Finding the right balance between mental health and physical health can be challenging. Problems with one can easily lead to complications with the other, and sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint the root cause of your health issues. What if I told you that the answer could actually be in your gut?
Recent studies show that your brain has a profound effect on your gut health, and vice versa. This communication is called the gut-brain axis.
Understanding the vagus nerve
Our bodies are given signals by neurons, which are cells that use electrical impulses to inform the body how to behave. They are located primarily in our brain and throughout our nervous system. Now, interestingly enough, more than 500 million neurons are also located in your gut! They are connected from the gut to the brain by a series of nerves.
One of the most important nerves that connects your brain to your gut is called the vagus nerve. It allows the brain to send and receive messages about several bodily functions, including blood pressure, heart rate, alertness, and energy. Multiple studies have confirmed the importance of the vagus nerve’s connection to overall health and wellbeing. For example, one study found that people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or Crohn’s disease had reduced vagal tone, which is a reduced function of the vagus nerve.
How could our guts impact mental health?
Your gut and brain connect through chemical substances called neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters are produced in the brain, and regulate feelings and emotions. One well-known neurotransmitter is serotonin, which produces feelings of happiness and controls your internal clock. A large proportion of serotonin is actually produced in your gut. An unhealthy gut can lead to an underproduction of serotonin, which can cause anxiety and depression. Many people who are experiencing these symptoms are actually suffering due to a lack of gut health, and they are completely unaware.
Your gut microbes also produce a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which helps control feelings of fear and anxiety. Studies have found that certain probiotics can increase the production of GABA and reduce anxiety and depression-like behavior.
The influence of gut health is made even clearer by gut microbes. These microbes produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) like butyrate, propionate and acetate. SCFAs affect brain functions in a number of ways, such as reducing appetite, serving as a barrier between the brain and blood, and metabolizing bile acids and amino acids, which are essential in the production of chemicals that affect the brain.
Keeping a healthy gut and a healthy mind
These are just a few examples of how gut health is inextricably attached to the brain. If you’re suffering from an unhealthy gut, it’s not difficult to imagine the emotional toll that you could be feeling. Changing your gut bacteria may improve your brain health, and could lead to a reduction in stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue.
Gut bacteria can be changed by leading a healthier lifestyle, where wholesome foods are the principal source of nutrition; leafy greens, fruits, wild caught proteins, and nuts are but a few options. Furthermore, gut health can be supplemented with probiotics and prebiotics. Studies have shown that they may reduce levels of anxiety, stress, and depression.
The gut is a topic with so much potential for health and medicine research. We’re learning more about the importance of gut health every day, and how its link to the brain impacts both physical and mental wellbeing.