Tag: gut health

The Gut-Brain Connection: How gut health affects mental health

gut-brain connection

You’ve probably heard about the importance of gut health and how it can affect almost everything else in your body. This is not far from true. Everyday more and more research comes out supporting the notion that our guts are heavily involved in our overall health, and mental health is no exception. This is where the gut-brain connection comes into play.

Different branches of medicine that don’t deal directly with the digestive system are starting to become more and more interested in the effects of gut health in different health conditions. Psychiatrists, neurologists, endocrinologists, and immunologists are all starting to look at the effects of the GI tracts’s processes in their specific area of focus, and many of them are coming to the consensus that the connection between the gut and the rest of the body’s systems can’t be looked at independently. 

Neuroscientists around the world seem to have a newfound fascination for the connection between the gut and the brain, and with every passing study the link between what we eat and how we feel, not only physically but on an emotional level, seems to be more and more apparent.

Due to this now undeniable connection between gut and brain, many experts in the fields of psychiatry, psychology, and clinical counseling are starting to integrate food awareness into their practices.  

Ongoing research focuses on what we know as the gut-brain connection and how an unhealthy gut can ultimately lead to an array of mood disorders like anxiety and depression. 

Let’s take a look into how our gut health can affect our mental health. 

The gut-brain connection

The gut has been referred to as the “second brain” because of how strongly its processes influence the nervous system. The two systems are in constant communication and what happens in one can directly affect the other. 

To understand the brain-gut connection it is helpful to understand the basic functioning of the gut.

What we call the gut refers to the entire gastro-intestinal (GI) system and all of the living microorganisms that live within it, also known as gut microbiota or gut flora. The organs along the GI tract and the gut flora work in a balanced, symbiotic manner to maintain not only proper digestion, but also several other processes in the body. 

To get a deeper understanding of how the gut works and the systems it influences you can take a look at our article Gut Health: What is it and why does it matter? 

The gut and the brain have a bilateral relationship. The gut communicates through the nutrients it absorbs that carry out processes to activate hormonal and nervous system processes. These processes are then integrated by the central nervous system (CNS) and endocrine system to generate appropriate responses from the brain to send back to the rest of the body. [1]

This bilateral connection is known as the gut-brain axis. The mutual nature of this relationship means that anything that affects the gut can have an effect on the CNS and vice-versa. This is why so many mental health or neurological issues seem to have a correlation with gut health disturbances. 

The Gut-Brain Connection

Gut health and mood disorders

The details and nuances of the link between mental health and gut health is still being researched and explored, but the connection is a known fact and has been observed in many research procedures. 

Dysbiosis (low diversity of healthy gut bacteria) is one of the main disturbances that can create ideal conditions for disease and mental health disorders to thrive in. When we lack the necessary levels of healthy gut bacteria we are prone to many mood disregulations and neurological imbalances. Similarly, exposure to emotional stress, trauma, or other severe psychological conditions can lead to a debilitated gut ecosystem.  

This bilateral nature of the gut-brain axis can make it dificult to pinpoint the cause of a specific condition (it becomes a case of chicken and egg).  For many, a disturbed gut balance can lead to mood disorders, for others, a mood disorder can wreak havoc on the delicate gut balance.

 Whichever way the wheels spin, the cycle perpetuates itself, and addressing issues from both sides can be the most effective way to treat a mood disorder. 

Let’s take a look into some of the ways in which the gut microbiome’s state has been linked to different mental health conditions. 

Gut health in anxiety and depressive disorders

Chronic anxiety and depressive disorders (from minor and temporary disorders to major depressive disorder) are some of the most common mental health difficulties today, and the numbers of those suffering with either or both of these conditions is rapidly scaling. It makes you wonder if there is something in the water (or in the food). 

Depression and anxiety disorders on a physiological level are related to disturbances in the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal gland (HPA). The HPA is our central stress response system, and excessive activity in the HPA is a direct precursor to depression and anxiety disorders. [2] 

A healthy gut ecosystem can help the body cope with stress adequately by regulating HPA activity, but in the case of a weakened gut microbiome, the resistance to stress is lowered which can make us more susceptible to stress related disorders that can burden our mood and emotional health even further. 

