April 7th is World Health Day, a global health awareness day celebrated every year under the sponsorship of the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as other related organizations.
From its inception at the First Health Assembly in 1948 and since taking effect in 1950, the celebration has aimed to create awareness of a specific health theme to highlight a priority area of concern for the World Health Organization. This year’s theme is ‘building a fairer, healthier world for everyone.’
The coronavirus pandemic has underscored how some people live healthier lives and have better access to health services than others and so I appreciate the WHO’s initiative to build a fairer, healthier world for everyone, everywhere. That said, I elected to mark World Health Day 2021 in a way that is authentic and relevant to who I am, and given I am deeply passionate about mental health, today’s post is about the connection between gut health and mental health.
Human beings are said to have three brains – the head, the gut and the heart – which are connected in several ways and together influence your mental and emotional health. They all have their own intrinsic nervous systems and communicate with each other sending messages through chemicals, hormones, and neurotransmitters.
For many of us, one or two of the brains will override the other(s). This is because neural networks grow the more we use them, so if you use your mind more, that brain will dominate and you will have more of a head orientation. This is also why sometimes the three brains do not align – your mind may say one thing but your heart tells you another, or you gut instinct tells you something is not right when your brain does not see why.
Research has shown that gut microbiome changes and inflammation affect the brain in big ways and cause symptoms that look like depression, anxiety, autism, and other “mental” disorders. Our microbiome also influences our behavior as the enteric nervous system (also called the second brain) communicates with the head, and vice versa, thanks to the gut-brain axis, a term for the communication network that connects your gut and brain.
Have you ever had a “gut-wrenching” experience? Do certain situations make you “feel nauseous”? Have you ever felt “butterflies” in your stomach? That is the gut-brain axis in action, the ongoing chemical signaling system, or conversation, between the gut and brain. The brain sends signals to the gut via nerves and hormones. The gut then responds, sending signals back up the nerves, releasing communicating chemicals or releasing hormones of its own. The gut-brain axis is how our guts, and the organisms in them, can affect behaviour.
Neurons are cells found in your brain and central nervous system that tell your body how to behave. There are approximately 100 billion neurons in the human brain. Interestingly, your gut contains 500 million neurons, which are connected to your brain through nerves in your nervous system. The vagus nerve is one of the biggest nerves connecting your gut and brain. It sends signals in both directions. Your gut uses the vagus nerve like a walkie-talkie to tell your brain how you are feeling via electric impulses called “action potentials”.
Your gut and brain are also connected through chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters produced in the brain control feelings and emotions. For example, the neurotransmitter serotonin contributes to feelings of happiness and helps control your body clock. Interestingly, many of these neurotransmitters are also produced by your gut cells and the trillions of microbes living there. Did you know that 90% of serotonin production happens in the gut? Your gut microbes also produce a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which helps control feelings of fear and anxiety. The gut also produces 70% of cortisol, the stress hormone.
Seeing as most of our mood regulation system is found in our gut as that is where neurotransmitters and important hormones are made, all of these neurotransmitters rely on a healthy microbiome to function properly.
Microbiome is the scientific term for the entirety of the microorganisms – bacteria, viruses, fungi and more – that take up permanent residence within the body of a human or other animal. A person has about 300 to 500 different species of bacteria in their digestive tract. While some bacteria are associated with disease, others are extremely important for your immune system, heart, weight and many other aspects of health. A healthy gut contributes to a strong immune system, heart health, brain health, improved mood, healthy sleep, and effective digestion, and it may help prevent some cancers and autoimmune diseases.
So how does one improve gut health thus subsequently improving mental health?
- Lower your stress levels. Chronic high levels of stress are hard on your whole body, including your gut.
- Get enough sleep. Try to prioritize getting at least seven – eight hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.
- Staying hydrated. Drinking plenty of water has been shown to have a beneficial effect on the mucosal lining of the intestines, as well as on the balance of good bacteria in the gut.
- Exercise. Consistent exercise improves gut health.
- Take a prebiotic or probiotic. Prebiotics provide “food” meant to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, while probiotics are live good bacteria. It is best to consult your healthcare provider when choosing a probiotic or prebiotic supplement to ensure the best health benefit
- Check for food intolerances. If you have symptoms such as cramping, bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, rashes, nausea, fatigue, and acid reflux, you may be suffering from a food intolerance. You can try eliminating common trigger foods to see if your symptoms improve.
- Change your diet. Reducing the amount of processed, high-sugar and high-fat foods that you eat can contribute to better gut health. Additionally, eating plenty of plant-based foods and lean protein can positively impact your gut. A diet high in fiber has been shown to contribute tremendously to a healthy gut microbiome.
As I conclude, I need to state that I am not an expert in either gut health and/or mental health, and I am still learning the connection between the two. Therefore please consult a doctor and/or a nutritionist before making any significant lifestyle changes to improve your gut health.