Scientists discovered long ago that the vagus nerve, which spans the entire body, connects the digestive tract’s enteric nervous system (ENS) to the brain. So doctors have been aware that worry, sadness, and other emotional states can affect the gut. But new research has found that the reverse also is true. Gastrointestinal (GI) tract contents influence brain health. The amount of microbiota, or bacteria in your gut, outnumbers the cells in your body by an estimated 10 to one. Ongoing research confirms that the 100 trillion microorganisms residing in your intestines can profoundly alter your thoughts, moods, and behaviors.
Researchers Expand Their Focus
Health experts have been associating dysbiosis, a microbial imbalance in your gut, with certain cancers, diabetes, autism, chronic fatigue syndrome, allergies, obesity, and other physical illnesses. Previous research found that the good bacteria in your gut can help control your nervous and immune systems. Now, researchers are focusing on the brain and exploring its bidirectional link with the gut.
Your intestines contain millions of neurons that produce 80 to 90 percent of your serotonin, a mood-altering neurochemical. This quantity is more than your brain creates. That’s why many medical and mental health professional think of your intestinal tract as your second brain.
If your digestive system is out of sorts for any reason, your brain might feel it and react. When an intestinal imbalance like inflammation or infection alters your normal serotonin levels, it can manifest in your stomach as butterflies, nausea, or stomach cramps. Recent studies show that dysbiosis also can cause emotional pain, anxiety, or various mental illnesses including anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia.
Studies Explore the Intestine and Mind Connection
Associate gastroenterology professor Premysl Bercik of McMaster University noticed many of his patients complaining about gastrointestinal problems while also suffering from anxiety and depression. So he decided tostudy how microbiota influence gut functions and sway emotions. Bercik’s research team discovered that chronic parasitic infections causing minor gut inflammation also induced anxious behaviors in mice.
This study included a timid mice group that exhibited nervous conduct and an adventurous faction that undertook daring, exploratory actions. Their gut microbe composition also differed. The scientists raised some of both types as germ-free without intestinal bacteria and others as control mice with standard gut microbes. When they switched their gut microorganism types, they found both brain chemistry and behavioral transformations between the two groups. Shy adult mice that received adventurous microbes displayed bold, brave behaviors with increased exploration tendencies. Likewise, timid microbes changed adventurous specimens into shy, anxious mice. Swapping microbiota showed that gut microbes did alter each group’s behaviors.
Other animal studies produced more intriguing results. Mice are normally afraid of a cat’s odor, but after receiving Toxoplasma parasites that reproduced in cat intestines, they lost their inherent fear of felines. These tiny organisms altered mice behaviors and cats even became attractive to mice. Even after parasite removal, the mice demonstrated the same actions, designating that these microorganisms changed the rodents’ brains permanently.
Consider Current and Future Treatments
Current prescription antidepressant medications like Lexapro(Escitalopram) can treat both major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. This selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor balances brain chemicals to reduce troublesome symptoms.
Researchers are continuing to explore how manipulating microbial populations can reduce signs of anxiety and clinical depression. Psychiatrist Dr. Emily Deans, M.D., reports that the Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus gut bacteria generate the relaxing GABA neurotransmitter while Serratia and Bacillus create the dopamine that triggers the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. Finding the right bacteria combinations could lead to new treatments for various mental health challenges in the future.
Embrace Health-Enhancing Dietary Modifications
Good and bad bacteria are fighting to take control of your intestines. More new research shows that maintaining a good microbial balance can help elevate your mood, reduce stress hormone levels, and prevent or regulate anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). According to solid evidence, eating certain foods that regulate your microbiota also may help improve your mood and encourage a positive outlook in addition to protecting you from multiple diseases.
Prebiotics: Try prebiotic nondigestible carbohydrates that feed probiotics to stimulate healthy bacteria growth in your colon, boosting general health. Good sources include fruits (especially apples and bananas), vegetables (such as artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, corn, green beans, kale, leeks, legumes, pickles, radishes, onions, tomatoes, and wild yams), whole grains (like oatmeal), high-fiber foods, almonds, dark chocolate, and honey.
Probiotics: Or consume probiotic foods that contain live beneficial bacteria cultures. They inspire a healthy digestive system by controlling dangerous bacterial growth. Fermented dairy products like yogurt that contain bacteria such as Bifidobacteria or Lactobacillus is a great probiotic source. Heat during the pasteurization process destroys good bacteria. So check labels for “active” or “live cultures,” which indicates that manufacturers added them after pasteurization. Other probiotic sources include soft fermented cheeses like Gouda and fermented foods such as miso soup, sauerkraut, and sourdough breads. Besides helping ward off harmful bacteria, probiotics produce important vitamins such as B6 and B12 while boosting absorption of key minerals like calcium, iron, and magnesium.