So, lifestyle behaviours that affect our gut negatively (like a poor diet or excess alcohol) can lead to mood disorders like general anxiety disorder or minor and major depressive disorders.  

The correlation between microbiome and emotional behaviour has been observed in lab settings showing a clear and consistent relationship between the two. 

Many studies have observed the differences in emotional behaviour between germ free rats (rats that have been subject to significantly reduced microbiomes) and rats with normal gut microbiome. They observed that reducing gut microbiome (through antibiotics or other stressors) can induce anxiety and depression-like behaviours [2]. On the other hand, supporting the livelihood of the microbiome through prebiotics, probiotics, and fermented foods, has shown to alleviate depression and anxiety symptoms. [3,4]

All in all, the correlation seems strong. A healthy gut can lead to a healthy mind. 

Gut health in other neurological disorders 

Gut health (or lack thereof) has also been studied in relation to different mental health disorders and neurological diseases. Researchers have found that the gut microbiome of healthy or neurotypical individuals is different from that of individuals with different neurological conditions. 

Other neuropsychiatric conditions such as ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder) and ASD (autism spectrum disorder) have also shown pattens of altered gut microbiome as a recurring feature. [7]

In addition to diverse mood disorders and neurodivergent conditions, there is a clear correlation between poor gut microbiome levels and chronic neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. 

Several gut-related issues like dysbiosis, SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth), and intestinal inflammation are all contributing factors in the development of Parkinson’s disease. [5] In fact, many preventative medicine approaches are looking into using gut health markers in addition to other biomarkers to help early diagnosis of neurological diseases like Parkinson’s. This research is still new and needs space to grow, but there is hope that biomarkers including GI tract functioning can be used as a safe, early diagnosis. [6]

Although research in this area is still new and growing, the connections between gut health and neuropsychiatric conditions already observed are promising for further study, and this area of research has the potential to open the field to alternative ways to treat and understand mental health and neurological conditions. 

The bottom line

Our guts are directly related to a wide range of systems in the body, and any dysfunction in the GI tract or its microbiome can have effects on our overall wellness. Mood disorders and other neurological conditions have been linked to gut health issues like dysbiosis and inflammation. 

Taking an active role in supporting your gut health can help reduce the risk of cognitive decline and neurological diseases. It can also help improve your mood and overall vitality. Want to learn how to keep your gut healthy? Check out this article for 10 rules for a healthy gut. 

10 Rules For A Healthy Gut

woman with vegetable

Multiple health issues, from stress to chronic disease, are associated in one way or another with sub-optimal gut health. So, tending to our digestion and maintaining a healthy gut can help us optimize our overall well-being and steer clear of unwanted disease.

If you’re not entirely familiar with the gut and how it functions, we recommend that you take a look at our article “Gut health: What it is and why it matters” to get a deeper understanding. 

When we talk about “the gut” we are referring to the GI tract and all the living microscopic entities that live within it known as gut flora or gut microbiome. 

Here are 10 rules (five “do’s” and five “don’ts”) to support your gut microbiome to keep healthy levels of bacteria and other necessary agents that keep our guts functioning well. 

What is the gut microbiome?

The terms gut microbiome, gut flora, or gut microbiota, all refer to the microscopic organisms that live within our bodies. Each one of us has billions if not trillions of live organisms that live symbiotically within us. The gut microbiome is specifically the lot of microorganisms that reside in the GI tract. 

The digestive tract is all colonized by living organisms that support digestion as well as other processes in the body. These include bacteria, fungi, and archaea and are all referred to as “healthy bacteria” among other names. 

Our bodies are colonized by these microorganisms through many natural processes including natural childbirth, breastfeeding, exposure to nature, and consuming probiotic-rich foods. 

The gut microbiome plays a key role in many bodily processes from the proper metabolism of food, to immune defence and brain function. 

