Not many people would think about the gut when experiencing any kind of neurological or mental health issues, however this is an area of research gaining some serious momentum. If you think back to times when you’ve felt a ‘gut instinct’ or ‘followed your gut’ – there seems to be more to this than merely an old wives tale. It seems ‘butterflies’ in your stomach when you’re nervous are not just a coincidence – they are actually your second brain alerting you to something..
Your second brain, or the brain in your gut, is known as your enteric nervous system (ENS). It contains more than 100 million nerve cells which line your gut – amazing! Unlike our actual brain, our ENS is more concerned with matters such as digestion than remembering where we put our car keys, but it’s becoming increasingly clear just how important it is as a bi-directional communication tool with our brain. More and more research is starting to show the link between gut health and mental health issues including mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.
There are hundreds of different strains of bacteria in your gut (and all over our bodies). In fact, these ‘bugs’ (to use a collective term for all the fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms that live on us) outnumber our other cells by a number of 10 to 1! Yes, we’re only about 10% human – seems we’re merely a transport vehicle for all those bugs! 🙂
These bugs play an important role in many ares of our health. They comprise a huge chunk of our immune system and are crucial to the manufacture of neurotransmitters like serotonin, our happy hormone, which is often low in cases of depression and plays an important role in mood regulation.
A lot of antidepressants target the brain levels of serotonin. The greatest concentration of serotonin however, is found in your gut, not in your brain. By enhancing the health of your gut bacteria, you can positively influence your levels of serotonin, helping to enhance your mood. Using specific strains of probiotics (supplemental forms of good bacteria) can have powerful effects in achieving better outcomes for those struggling with mood disorders. This, of course, is not an invitation to throw out your medications, but rather a reminder to consider this important aspect as part of any mental health treatment under the guidance of someone trained in this area.
Aspects such as inflammation, oxidative stress and mitochondrial function are also implicated in cases of mood disorders. ‘Oxidative stress’ is akin to something like toxicity ‘beating up’ your cells, meaning they’re not as healthy and well as they should be. ‘Mitochondria’ refers to the ‘engines’ of our cells – the part that makes things go. Once again, the health of your gut comes into play here.
A condition known as ‘leaky gut’ (which naturopaths love to treat) allows unwanted molecules, such as undigested food proteins, to cross the gut barrier and enter into our body, causing inflammation. Left unchecked, leaky gut can cause chronic inflammation, and chronic inflammation affects every organ in our bodies, including our brain. Studies have shown that people with greater inflammation may be at greater risk for not responding to conventional treatments, so keep inflammation as another important factor to consider when dealing with mental health issues.
Our gut is responsible for our nutrient absorption as well as the manufacture of some vitamins – all of which happens beautifully in a healthy, bacteria filled gut. In a not so healthy gut, the unfortunate opposite is true – malnutrition is the more likely outcome here.
New research is suggesting that the bugs in our gut can actually release neurotransmitters – the same ‘communication’ chemicals that our brain uses to tell the heart to beat, tells the lungs to breathe and so on. Absolutely mind-blowing stuff (to me anyway!).
Beneficial foods like sauerkraut, and drinks like kombucha and kefir are rich dietary sources of probiotics, helping to rebuild and repopulate your gut bacteria. Always be choosey with what you buy when it comes to your health. Whilst mass produced sauerkrauts may be cheaper, its the hand made ones that retain huge amounts of these beneficial bacteria, so be choosey. Its the same with probiotics, and even for natural anti inflammatory nutrients such as fish oils, you definitely get what you pay for. Ensure you speak to a qualified practitioner about not just the right treatments for you, but also the specific probiotic strains for you.
.. as always, we’re happy to chat with you if you have any questions.. simply come on in and visit us..
With love.. tiina xx