If you’ve ever had a “nervous stomach” or received upsetting news that “hit you in the gut,” you know how our emotions can affect our bellies. But did you know that this communication between the brain and the gut actually works both ways? Yes, what is going on in the digestive system can have a significant impact on our brain health. In other words, gut health and mood are interconnected, and the importance of this connection should not be underestimated.
The brain and the gut are actually more similar than you might think. Like the brain, the digestive system (aka the gut) also contains hundreds of millions of nerve cells, or neurons, and is connected to the brain via the vagus nerve. This connection creates a two-way communication system that is known as the gut-brain axis.
Communication between the gut and the brain affects both organs and may explain why a problem with one is often accompanied by difficulties in the other. For example, research has found an interaction between irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and psychiatric disorders. Imaging done on IBS patients showed changes in various parts of the brain that suggest alteration in the brain circuits responsible for emotion and pain control.
The gut’s primary role is to digest our food and produce nutrients our bodies need to be healthy. The billions of beneficial microorganisms (a.k.a. probiotics) in the gut, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi, are there to make this happen. These microbes convert the prebiotic fiber we eat into energy and produce postbiotic compounds our bodies need. Examples of postbiotics include enzymes, vitamins, short-chain fatty acids, and neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, often called “happy hormones,” which are essential for mental health and mood stabilization.
This process works beautifully when the gut microbiome has an adequate diversity of microorganisms. But when there is an imbalance in the ratio of harmful to beneficial bacteria, known as dysbiosis, problems can occur. Insufficient sleep, a course of antibiotics, an unhealthy diet, too much stress, and other factors can kill beneficial microorganisms, disrupting the delicate balance in the microbiome.
When there is an overabundance of harmful gut bacteria, mood can be negatively affected. This is because there may not be enough beneficial microorganisms in place to both fight off the harmful organisms and produce the important neurochemicals, like dopamine and serotonin, which are responsible for regulating mood. This can lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.
Research has shown that the gut is responsible for producing 90% of the serotonin created in the body, with the brain handling the other 10%. You can see how an unhealthy digestive system might lead to a deficiency in this important neurochemical, and how interconnected gut health and happiness are.
Fortunately, an imbalance in the gut microbiome does not have to be permanent. Anyone can add beneficial microorganisms back into their digestive system by eating probiotic-rich foods such as fermented dairy products, fermented soy products, and fermented vegetables. Remember that it’s significant to ensure that these foods contain live organisms. Be sure that the foods you select have not gone through the pasteurization process, which can kill their beneficial bacteria.
If fermented foods don’t fit into your diet, another way to restore gut health is to take a supplement like Dr. Ohhira’s Probiotics®. Dr. Ohhira’s probiotics contain a diverse array of 12 distinct strains of probiotic bacteria, plus prebiotics and postbiotic nutrients as well.
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