Go with the gut... We mean it! Go with the gut.June 01, 2020 7:22 pm
We’ve always been fans of going with the gut. The mind and the heart are all well and good, yeah… but the gut is true blue. However, only now are we realising how true this saying is and what it really means. That is to say, scientists are making fascinating discoveries that closely link your gut health to your mental and emotional health.
Strictly speaking, this refers to the gut microbiome. What does this term mean? Well, you probably know that our bodies are populated by cells. But you probably don’t know that for every cell, there are ten bacteria, viruses, and fungi in our bodies. These organisms are collectively known as microbes. Some of these cause diseases. However, depending on how healthy we are, many are good microbes that help us fend off pathogens in various ways. All together, the microbes in our bodies are called the microbiota. The exact makeup of the microbiota is different from person to person, diet to diet, place to place.
The microbiota live all across our bodies and carry genetic material. This is the microbiome. The microbes in our gut and their genetic material is the gut microbiome. It represents the largest concentration of microbes in our bodies, by far, and adds up to about 4 pounds of biomass per person. To help you put that figure into proper proportion, that’s heavier than our brains.
Powerful links between the gut microbiome, mental health, and behaviour are now becoming more apparent to us.
Gut and mental health
Scientists now think that it’s largely the gut microbiome that allows us to handle stress normally.
Researchers looked at what happened when there are not any microbes living in the gut. This helped them understand how the gut health links to mental health. It enables us to see more exactly how the gut microbiome influences our lives.(1) Specifically, without gut microbes, myelination does not seem to form as usual. Myelin is found around nerve fibres. It acts as insulation; it prevents electrical currents from escaping and helps them connect to other impulses. Without myelination, nerve signals stay isolated. Gut microbes seem to be instrumental in helping to form the genes that tell us how to create myelin. This becomes even more interesting when you begin to understand that myelin is what helps our brain stay fluid and adaptable.(2)
Thus, without myelin, responses to anxiety and fear are affected. Learning and cognition does not happen at the same speed. Stress becomes insurmountable. Together, all of these things are a major burden on what we think of as mental health. In other words, the brain cannot handle everyday obstacles. The capacity for mental – and, thus, emotional – resilience is cut down. Who would have thought some germs would allow us to do all that!
Our bodies are indeed mysterious. As Paul Simon sang in 1986, “Medicine is magical and magical is art.”
A change of gut: Healthy diet
There have been other startling discoveries about how our physical and emotional makeup is formed. However, the exciting thing about the gut playing a part in wellbeing is that you have a great fighting chance of reshaping your gut microbiome. We are still understanding more about ways to take charge of the microbiome – but it is very possible. We know for certain that diet plays a supreme role in nourishing healthy diversity in the gut microbiome. This is especially significant when considering the gut ‘biotics’…
Gut-wrenching: The psychobiotics
The line of research looking into the gut health and the brain led scientists to give a new name to bacteria with influence on mental health. We now call these bacteria psychobiotics. It looks like psychobiotics may be important to seeing and feeling clearly. The term derives from prebiotics and probiotics, which are both very important to gut health.
Briefly, probiotics are live bacteria which you can obtain through some foods, such as sauerkraut, pickles, and tempeh. On the other hand, prebiotics are foods that feed the live bacteria already in your gut, encouraging them to flourish. Prebiotics include vegetables, such as Jerusalem artichoke, tigernuts, asparagus, onions, and garlic. Eating good amounts of both in real foods are probably the most important ways you can maintain your gut microbiome holistically. Don’t worry, we’ll tell you more about this in a separate article! → View Related Products
Furthering this school of thought are newly seen links between gut disorders (in other words, cases where the gut microbiome is not doing its job) and mental health. Want some convincing numbers and examples? Over a third of people suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) also struggle with depression.(3) Further, a study looked at patients suffering from gastrointestinal disorders who were later referred to psychiatrists. More of these patients were diagnosed with psychotic disorders than patients who were referred directly to psychiatrists.(4) Moreover, 36.5% of patients who have functional gastrointestinal disorders such as functional dyspepsia also have psychiatric disorders. These are often connected to panic or anxiety.(5) Finally, 60% of patients suffering from acute, consistent constipation also exhibited mental or spectrum disorders. Blocked up in more than one way.
Hippocrates is credited with the quote, "All diseases begin in the gut."
An intriguing example of a psychobiotic that may open the door to a deeper way of healing mental stresses is Bifidobacterium longum 1714. John Cryan, a scientist doing intensive research into the gut-mental health axis, put these bacteria in capsules and gave them to 22 men over a monthlong period. The subjects experienced less stress and anxiety. They also were able to complete memory exercises with more accuracy. Perhaps most significantly, they exhibited lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol at the beginning of the day.(6) This means that, before anything had the chance to rile them up, they were already on a more balanced keel.
Although we are not certain yet exactly how these bacteria may effect these changes, it’s possible that it stimulates the vagus nerve. This nerve runs between the gut and the brain. It is quite relevant to everything we’ve been observing about the effect of the gut on mental health and vice versa.
Given the many, many bacteria types that populate different people’s gut microbiomes, these discoveries are nothing sort of miraculous. Pinpointing the way that individual bacteria species function within our bodies may allow us to understand imbalances that impact overall wellbeing.
