut this may be the right place to start if you live with unwanted anxiety, low mood or if you’re just not feeling right. Naturally it’s important not to discount adverse early life experiences and major stressful life events and working with someone who understands the gut-brain link can help you to know the best way forward. Changing your regime with any of your prescription medications without consulting with a qualified health care professional is not advised, but know the gut could be a big part of your mood puzzle.