The gut brain connection is an exciting new field of research. And one that will hopefully lead to much more effective treatments for depression. If you’re curious about how it works. Or if you’re interested in what you can do to support your emotional wellness, read on.
What science says about the gut brain connection
Gut health and digestive health are intimately connected.Dr Herbert Benson, an American Medical Association fellow and professor of preventive medicine at Harvard Medical School.
He continues to say:
Our whole digestive system is able to regulate our mood and our nervous system. Focusing on the gut and its functions can have a big impact on our emotional health. Without proper functioning, both our mind and body can get overwhelmed.Dr Herbert Benson
We know our gut influences everything from birth through adulthood. But recent research first identified the connection between the gut and brain at the molecular level.
Research published in the American Journal of Physiology and Endocrinology has discovered. That the bacteria in our digestive system are essential to the function of our brain.
Bacteria that live in the gut are mainly involved in the processing of dietary fibre.Joanna Foley, PhD, professor of neuroendocrinology at University College London’s Medical School.
explains the study co-author.
Gut bacteria are key for:
sensing potential energy in the gut.Joanna Foley
This helps the brain determine how much fuel is available to fuel our cells. Which in turn makes us feel energized, awake or calm.
The research that demonstrates our brain manufactured its chemical messenger through our digestive system. Is highly relevant to our mental health. Stress has been increasingly linked to depression. And our current understanding of the gut-brain connection supports an exciting new treatment for the condition.Benson
Why make a connection?
Being well-fed and feeling full have become massively connected in the past few decades. Thanks in large part to popular TV shows touting ‘discoverable’ food. But snacks are not at the centre of your eating experience. Studies have shown that up to 45% of depression patients, and up to 80% of the general public. Have struggled with eating disorders, according to the NIMH.
When you are suffering from depression, one of the most challenging aspects is social interactions; just talking to a friend or family member can bring on feelings of hopelessness and low mood.Holly Shurley, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the Emory University Depression and Binge Eating Center.
explains Holly Shurley, PhD.
Eating, on the other hand, is fundamental to everything we do. When you’re feeling down. It’s definitely helpful to practice mindful eating to get in tune with your body and your feelings. This research shows that alleviation of symptoms may involve functional improvement of the digestive system. Thus, supporting digestive health through improved nutrition is a potentially robust and potentially beneficial treatment for depression.
Gut health and mental health go way back. Certain bacteria in the gut can influence mental health in a positive or negative way. “The more we understand about the role of the microbiome in health and disease. The more we’re uncovering how the proper balance of microbes impacts everything from our mood to our immunity.Giuseppe Vergano, PhD, director of the NCI-designated Microbiome Curator.
Both mood and immunity depend on a healthy microbiome.
A healthy gastrointestinal tract plays an essential role in maintaining the cognitive functions that are essential to our mental health.Goodwin Allen, PsyD, a clinical psychologist.
The Bottom Line
In fact, a major drawback to anyone’s mood is that they often experience drops in their mental health, too.
If your gut health isn’t in check, your brain may not be, too…Allen
If you notice a dip in your mood, you may be able to give it some help. And the few simple things you can do may make a difference.
1 Get Enough Sleep
As you age, sleep seems to become more important to mental health. In one survey, sleeping seven hours per night for four weeks was linked with improved mood.
Similarly, people who slept between 6–8 hours per night reported better sleep quality and more alertness during the day. Compared with those who slept fewer hours or slept for 12 or more hours per night.
Focus on getting enough sleep, especially if you notice a drop in mental focus and alertness.Allen
Make it a priority to catch up on sleep on weekends and try using meditation to help unwind. Drinking more water and eating nutritious, whole foods can also help, she says.
2 Drink More Water
An imbalance of intestinal bacteria can cause a leaky gut. The situation where foods from one part of your digestive system leak into another part. And cause all sorts of symptoms, from bloating and abdominal pain to fatigue, depression and anxiety. The gut’s largest protein, the gut-brain connection, appears to be at the centre of all this activity; it’s when healthy microbes strengthen and inhibit the growth of the neuroinflammatory chemicals that drive inflammation in the brain. (Research is unclear for how long the gut-brain connection can last.) So, the best thing you can do for your gut health is to “feed your brain first.”
Nutrients that help strengthen the gut microbiome, like fruits and vegetables, probiotic-rich yoghurt, raw foods and you guessed it, water.
3 Live in Confidence
There’s no magic pill that will improve everyone’s mental health. But there are a lot of habits you can start to implement that may help.
What do gut muscles connect?
Every time you do a “normal” or “sleep” task (Think: prepare food, wash dishes or put away groceries), your gut’s internal messaging system fires to send a “trigger” to your brain. This trigger may contain a negative or positive emotion. And your gut-brain connection is responsible for sending that signal to the brain. (Your brain then sends an “effect” over the gut that “happens” when you do that trigger task, so it’s a feedback loop.)
How deep-rooted is the gut brain connection?
Despite associated research that supports the gut brain connection as a potential treatment for depression. Your state of emotional health doesn’t automatically give you the gut-brain connection’s full power. It doesn’t work in the same ways in depressed individuals. And is more complicated than a simple “willpower” or “calm-state” equation.
Factors playing a role
There are two major factors that can have major effects on how your gut-brain connection functions.
- Strength of Message
When you’re feeling sad, down and distressed, you generate a “distress response” in your brain; this response includes a surge of the hormone cortisol. A stress hormone that causes your body to try to deal with ongoing threats.
While cortisol can be helpful in feeling alert and focused. It can also cause constipation, which can severely upset your GI system. And the result, you may be stuck in a perpetually “high cortisol” state, including thinking less logically and more impulsively. (This happens particularly often when you’re feeling depressed and hopeless.)
- Food Recipes
Harvard Medical School reports that stress containers can help stimulate the vagus nerve (the dominant way we’re physiologically triggered to release mood-boosting hormones). Thus increasing feelings of emotional calm. Cooked salads, spicy soups and heat-and-eat sensations have been shown to activate the vagus nerve. But it’s important to note: Your body and mood don’t change just by thinking about food.
- Smaller Brain Focus
Researchers have found that depressed people tend to spend more time thinking about their problems and distress. And less time thinking about positive stimuli, even if those stimuli are in their own faces. For example, research from the University of Cambridge found that depressed students noticed, on average. An average of 17 fewer stimuli at the end of a brief mental task than their depressed peers.
This may be because noticing a particular stimulus may activate the vagus nerve. Negatively affecting activity in the area of the brain that coordinates visual perception and movement, the prefrontal cortex.