So many of our emotions are affected by what our gut feels, ‘butterflies in the tummy’ or ‘gut instinct’ are just two. Now, some of the most interesting research around seems to show how the bacteria, or microbiome, in our digestive system affects the brain.
Microbiome is the term used to describe the microscopic organisms which live in our gut. This bacteria uses what we eat and drink to produce essential enzymes and vitamins, including a wide range of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, the feel good hormones, which communicate with the immune system. On the other hand, disruptions to the gut microbiome can decrease production of the antioxidant chemicals that reduce inflammation and sustain chemical stability in the brain which may contribute to things like anxiety and depression.
Mounting evidence indicates that manipulation of the microbiome can affect both the brain and the body. Research has shown that digestive problems and mood disorders go hand-in hand and an imbalance in the gut microbiome can lead to inflammation in the gut lining, frequent bloating, cramping, Crohn’s disease, Colitis and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), as well as increased rates of anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue, and an impaired ability to cope with stress. This imbalance (which is also known as Dysbiosis) can be caused by many things but major irritations are the overuse of antibiotics, frequent use of medications like anti-inflammatories, antacids and laxatives and a diet high in sugar, processed oils, refined grains, alcohol, other inflammatory foods and chronic stress.
Your gut microbiome is therefore under constant pressure but fortunately there are some things that would seem to help the microbiome out. Firstly, there is some research that shows Pre and Probiotics can help keep the gut healthy by maintaining the balance of bacteria. Probiotics are the living bacteria in our intestinal tracts that perform a number of important functions related to digestion and immune protection. Prebiotics are the food source that Probiotics consume and ferment to increase mineral absorption, promote the production of short-chain fatty acids, protect the intestinal lining, balance hormones, and facilitate the proper elimination of waste. A balance of both prebiotics and probiotics are essential for the gut to function properly.
In conjunction with pre and probiotics, a diet that avoids ultra processed food and concentrates on a healthy balanced diet with plenty of fruit, vegetables and fibre rich foods is advised. Fermented foods such as yoghurt, kefir and sauerkraut that are rich in probiotics are thought to be helpful as well but anything with added sugar may possibly boost pathogenic bacteria and induce depression so should be avoided.
There are also differing ideas on whether lack of sleep can impact negatively on the microbiome. It is well established that not sleeping well can increase cortisol levels (the stress hormone), which in turn can affect the gut. Exercise can also help by getting endorphins pumping through the brain. Scientists found that when exercising there was an increase in the microbes that produce the short-chain fatty acids our bodies need for a whole host of functions, including digestion.
So, if your gut isn’t healthy, your brain is probably not going to be feeling too good either. A positive, low-stress attitude and a healthy diet will help to maintain the balance of microbiomes in your gut and keep both your brain and body healthy.