Do you have the guts to be happy?
For those of you who have not heard of the Gut-Bran axis before, it describes the physiological connection that exists in the body between the brain and the gut. Our gut is referring largely to our digestive tract, that starts at the mouth and end with our rectum. But for the purpose of this article I will mainly be referring to the gut as our large intestines.
The large intestine is where most of our immune system cells (about 70-80%) are produced and found, and is the home to billions of bacteria. Fibres and food that resists digestion will also be found in the large intestine along with compounds that are produced when fibres are fermented within out gut (called Short Chain Fatty Acids).
The gut-brain connection
It has been well known for many years that how we feel mentally can affect our digestion and digestive functions. You may be familiar with the butterfly sensation when feeling nervous or stressed. People who suffer with irritable bowl syndrome or symptoms may also notice an exacerbation of their symptoms when going through particularly stressful times. However, new research is now showing that this relationship between the brain and the gut can work both ways and is bidirectional.
The gut and the brain are connected via the vagus nerve (a cranial nerve which extends down the spinal cord from the brain through the neck, chest, abdomen and digestive tract). Therefore, the brain is continually being informed of changes that occur within the gut, including significant changes in bacteria type and quantity and changes in how permeable our gut lining is. The bacteria within the gut also help to produce neurotransmitters that help us feel happy and calm. Up to 90% of our happy hormone, serotonin, is produced in the gut; which has a direct relationship with mood.
Our gut microbiome is referring to the ecosystem of bacteria that is living within each of our guts, and this can be even more individual than our DNA, as the microbiome of twins has shown to differ greatly. Our microbiome consists of many different types of bacteria, some of which are more beneficial than others, but they will all play a role in our overall health. Generally, a healthy gut is one which contains more beneficial bacteria than commensal or pathogenic bacteria.
So, what could cause an imbalance of gut bacteria?
Our microbiome may become imbalanced due to:
- Taking antibiotics
- Drinking alcohol
- Excessive physiological stress
- Food intolerance
- Diet (highly processed foods)
The good news is that there are some simple ways that you may be able to improve your gut health and balance of good bacteria. These include:
- Eating more fruits and vegetables – the diversity and range of plant fibres we eat is the single most important factor in determining the health of our gut. Eating a range of different fruits and vegetables aims to expose us to lots of different fibres, rather than a select few. Aim to introduce a new fruit or vegetable you don’t usually eat every week, and then build this up to 2 or 3 each week.
Keeping a record or diary of all the new vegetables and fruits introduced can be a good way to track this. Dr.Chaterjee also has a fantastic resource for eating a range of fruits and vegetables that can be found here on his website.
2. Eating pre and probiotic foods – Pro biotics are the beneficial bacteria, and pre-biotics are like the food or fertiliser for these good bacteria to grow and flourish. Therefore, consuming both within the diet is optimal.
Pre-biotic foods include: Jerusalem artichoke, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, bananas, chicory root, sweet potato.
Probiotic foods include: fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi (Japanese cabbage), pickled vegetables, kombucha, kefir, tempeh and foods such as miso, tofu and fermented yoghurt with live cultures.
3. Probiotic supplements – research has shown that some strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium bacteria can improve anxiety, depression and overall mood. Not all strains of probiotics are the same, so working with a nutritional therapist or nutritionist to ensure you are able to find products that contain the researched strains will be very important.
4. Avoiding foods you may have allergies or intolerance to – if we have allergies or intolerances to certain foods, they may be capable of increasing how permeable our gut lining is. This can lead to ‘leaky gut’ and translocation of bacteria from the digestive tract into the blood stream can occur. Some research has linked this to the development inflammation and increased risk and development of depression.
We may also start to react to certain foods if our gut lining is more permeable, so it can often be a chicken and egg situation.
5. Manage or reduce external stressors – stress can impact our gut bacteria, and our gut bacteria can also affect our stress response and sensitivity. Therefore, feeding your gut with goodness together with some stress management techniques is a great combination. Stress management will be different for everyone, but it will be worth while to take some time to analyse where you feel most of your stress is stemming from. You should then be able to implement measures to try and manage or reduce the stressors. Some useful ways to manage stress are:
- Take regular baths
- Work on concentrated breathing techniques
- Practice meditation
- Try yoga or a calming form of movement
- Keep a journal
- Listen to relaxing music
- Develop an evening/morning routine
- Have a chat with a friend/family member who is a good listener
- Take regular exercise
Take it slow
When making any changes to your diet, it is always advised to do so slowly to avoid symptoms such as bloating, gas or changes in bowel movements. Increasing vegetables, fruits and pre/probiotic foods slowly by adding in foods one at a time and over the period of a few weeks is recommended.
The bottom line
Our mood and mental health are complex areas, but research has started to show the strong connection between the state of our gut health and our mood and mental health. Dietary changes alone may not be enough for some people, however it is a good place to start and to help alongside other treatments such as exercise, medications and behaviour therapy.
*Please note that some people may find that the pre and pro biotic foods mentioned in the article give them negative gut symptoms. Keep an eye out for any adverse reactions or new symptoms you may get when consuming certain foods. If you find this, please contact your nutrition profession or GP.
*** This blog post is not intended or implied to be a substitute for seeking professional medical advice, medications, diagnosis or treatment. Information provided here is general and is not intended to treat, diagnose, prevent or cure any diseases or conditions. Please contact your GP or private health consultant if you have any personal health concerns or consult a registered nutritional therapist for personalised dietary and lifestyle advice and guidance.
Marilia Carabotti et al, (2015). The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems, Ann Gastroenterol, 28(2): 203–209
Foster, J.A. and Neufeld, K.A.M., 2013. Gut–brain axis: how the microbiome influences anxiety and depression. Trends in neurosciences, 36(5), pp.305-312.
Bercik, P., Park, A.J., Sinclair, D., Khoshdel, A., Lu, J., Huang, X., Deng, Y., Blennerhassett, P.A., Fahnestock, M., Moine, D. and Berger, B., 2011. The anxiolytic effect of Bifidobacterium longum NCC3001 involves vagal pathways for gut–brain communication. Neurogastroenterology & Motility, 23(12), pp.1132-1139.
Bercik, P., Verdu, E.F., Foster, J.A., Macri, J., Potter, M., Huang, X., Malinowski, P., Jackson, W., Blennerhassett, P., Neufeld, K.A. and Lu, J., 2010. Chronic gastrointestinal inflammation induces anxiety-like behavior and alters central nervous system biochemistry in mice. Gastroenterology, 139(6), pp.2102-2112.
Messaoudi, M., Violle, N., Bisson, J.F., Desor, D., Javelot, H. and Rougeot, C., 2011. Beneficial psychological effects of a probiotic formulation (Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175) in healthy human volunteers. Gut microbes, 2(4), pp.256-261.