The brain and gut are connected. Most people understand this, but few know how the connection regulates their day-to-day health. For example, the gut-brain axis is a network of nerves that helps to communicate “gut feelings” and regulates our “fight-or-flight” response. When the gut-brain axis is working correctly, it supports our day-to-day health, but when it’s not functioning well, we’re more likely to experience stress and health-related problems.
In the article, we will go over what the gut-brain axis is and how you can help support your gut-brain axis.
What Is the Gut-Brain Axis?
Microbes colonize the body’s external and internal surfaces, predominantly found in the gut. The gut-brain axis is a two-way communication path between gut microbes and the central nervous system (CNS). In addition, microbial organisms outnumber human cells by a ten-to-one ratio. This pathway plays an essential role in maintaining health by coordinating interactions between the gut microbiota and other body parts.
The network of nerves responsible for your gut feelings includes those from your brain’s emotional and cognitive areas that are linked to nerves in the gut and its periphery. So when something triggers a problem or distress in one part of your body, it can also lead to problems or pain elsewhere in your body, including the nervous system.
How The Gut Affects Health and Psychology
Research has shown that a healthy gut can positively affect the health of the brain and psychological well-being. Conversely, if your gut is not functioning correctly, this can lead to symptoms like anxiety and depression. The trillions of gut bacteria that live in the human gut produce hundreds of neurochemicals that play a role in regulating basic physiological processes as well as mental processes, such as learning, memory, and mood. For example, about 95 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin is produced by gut bacteria.
The Gut's Role in Producing Brain Chemicals
One of the gut’s functions is to produce neurotransmitters that facilitate communication between brain cells. Some of these neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, are produced by gut bacteria and are thought to be beneficial for overall health. This suggests the makeup of your microbiome directly impacts your brain chemistry.
Beneficial bacteria in your gut secrete GABA, a neurotransmitter responsible for calming the central nervous system. Sufficient levels of this neurotransmitter are vital for managing stress and keeping anxiety at bay; supplementing with probiotics raised GABA levels in mice after four weeks. Compared to the control group, the probiotics group showed reduced severity of depression and anxiety.
The Gut's Role in The Blood-Brain Barrier
Gut bacteria are responsible for producing butyrate, acetate, and propionate, three fatty acid byproducts that can be used to form the blood-brain barrier’s protective filter. Without gut bacteria working together to produce these essential fatty acids, the barrier would be too permeable, and harmful toxins could get into your brain.
How Your Mental Health Affects Your Gut
Have you ever felt sick to your stomach when nervous about something? Your gut reflects your mind, and the connection between the mind and the gut is a well-established medical fact. The gastrointestinal (GI) tract is a long and complex neural network that connects thoughts, emotions, memories, and physical sensations to daily activities like eating and digestion. Our thoughts and emotions can significantly impact our health, both physically and mentally. Specific symptoms, such as diarrhea, indigestion, and acid reflux, can indicate stress. Chronic stress can lead to a decline in gut health, which can have severe consequences for your overall health.
Research has found that psychological stress can disrupt gut bacteria balance, sending feedback signals to the brain, signaling increased stress. This can lead to suppressed growth and proliferation of beneficial bacteria while allowing bad bacteria to flourish. When gut microbiome balance is tipped in favor of the harmful microbes, it becomes difficult for your body to absorb nutrients from food and may also cause symptoms like gas and heartburn.
How to Boost Your Gut-Brain Health
The gut-brain connection relies on the health of both your gut and psychology. What you can do to improve gut health also helps with mental health, affecting your gut health. So by supporting the healthy functioning of both your gut and mind, you can keep the overall well-being of your Gut-Brain Axis. Here are some things you can do to help:
1. Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is the longest of your 12 cranial nerves, running from your brain to your large intestine. Stimulating activities like laughing, humming and applying cold water to your face stimulate the vagus nerve, which improves communication between the brain and gut. In the long term, this helps improve body resilience to stress.
2. Eat Foods that Strengthen Your Gut-Brain Axis
Omega-3s and other nutrients in foods rich in Omega-3s help support a healthy gut-brain connection. Prebiotics, which good bacteria eat, are found in many foods. Fermented foods such as kimchi and sauerkraut contain prebiotics and probiotics, which can help support gut health.
3. Take Probiotic Supplements
There are many probiotic supplements on the market that can be used to support gut-brain health. Some probiotics are blended with prebiotics to boost the impact, while others have other benefits such as reducing inflammation, better digestion, and preventing or improving irritable bowel syndrome.
Strengthen Your Gut-Brain Connection
The gut microbiota is a complex network of microorganisms that communicates with the brain and nervous system. The balance and health of your gut will determine whether the signals coming from it benefit your mental health or affect it negatively. Likewise, your ability to manage and cope with psychological stress impacts the wellness of your gut. By eating foods that nourish friendly bacteria and taking probiotics, you can tip your gut’s balance in favor of these beneficial microbes. Exercise and stimulating your vagus nerve also support this axis.