Have you ever experienced an upset stomach just when you were ‘feeling nervous’ about something? Several studies have found a very interesting connection between gut health and your brain.
There’s a secondary brain network hiding in your gut! Yes, you read it right. It’s called enteric/ intrinsic nervous system. Your brain or rather your mood can have a direct effect on your intestinal movements/ health.
There is an intimate connection between these two parts of our body. This connection is two-way. The gut is affected by the brain, and vice-versa – this bidirectional communication system is known as ‘the gut-brain axis’. It is majorly through a pool of microbiome present in our intestines. These microbes play numerous roles in the functioning of our GI (Gastro Intestinal) tract.
How does the Brain affect our Gut?
Our gut is home to around 40 trillion microbes of various kinds. Some are beneficial to us, and a few could be harmful.
The number of healthy bacteria is also influenced by the kind of social interactions we have. With a healthy social life, our digestive system tends to run smoothly; and with a negative mindset, it starts affecting the normal gastro-intestinal processes.
As they say a rich social life can help you live longer! A recent study (Moller, A; 2016) observed this in a group of chimpanzees. The ones who were more sociable developed healthier pool of gut bacteria as compared to the ones who weren’t as sociable. If this holds true for humans, it could definitely benefit us in more ways than we can imagine!
There are several studies which have shown that high stress and anxiety can worsen gastric conditions like IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). Our body generally maintains a state of homeostasis with the help of a number of hormones. Under prolonged stressful conditions however, the hormonal balance is affected. This imbalance can adversely affect our gut bacteria. The number of healthy microbes can reduce significantly, exposing us to various GI disorders.
Effects of gut microbiome on brain -
Our intestine is home to a massive number of bacteria. They benefit from the intestinal environment, but also provide us with a host of benefits. Some of these are involved in digestion and metabolism of the foods that we consume, while some influence our brain activity.
A study published in Science Translational Medicine (Qin, H, 2014) suggests that the gut bacteria has an influence on the behavioural patterns of people suffering from IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). In different researches, it has also been observed that gut microbiota can have an effect on the severity of conditions like autism. In a study conducted by Arizona State University, it was observed that more than 50 types of beneficial gut bacteria were quite different in children with autism compared to healthy children.
A study conducted in University of California (Tillisch, K, 2017), observed the behavioural pattern of 40 healthy women with different gut bacterial composition. They found that the way these women reacted, felt and behaved to some negative stimuli was different. Interestingly, the composition of the intestinal bacteria of these women was different and may have influenced their behavioural patterns.
Some studies have also found a link between sleep and gut microbiota in people suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, linking yet another aspect of health to the vast pool of microbes present in our intestines.
These kind of studies, will help researchers identify specific microbes and their effect on human brain, moods, behaviour and cognitive health. They can also help understand the effects of consuming probiotics for better mental health. The variety of healthy microbes present in our gut is huge, and so is the effect they have on our overall health.
Much more research is needed on whether consuming probiotic foods can actually help in the treatment of certain conditions (involving intestinal microbiome). But, eating healthy foods always has many more benefits than just improving our gut health! Maintaining good gut health could very well be one of the ways for better mental health too.
Here are a few guidelines for improving your gut health (and thereby, mental health too) –
- Fill half your plate with fibre: Including fibre in your diet helps increase the number of good microbes in your gut, while limiting the pathogenic ones. Whole grains, vegetables and fruits are the richest sources of fibre in our diet. Red, orange, yellow, green, purple coloured vegetables are rich in antioxidants, and help in improving your gut health. Try to include vegetables like bell peppers, carrots, broccoli, brinjals, purple cabbage, zucchini, green leafy vegetables in your diet regularly.
- Fruits: All citrus fruits are mostly fibrous in nature, and so help improve your gut health. These are also rich in antioxidants, making them vital for increasing the pool of healthy microbiota.
- Go clean: Cut out processed foods form your diet. The more processed a food is, the lesser the nutrient content. Opt for foods in their natural forms. For instance, go for whole fruits instead of packaged fruit juices, go for whole grains instead of refined flours.
- Probiotics: Probiotics are the bacteria which help improve digestion; and are known to be rich in antioxidants. Foods like curd, buttermilk, sauerkraut, kafir, soft cheese are known as probiotics. In traditional Indian diets, curd or buttermilk used to be an integral part of the meals.
- Hydrate yourself: Consuming sufficient water can positively affect your gut flora, so make sure you keep yourself well-hydrated through healthy liquids such as plain water, coconut water, buttermilk, lemon water, dal water, and citrus fruits. Limit alcohol consumption, as it might suppress the healthy gut bacteria.
These healthy foods may not serve as cures for any diseases but will surely help prevent many health conditions in addition to keeping your mood positive! Eat healthy and exercise regularly for a healthy body and a healthy mind.
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