Most of us can relate to the experience of having “butterflies in our stomach” or a visceral gut-wrenching feeling, and how often are we told not to ignore our “gut-instinct” when making a decision. Even from our simple slang, it’s clear just how symbolically connected the gut is to our emotions. I’ve discussed the importance of the Microbiome in several previous blog posts, including The Mysterious Microbiome. Most recently, in relation to brain health and mood, I touched on the connection between gut health and brain health. A growing body of research is showing that our beneficial gut bacteria support positive mood and emotional well-being. In this post we’re going to look at this topic more closely as well as practical steps for supporting a healthy gut-brain connection.
Gut Health = Brain Health
A healthy gut consists of different types of bacteria for different people, and this diversity maintains wellness. There is no one right array of bacteria for everyone. The quality, quantity, and composition of the bacteria in your gut have enormous influence on your brain. There are even certain bacteria that seem to have a connection with specific mood disorders.
Some studies have found that autistic children have distinctly different microbiomes compared to children without autism. Notably, they tend to have fewer beneficial bacteria such as Bifidobacterium. A 2013 study found that when a certain type of bacteria was given to mice that had similar behavioral characteristics as humans with autism, the gut microbiome of these mice changed, along with their behavior. They became less anxious and were more social with other mice.
There are other examples of how the manipulation of gut bacteria can influence brain health. In this study people who took a multi-strain probiotic for at least four weeks reported a lessening of rumination and therefore anxiety. Another study found that the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus had a marked effect on GABA levels in certain brain regions thereby lowering the stress-hormone corticosterone, resulting in reduced anxiety and depression-related behavior. And in yet another study researchers found that when fermented foods and drinks were added to participants diets, it helped curb social anxiety disorder in young adults.
Numerous studies in animal models show convincing evidence of a strong relationship between the gut microbiome and mood. For example, studies have found significant differences in the types of gut bacteria in animals exposed to various types of stress such as maternal separation early in life, social stressors, or prolonged restraint. One study in particular, examined the specific differences in the bacterial make-up of the microbiome in patients with major depressive disorder in comparison with healthy individuals. Significant differences were identified between these two groups. The severity of depressive symptoms was related to the amount of a specific bacterium found in their gut; faecalibacterium. Lower levels of this bacteria was associated with more severe depression.
Protecting The Microbiome
This is just a sampling of the amazing research being done right now on the microbiome and the brain. There is no denying a connection. So what do we do with this important information? My recommendation is to take a close look at the health of your gut and ask if there’s anything you can be doing to improve it. Improving your digestion by increasing the diversity of your beneficial gut bacteria will go a long way to improving your mental wellness.
Our very first exposure to gut bacteria is in our mother’s womb. Research has indicated just how sensitive a fetus is to any changes in a mother’s microbiotic makeup, so much so that it can alter the way a baby’s brain develops. If a baby is born via cesarean section, it misses an opportunity to ingest the mother’s bacteria as it travels down the vaginal canal. Studies show that those born via c-section have to work to regain the same diversity in their microbiome as those born vaginally. Throughout our lives, our microbiome continues to be a vulnerable entity, and as we are exposed to stress, toxins, chemicals, certain diets, and even exercise, our microbiome fluctuates for better or worse.
What to Avoid
Unfortunately there are many foods and environmental influences that kill off our good bacteria and decrease the diversity of our microbiome. Here are a list of some of the main ones to avoid when possible.
Antibiotics (only take when absolutely necessary) & Antibacterial Soaps
Chlorinated Water: in the shower or bath as well as in the water you drink
Pesticides: many agricultural chemicals act like antibiotics in our body and kill beneficial bacteria
Processed Foods: added sugars, artificial sweeteners, and the plethora of flavorings, colors, and preservatives found in processed foods have all been shown to disrupt the microbiome
Conventionally Raised Meats / Animal Foods: the antibiotics and other medications given to the animal as well as the pesticides found on the grain they’re eating can all kill off bacterial bacteria
Inflammatory Fats: fried and hydrogenated oils
Food Sensitivities: foods like gluten, corn, soy, or dairy could all be unknowingly causing gut irritation and inflammation, and ultimately killing bacteria
What to Include
In addition to removing items that will decrease our microbial diversity, we need to increase our exposure to foods and environmental factors that will increase diversity. Here are a list of where to focus:
Fermented Foods: eat foods with active and live cultures daily (Sauerkraut, Pickled Veggies and Fruits, Kimchi, Miso, Tempeh, Kefir, Kombucha)
Probiotics: if you don’t eat fermented foods daily or are already dealing with a mood disorder (like depression or anxiety) you may want to add a supplemental multi-strain probiotic.
Fiber: a diet high in plant fiber naturally feeds and supports healthy microbes; aim for 30+ grams of fiber every day.
Prebiotics: these are fibers that specifically feed good bacteria and are found in certain plants (Jerusalem Artichoke, Dandelion Greens, Garlic, Leeks, Onions, Asparagus, Jicama, Banana, Chicory Root)
Get Your Hands Dirty: germ-free living is not in your best interest; build your diversity with gardening, caring for pets, letting your kids play in the dirt.
Open Your Windows: research shows that opening a window and increasing natural airflow can improve the diversity and health of the microbes in your home and by consequence in you.
Stress Management: chronic stress increases inflammation and disrupts microbial diversity; having solid strategies in place to cope with stress is essential to a healthy gut
Take Home Message
The most empowering aspect to the gut-brain connection is the understanding that many of your daily lifestyle choices play a role in mediating your overall wellness (physical and mental). Nurture your gut microbiome by avoiding toxins that will disrupt the bacterial balance while including more of the foods and environmental influences that will help build your microbiome and increase bacterial diversity. These guidelines are at the heart of a Rustic Diet and Lifestyle and essentially where I start with every client I work with. Continue to expand your knowledge in this area with timely information and tips of how to put it into practice by Joining The Tribe. And if you’re currently struggling with a mood or gut disorder or even feel like the addition of probiotics may be really helpful for you, then I encourage you to reach out to me for a free Discovery Call. (this article was first published on 2/21/17)