Attempting to correct these imbalances may be a much more sustainable, holistic strategy than pill-popping to address specific mental or digestive symptoms we have not previously understood as coalescing into wider issues. However, further research into these bacteria and others is needed – and, excitingly, is happening!
… and gut feeling – How prebiotics can affect mood
Further, separate studies have looked at prebiotics and how they impact mood.(7) Scientists found a similar lowering of waking cortisol levels. Moreover, they also tracked a greater attention to positive imagery. In other words, people who took prebiotics were more likely to see the positive than the negative. Humans are probably hardwired to look at the negative, so this is exciting. Although scientists have cautioned against thinking that serious psychiatric disorders might be fully healed through prebiotics, this is still an important discovery. The larger significance is that people might be more likely to have medication work properly if they first paid attention to their gut microbiome. We told you all of this was fascinating!
Prebiotics also have significance for mental health in broader ways. In other words, among one of the most important ingredients for overall mental and emotional wellbeing is sleep. It is also one of the most elusive, with many people in Western societies struggling to obtain enough quality sleep. Sleeping pills and other band-aid solutions are not healthy long-term solutions. Well, it turns out that prebiotics may be the thing to get you that shut-eye you’ve been longing for. There have been promising studies as well as anecdotal evidence in this direction. Prebiotics may improve sleep quality in several ways that result in a smoother sleep / wake cycle altogether.(8) It does this by lessening the effects of stress on wakefulness and on the various stages of sleep. Is a pattern showing itself to you?
Recipes for your gut health
Splitting a gut
In 2017, the BBC aired a documentary called “The Truth about Sleep.” The insomniac Dr. Michael Mosley looked into various factors including diet and lifestyle and how they impact sleep. Dr. Mosley had struggled with sleeplessness for many years and tried different strategies to attain better sleep, all to no avail. When he came across prebiotics, Dr. Mosley had a breakthrough in his sleep patterns. He could fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep longer. Further, he slept better and more deeply.
A fascinating study went full circle with the ideas we’ve been discussing, namely how the gut can help us process stress. This research was carried out in South Africa, a society where many people have experienced traumatic events in the home. This trauma causes severe stress, which then shows itself in widespread health issues. In trying to understand how society could better prevent and deal with these issues, researchers looked at the effects of stress in the gut. They found that a few types of commonly found bacteria were newly absent in the guts of people who had recently dealt with trauma. In other words, it’s not a one-way street. Not only does the lack of the right bacteria in the gut make it more difficult for us to deal with life in the best way possible, but when life is especially harsh, it affects our guts.
Another way of stating it is to say that the gut is a living, delicate organ that responds to the environment as well as supports us in dealing with it. Studies looking at the connection between sleep and the gut also revealed the same things – that lack of sleep led to changes in the bacteria makeup of our gut microbiomes.
The good thing is, again, that nourishing the living creatures in the microbiome might be a way of helping us deal better with painful or merely uncomfortable events and help us be more resilient. It might be a very promising tool to add to our expanding arsenal of ways to support wider wellbeing. We do not want to depend too heavily on medicine to cure overt symptoms. We want to address the root causes of ill health. In other words, paying better attention to our guts might be up there with strategies that are now firmly embedded in the mainstream – things like whole food diet, yoga, meditation, osteopathy, and so on.
Hippocrates is widely recognised as the father of modern medicine. The ancient Greek physician and philosopher precedes Jesus. He delineated medicine as its own field. Physicians still use the Hippocratic Oath. He also wrote widely on the workings of the human body. Hippocrates is credited with the quote, “All diseases begin in the gut.” It could be that we are finally beginning to comprehend what this might mean.
Going with the properly nourished and cared for gut may lead us to go with the mind more profoundly than we could have. To be more faithful to the heart than otherwise possible.
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(1) Luczynski et al, "Growing up in a Bubble: Using Germ-Free Animals to Assess the Influence of the Gut Microbiota on Brain and Behaviour", International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 2016
(2) Radulescu et al, "Manipulation of microbiota reveals altered callosal myelination and white matter plasticity in a model of Huntington disease." Neurobiology Diseases, 2019
(3) Shah et al, "Psychological disorders in gastrointestinal disease: Epiphenomenon, cause or consequence?" Annals of Gastreoenterology, 2014
(4) "Gastrointestinal Symptoms in Psychiatry: Comparison of Direct Applications and Referrals."
(5) Stasi et al, "Subthreshold psychiatric psychopathology in functional gastrointestinal disorders: Can it be the bridge between gastroenterology and psychiatry?" Gastreoenterology Research and Practice, 2017
(6) Ian Sample, "Probiotic bacteria may aid against anxiety and memory problems", The Guardian, 2015
(7) Schmidt et al, "Prebiotic intake reduces the waking cortisol response and alters emotional bias in healthy volunteers" Psychopharmacology, 2015
(8) Thompson et al, "Dietary Prebiotics and Bioactive Milk Fractions Improve NREM Sleep, Enhance REM Sleep Rebound and Attenuate the Stress-Induced Decrease in Diurnal Temperature and Gut Microbial Alpha Diversity", Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience, 2017