If you’re in the health and wellness loop, chances are likely you’ve heard a bit about the gut-brain connection. But you wouldn’t be alone if — up until recently — you thought of the organs as two very separate entities, with the brain operating as a central command and the gut as what, well, made you poop.
But nowadays, there’s more and more chatter about the gut-brain connection and it’s for good reason — that line of division between the gut and brain has become a bit blurred. And it’s a good thing.
That’s because scientists, researchers, doctors and everyday people who have become their own health advocates have discovered that the gut is a separate nervous system known as the “second brain” or the “enteric nervous system.” In short, the brain has some competition in terms of its role as top dog in the nervous system category.
Here are the details: The gut is in continuous two-way communication with the brain. From your lips to your derriere, your gut is carpeted with nerves — 500 million of them to be exact. Each one of those nerves is working full time, feeling, sensing and sending signals throughout your body.
Literally right this second, your gut is on the phone with the muscle between your ears. What could they possibly be talking about? The food you just ate? The pain or nausea that you feel? The stressful situation, that manifests in your tummy? The answer is simple — yes to all of the above.
Need proof? The gut contributes heavily to our mood. Ninety to 95 percent of serotonin — yeah, the neurotransmitter that’s known as the “happy chemical” — is produced in the gut. On the other hand, only five to 10 percent is produced in the brain. Not only has research shown that gut microbes help produce serotonin, but there are also a host of other neurotransmitters that are produced in the gut, including 50 percent of dopamine. In fact, the enteric nervous system produces more than 30 neurotransmitters.
Which means that with a little math and some simple deduction, you can see why the gut acting as home base for these neurotransmitters could lead to mental health conditions like depression and anxiety when there’s a problem in the gut. I see it every day in my clinic, for instance, in the case of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and depressed mood and/or anxiety — there is tremendous overlap. And for the longest time, we mislabeled these poor patients. We were not under the impression that at the root of their anxiety or vicious mood swings could be a gastrointestinal issue. But what we now know that serotonin — remember: 95 percent of it is in the gut — controls mood and also controls gut motility. When you have alteration or damage to the gut bacteria, you affect serotonin release. When this happens, you alter both someone’s mood and their gut motility, the end result being an IBS patient who also has anxiety.
So, now we can see why the alteration of microbiota-gut-brain axis interactions — again, those signals sent between your gut and brain — have not only been implicated as a possible cause of some neurologic diseases like anxiety and depression, but also Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and autism.
Knowing all of this, we are left with some serious food for thought. (See what I did there?) Namely, how do we fix it? Naturally, all health starts with eating a proper diet, and what we’ve discovered is that our gut microbes absolutely thrive on a plant-centered diet. And they’re kind of picky — they like it when you mix things up with a diversity of different plant foods, according to a 2018 study published by the American Society of Microbiology.
We also know that dietary fibre feeds the gut microbes and can be transformed into the magic, healing short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that have the ability to travel all the way to the brain, heal the blood brain barrier and even cross into the brain and continue its healing effects.
So it should come as no surprise that in a 2019 meta-analysis published in Psychosomatic Medicine (including data from 46,000 patients), they found that a healthful diet high in vegetables and fibre reduced anxiety and depression to the point of being labeled a “viable treatment option.” Of course, other behavioral and lifestyle changes can also dramatically improve your mood, including getting more sleep and making moderate exercise a part of your routine.
And while I’m a firm believer that diet and lifestyle should be the jumping-off point for achieving a more solid gut, there is a role for supplements, too. Specifically, we know that prebiotic fibre and probiotics exert their effects beyond the walls of the intestines and can reduce stress, anxiety, depression and even improve memory.
Which brings us back to where we started: The relationship between the brain and gut. This might be the first time you’re making the connection, but brain health actually starts in the gut — and that’s a relationship worth nurturing starting today.
Feature Image Source: Feliz Media