The Gut-Brain Connection and How it Impacts Your Health
Next time you’re feeling down, instead of blaming it on bad Tinder dates, consider the gut-brain connection. Maybe you haven’t been giving the microbes in your digestive system enough of the veggie fiber they crave (or enough cred when it comes to their impact on your mood)?
That may sound crazy, but actually, scientists have discovered that the microbes in your gut are engaged in a constant conversation with your mind. And that chatter could be affecting your emotions, moods, and behavior in major ways.
Gut Health 101
First, a little review.
Gut health has been building up steam as a trending health topic as more research points to the importance of the microbiome, a fancy word for the trillions (yes, trillions!) of microbes that live in your gut, on your skin, and elsewhere. (Feeling itchy?)
Much of the attention has focused on how those microbes affect digestion and conditions like leaky gut, and therefore the immune system and chronic inflammation, which is linked to disease risk.
RELATED: The Facts on Inflammation
The Gut-Brain Connection
Now, the gut-brain connection is also entering the picture in a bigger way.
Turns out your gut’s got its very own nervous system, called the Enteric Nervous System (ENS), and it’s so influential it’s often referred to as “the second brain.” The ENS’ main job is to regulate digestion, but it also sends up regular signals to the brain via the vagus nerve.
Think of the vagus nerve as a busy two-lane highway. Traffic is moving in both directions, but it’s much heavier headed north, to the brain. Who’s directing that flow of traffic? Your microbes, of course.
How That Connection Affects Your Health
Here’s where things get interesting. Since your microbes are sending so many signals to your brain, if your gut health is out of whack, they may send up some wacky signals that influence your moods in negative ways.
Studies have shown changing the makeup of gut microbiota actually changed how mice behaved, affecting anxiety and cognition, for instance. Mice raised without beneficial microbes also have been shown to be less capable of managing stress.
Another example: 90 percent of the neurotransmitter serotonin is made in the gut, and research has shown microbes play a critical role in its production. So if yours are not doing their job well, your body could end up with inadequate serotonin. That’s a problem since it regulates sleep, appetite, mood, and more.
How can you harness this info for better brain health? This is all cutting-edge science, so there aren’t major prospective studies that show show clear protocols—like taking daily probiotics to help prevent or manage depression—yet. And unfortunately, most of the residents of your microbiome settle in within the first three years of your life, so it’s tough to change them (you can only change how they act).
But doing what you can to maintain a healthy gut is a step in the right direction towards balanced moods and happiness over anxiety. Eating as many fibrous veggies as possible is key (microbes feast on the prebiotic fiber), fermented foods are great for your gut, and taking a high-quality probiotic is a good strategy either way, since it can also benefit your digestive and immune systems.