For most of us, physical health and mental health can feel like they belong in totally different categories. Our brains feel distinctly different from our bowels! Anecdotally, we know that exercise might help ‘clear our heads’ – but what if there’s more to it than that? Could it be the case that our body has a much bigger role to play in the manifestation of mental health issues? And therefore, could nurturing our physical health also support the health of our mind?
Could it be the case that our body has a much bigger role to play in the manifestation of mental health issues?
Compelling research has shown that our ‘gut-feelings’ are just the beginning of a bigger conversation about how our guts and brains talk to one another. We’ve probably all experienced gut-feelings – such as a tummy in knots or butterflies in reaction to something we’re dealing with in our heads. But the chattering goes the other way too – only this time our mind isn’t in control.
As this body of research grows, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the state of our gut health can have a significant impact on the state of our mind. All of the miniscule microbes living in your gut communicate with the rest of your body via the enteric nervous system, which has a huge influence on how you think and feel day-to-day. They may be small, but these little microbes can literally be mind-altering!
They may be small, but these little microbes can literally be mind-altering!
Our gut is made up of millions of families of different bacteria – most of which are beneficial, and have a huge impact on how we feel, from energy production to immune system and mood. But how do these bacteria really affect the way we think and show up in day-to-day life?
But how do these bacteria really affect the way we think and show up in day-to-day life?
The modern microbiome has evolved significantly from our ancestral one. This is largely due to diet, antibiotic exposure, and other environmental factors. What we’re now learning is that this evolution may well impact our brain health. In fact, the sheer complexity and scope of how diet, probiotics, prebiotics, and intertwined environmental variables could influence mental health is staggering.
So maybe it really does all come back to the gut. The centre of our being: the core that influences and choreographs all other aspects of our well-being – from physical to mental, emotional and even spiritual. Let’s take a deeper dive to understand how this communication actually happens and how we can nurture our gut health, to ultimately nourish our physical and mental wellbeing too.
How does all this internal communication actually happen?
Not only is the brain talking to the gut and the rest of the body, but the gut is also talking to the brain.
This feedback loop is known as the gut brain axis – a two-way communication pathway. The gut talks to the brain in a number of ways, including:
- Central nervous system
- Neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine (of which 50% to 90% is made in the gut)
- Immune system
At the core of this is the microbiome– the trillions of bacteria and organisms that live synergistically within us. Evidence is now emerging that – through interactions with the gut–brain axis – the gut microbiome can influence neural development, cognition and behaviour. Changes in behaviour alter gut microbiota composition, while modifications of the microbiome can alter our mood.
We house millions of different beneficial bacteria in our gut that all have very specific roles. The foods that we eat also play a huge role – as you may have heard, neurotransmitters can be found in the gut. In actual fact, this occurs because the food that we eat is being digested and eaten by the many differing microbes in our gut. Then specific families of bacteria digest these foods, and what they excrete is used in the creation of neurotransmitters. Hence the saying 75% to 90% of serotonin (one of our ‘happy hormones’) is made in the gut. In short, you can see why supporting your gut is an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to creating mental wellness.
Hence the saying 75% to 90% of serotonin (one of our ‘happy hormones’) is made in the gut.
What role does the vagus nerve play?
The vagus nerve is something of a trending topic at the moment, and for good reason! The vagus nerve is a key player when it comes to the gut-brain connection – however, we still have a lot to learn about this relationship before we can understand it completely. What we do know is that this nerve governs the parasympathetic control of the organs. So, the more we stimulate the vagus nerve (by deep breathing, for example), the more we enhance the calming effects of the parasympathetic (or "rest and digest") nervous system – ultimately working to counter the stimulating effects of the sympathetic (or "fight or flight") nervous system.
The vagus nerve connects the enteric nervous system (or ENS, which governs the function of the GI tract) and with the central nervous system (CNS). Together, the ENS and CNS work to control movement of the GI tract, its secretions, immune function for bacteria, and blood flow.
It sounds complicated, but what it really means is that the healthy function of the vagus nerve – and thus, how well the gut and the brain are communicating – can have a huge impact on your overall health; from anxiety levels to heart rate to digestion to weight gain to simply name a few!
What are some signs that your gut health could do with some love to nurture your mind?
We can’t emphasise enough how critical gut health is to our wellbeing. Everything is interconnected – our body and our mind. While gut issues may not seem like an obvious contributing factor in our mental wellness, there are some signs and symptoms that might give you clues.
It’s important to remember, your body is always trying to communicate with you! Try and listen to it and pay attention to what it’s trying to tell you. If you experience anxious thoughts, a sense of being overwhelmed by a busy mind, stress, mood swings and a general sense of flatness, notice if you also experience any of the following:
- Inflammation - aches and pains or puffiness
- Leaky gut
- Skin issues such as eczema
- General upper and lower digestive issues
What can you do to support your gut-brain health?
There are a few simple changes you can make to support the health of your gut. Some are more significant, but some are so easy you could start today! These include:
- Eat a whole food diet where you can focusing on as many vegetables as possible. Ideally, foods that are high in polyphenols as these feed the bacteria in your gut.
- Take a high quality probiotic with a wide variety of proven strains.
- If you need to take a round of antibiotics, including a probiotics is essential to support your microbiome.
- Minimise sugars and artificial sweeteners.
- Consume fermented foods as part of your daily food intake.
- Consume chicken and bone broths to support gut healing.
- Daily movement or exercise can help to modulate the biome by 20%!
We’re still only beginning to understand the far-reaching impact the health of our gut has on our mental and physical health. It’s exciting to think that we have such a potentially powerful, natural support for mental wellbeing right at our fingertips! One thing is for sure – our bodies are deeply and intricately connected to our minds, so it pays to approach supporting them holistically.