We’ve all heard the expression, “It’s all in your head,” but is that true?
We experience stress and anxieties through school, work, and/or our social lives, almost on a daily basis. Usually we think about stress-relievers or self-care strategies to help with these feelings, but by learning how these processes work on a physiological level in our own bodies, it can help us discover ways to decrease these negative feelings in a different way. Our mood, emotions, and stress levels tend to be correlated with, and are thought of coming from our brain in the central nervous system. However, our nervous systems consist of more than just the central and peripheral nervous system, which consists of the brain and spinal cord and the nerves, respectively. The enteric nervous system, which governs the gastrointestinal tract, also plays a very important role in communicating with the brain in order to regulate cognition, immunity, hormones, and emotions. By looking into how the gastrointestinal (GI) tract works, it can help bring understanding on how there’s a connection between our brains, our mood and our food.
Gut Bacteria and Our Mental Health
An important aspect for the GI tract to function efficiently, that is not necessarily a part of our own bodies but still very important, is gut bacteria or the microbiome. These little organisms have such a large impact not only on the enteric nervous system, but the central nervous system as well. On the intestinal level, the gut flora can prevent dysfunction in the gastrointestinal tract and affect the nutrient availability in the food we eat. In a study conducted on ‘germ free’ animals, the findings supported that gut flora influences memory, anxiety, and stress. Stress and inflammation can be closely linked together. Stress can be in response to our body’s ‘fight or flight response’ and releases specific hormones and neurotransmitters which also activates inflammation. Yet, many people, such as students, experience chronic, or long lasting, stress and inflammation, which negatively affects the whole body. Microorganisms in the gut have been shown to decrease inflammation. In these studies, probiotics have also decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression, similarly to prescription medications.
Flawed Gut Bacteria: Help it with Fiber
However, not all microorganisms should be viewed equally and can vary based on diet, medications, environment, or even what season it is. Some common examples of manifestations of a flawed gut that may occur can be bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or cramping. It is important to have specific microbes rather than others to support a healthy GI tract. A very important aspect within one’s diet that can support the gut flora is fiber. Most people only get about half of what their fiber intake should actually be. Fiber is so valuable, as the microbes essentially eat and thrive from it. Fiber is also important for many other different things in addition to gut health such as lowering cholesterol, blood sugar and reducing risk of heart disease.
How to Increase Microorganisms in your Gut
- Increase intake of whole plant-based sources for fiber: legumes, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- Incorporate some fermented foods into your diet: yogurt, kombucha, or kimchi, or even supplementing with a probiotic (always ask a healthcare professional before supplementing your diet).
- Get enough sleep: 7-8 hours a night
- Exercise regularly: a few days a week
- Reduce stress
These habits, in addition to gut health, can also benefit your overall health and wellness.
Our Body Systems Work Together
The body is made up of many different systems, but that does not mean they work independently of each other. These systems and processes work together in order to keep our bodies running smoothly. The digestive system illustrates this very well, as it impacts immunity, hormones, mental health and more. Even though it seems like we don’t have enough time and energy to be 100% perfect all the time, little changes in choices can help us in more ways than one.
By: Claire Latourell, WIT Peer Educator
Posted by Katie Jourdan on Permanent link for Mind-Gut Connection on January 27, 2022.