The Microbes Living Within Your Intestines Can Affect Your Mental and Emotional Health
For most of us, energy has never been a problem in our younger years. Neither has mental capacity and memory. However, for too many of us it is becoming increasingly common to feel sluggish, forgetful and to experience the feeling of “brain fog”. Sound familiar?
A GUT FEELING
A lot of people chuckle about having “senior moments”. But it’s no joke when memory loss and impaired thinking, as well as a lack of energy, start to disrupt one’s life. It gets even more serious when you’re talking about developing degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. And suffering from anxiety or depression is no joke, either.
Scientists, naturally have looked to the brain as the key to difficulties with brain function or mood. But the latest research, much which has been published just within the past few years, now points to a new culprit-the micro-organisms living in our intestines, also known as the gut flora or microbiome.
The Gut-Brain Connection
The microbiome is more extensive than most of us realize. When we look in the mirror we think of ourselves as one person, however the microbial cells we carry, which live in and outside of our bodies, outnumber our own cells ten to one. We can’t live without them and they can’t live without us. If your spleen was to be removed, you’d be fine. If your gut was to be sterilized, you couldn’t survive. These microbes affect the brain through pathways known as the gut-brain axis. The three are directly connected.
How does this axis work? For starters, the gastrointestinal tract is equipped with its own nervous system. The neurons in the gut are so many that scientists are now calling the total of them “the second brain”. These neurons communicate with the brain via the vagus nerve. There is now strong evidence from studies that gut micro-organisms can activate the vagus nerve and that this plays a critical role in regulating effects on the brain and behavior.
The digestive tract produces brain chemicals like serotonin, best known for producing feel good emotions. In the intestines, serotonin is involved in controlling motility and contractions to move food along as it is digested. Irritable bowel syndrome marked by pain and bowel malfunction with no obvious physical cause, is now thought to be caused and/or maintained by the nervous system, including the brain. According to many doctors and scientists, a big part of the reason IBS is associated with depression and anxiety is because of the microbiome. It’s part of the same problem.
Gut flora also influence the brain through their interaction with the immune system, including that system’s inflammatory response. The microbiome actually educates and regulates the immune system. That can then set off an inflammatory cascade, and that’s transmitted to the brain.
One such situation of chronic inflammation would be leaky gut syndrome, in which a dysfunctional bowel wall allows food particles to enter the bloodstream that shouldn’t be there causing the body’s immune to produce a violent inflammatory attack. But healthy gut flora strengthen the intestinal wall and prevent gut permeability.
All of these actions represent the microbiome’s profound effects on the brain. One study found that gut microbes may induce the brain to produce cravings. In another, a lack of gut flora enhanced anxiety and stress in rats.
Microbes Under Attack
We start acquiring our gut flora when we are infants, a process with long-term health implications. Being raised in an overly clean environment, trying to defend against harmful organisms, can instead do damage to a child’s developing microbiome. Unnecessary exposure to anti-biotics through both medicine and agriculture doesn’t help matters. The overuse of antibiotics can really disrupt the microbiome and have adverse effects on inflammation and brain health. Stress can also alter the microbiome. The effects of chronic stress are felt in the brain causing anxiety and are also felt by bacteria in the gut. The brain is, through stress, producing imbalance in the gut bacteria, which in turn produces problems in the brain.
No one can undo such early influences as having been given a lot of antibiotics as a child, but that doesn’t mean gut function can’t be improved in adulthood. Trauma to the microbiome can, to some degree, be offset by probiotics found in fermented foods, by prebiotic foods that enhance probiotic organisms and by supplementing with probiotics.
Better Microbial Balance
Direct testing of the microbiome is in it’s very early stages. Seventy percent of these organisms that live in our gut have not really been identified yet. There are indirect ways to test for poorly functioning gut flora. It is found more often than not that with disorders such as MS, Alzheimer’s, autism and ADHD, these markers are significantly elevated. Some doctors may test for levels of a fatty acid called butyrate (a healthy microbiome should be producing a good amount of butyrate) as well as markers like zinc and B vitamin levels. If these levels are low, you know the microbiome is not healthy. One way of helping the microbiome is by avoiding things that kill off beneficial bacteria. Unnecessary antibiotic usage and acid-blocking drugs are some of the culprits. It’s also a good idea to avoid exposure to environmental toxins, especially pesticides and chlorine.
Another way to encourage a healthy microbiome is through the use of supplemental probiotics. Studies have shown supplementing with probiotics and prebiotics has achieved ease of stress and improved brain function. But neither probiotics nor prebiotics will help long-term without significant improvements in diet. Greater consumption of fermented foods such as kefir, kimichi, pickels and other fermented veggies, sauerkraut and live-cultured yogurt all of which contain naturally-occurring probiotics is helpful. Eat plenty of veggies, fruits and adequate amounts of healthy protein and fats, like coconut oil, ghee, butter, avocados, and olive oil as well. Be sure to include plants that contain the prebiotic fibers inulin and arabinogalactan like asparagus, carrots, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, jicama, leeks, onions, radishes and tomatoes. These are known as “microbiome superfoods”. Eating in this manner has shown significant improvements in brain function as well as weight loss and greater energy levels. When you improve the microbiome, that’s the pathway to optimal health. You will find that even if you avoided fruits and veggies, eating in this manner will change your taste buds. You will also be pleased to hear that red wine is a fermented beverage rich in probiotics. But try not to over do it.
Probiotics for Digestive Health
The microbiome is best known for supporting healthy digestion. It nourishes and sustains your GI tract and it keeps you at your ideal weight by helping you digest your food, maintain an appropriate appetite, regulate the calories that enter your system and keep your metabolism working at optimal speed. Furthermore, poor microbiome function has been linked to metabolic syndrome (High triglycerides/abnormal cholesterol levels, excess body fat around the waist, high blood pressure, high blood sugar), type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. Although not all of the gut bacteria have been identified, some are well-documented. Among them are many of the Lactobacillus species, including acidophilus, brevis, bulgaricus, casei, lactis, plantarum and rhamnosus, and Bifidobacterium varieties. These probiotics are supported by prebiotic fibers which help to defend against upper respiratory infections, promote a healthy gut flora mix, and enhance absorption of minerals such as calcium and magnesium.
Many researchers believe that these new findings about the gut and the microbiome represents a huge breakthrough. We will be able to not just live longer lives but also have the ability to lead lives in which we feel well at older ages. The body works holistically. We have to step back and say that maybe the answers we’ve been looking for all these years may lie in the gut.