The Mind-Gut connection
Can gut microbes affect our mood and overall health?
If you’ve ever felt queasy as you walked into an uncomfortable scene or reacted to a life decision on “gut feeling”, then you’re aware that your body sometimes reacts faster to situations than your mind does. The reverse is also true – our mental state affects our digestive system, as it does when we get butterflies before a first date.
If you were to visit two doctors to complain about digestive issues and low mood, you might have two different consultations and get two different prescriptions. The mind-gut connection tells us otherwise.
The gut converses with the brain, just like any other organ. The brain and gut speak constantly through a network of hormonal and immunological messages. This mind-gut connection is a whole ecosystem composed of over 100 trillion bacteria living in our bowel. Dr. Emeran Mayer, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at UCLA and Director of the Oppenheimer Center for Neurobiology of Stress and Resilience, is one of the leading scientists in the study of microbes. Dr. Mayer explains that the mind-gut connection is bidirectional: the gut talks to the brain, and the brain talks to the gut, every minute of our lives.
Our gut makes up 60 to 80 percent of our immune system and 90 percent of the neurotransmitters in our body that help control mood. Mayer says that this is a crucial reason for ensuring that our gut stays healthy.
Why is gut health so important to a healthy mind-gut connection?
Well, the gut contains 100 million neurons technically known as the enteric nervous system. It contains more neurons than either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system. Scientists have nicknamed this system the “second brain”. It allows us to “feel” the inner world of our gut and its contents. I know this seems like a ton of information to absorb but stay with me.
One major way that gut microbes respond to constant information about your emotional state and stress level is by changing their production of metabolites.
How does this affect us?
When mind-gut communication is unbalanced due to poor diet, stress, illness, lifestyle, or excessive use of antibiotics, we experience mental and physical health issues. Some of the physical issues can include food sensitivities and allergies, obesity, digestive disorders, depression, anxiety, and fatigue. It’s amazing to me how powerful and wide-ranging this connection is.
Dr. Mayer and his colleagues published a study in the journal Microbiome that found a link between gut microbes and sensory areas in the brains of patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The IBS patients showed altered microbiome metabolites that correlated to alterations in brain structure in their thalamus, basal ganglia, and sensory-motor cortex.
What does this all mean to us?
The mind-gut connection teaches us that we need to take care of our digestive system. We are all engaged in the pursuit of happiness, but our gut might be a roadblock to that supreme goal. Be mindful of how and what you’re consuming. Not all calories are the same. Some of Dr. Mayer’s recommendation include:
- Learn to get in touch with your gut feelings
- Be mindful of how you eat. Eat more slowly.
- Adopt a largely plant-based, whole-food diet.
- Implement mindfulness-based anxiety reduction strategies.
Meditation is a great tool for decreasing anxiety and gaining the self-awareness you need to make healthier food choices. This is a great lesson to how we can enjoy a happier mindset by reducing symptoms of anxiety. Our gut bacteria are listening.
So will you treat your gut right?