The risks of a weak gut microbiome

A healthy gut microbiome will generally maintain the body’s processes and can keep us healthy and lively. However, when the gut flora is disturbed, decreased, or threatened, many health issues can arise. 

When healthy, our gut microbiome keeps unhealthy bacteria at bay. But if threatened through factors like unhealthy diets, stress, medication, and other elements, it can be significantly reduced or weakened. 

The condition of having  a reduced or imbalanced gut microbiome is known as dysbiosis. A state of dysbiosis allows space for unhealthy or irritating agents to take over and colonize the GI tract. This disbalance of healthy and unhealthy gut microorganisms can lead to developing gut-related issues like SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth), intestinal candidiasis (yeast overgrowth in the gut), leaky gut (the permeable gut lining that allows toxins to leak into the bloodstream), and other digestive system dysfunctions.  

These digestive disorders at first glance could seem like not much of a threat, but if left unattended for enough time they can lead to major health issues. 

Poor functioning of the gut microbiome has been linked to many conditions on a physical and mental level. Leaky gut syndrome for example is known to increase the risk of developing chronic diseases like autoimmune disease, metabolic syndrome, and even cancer. 

On a cognitive level, poor microbiome health has been linked to conditions such as ADHD, ASD, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and even Tourette’s syndrome. 

Mood disorders like anxiety and depression also seem to have a direct correlation with gut microbiome levels.

Needless to say, taking care of our gut health can bring great rewards to our overall physical and mental health. So let’s dive into what we can do to strengthen our gut. 

Healthy gut flora contains a rich diversity of bacteria

Gut health “don’ts”

There are several things that can be aggressively detrimental to gut health and that you might want to avoid as much as possible. Let’s look into some of the biggest threats to gut health: 

1. Antibiotics: 

Although useful (and necessary) in acute cases, antibiotics should not be taken lightly, and in most cases should not be taken long term. Antibiotics kill all bacteria and microbial life (both good and bad) in your gut. 

If you are prescribed antibiotics, talk to your healthcare provider to see whether there are any alternatives for treatment. Antibiotics are often over-prescribed and taken with less thought than they should, and unfortunately, many health care professionals won’t address the adverse effects that these can have on your health. Often, if the situation is not an urgent case, a second opinion might be insightful in this area.

Many people who have been on long-term antibiotic treatments pay the price heavily with all sorts of microbiome-related issues. In fact, the long-term use of antibiotics is a significant predisposing factor in the development of autoimmune diseases. 

If an antibiotic regime is indeed necessary, a healthcare professional might suggest adding a probiotic supplement regime to counteract the damage. Sticking to this regime is crucial for proper damage control. 

2. Sugary Foods: 

Unhealthy gut bacteria thrive on simple sugars, and when unhealthy bacteria thrive, healthy bacteria start to lose territory. Limiting foods such as desserts, pastries, candy, sweet drinks, and added sugars can help starve some of these unhealthy bacteria so that they don’t overpower healthy organisms. 

3. Alcohol: 

Alcohol also disturbs gut health by feeding unhealthy bacteria and hurting healthy bacteria. In excess it acts as an inflammatory agent, creating inflammation in the body by disrupting the gut barrier (leading to that dreaded leaky gut syndrome mentioned above).

4. Processed Foods: 

Heavily processed foods like fast foods, artificially flavored foods, and many “diet” foods are full of added chemical ingredients that disturb microbiome balance and contribute to inflammation. Staying away from heavily processed products as much as possible is generally a good rule to support gut health.  

5. Stress: 

The relationship between the gut and the nervous system is bilateral, so the gut affects the nervous system as much as the nervous system affects the gut. Chronic stress has been shown to contribute to gut dysbiosis and inflammation. 

Taking time to rest and recover, and practicing healthy stress coping skills can help your gut flora stay strong amidst stressful moments. 

Gut health “do’s”

1. Eat Real Foods:

Healthy bacteria is designed to thrive on healthy, real, and natural foods. 

Diets with plenty of fresh vegetables, quality protein sources, healthy fats, and moderate whole grains and legumes are best to help support gut health. 

The mediterranean diet for example is known for its anti inflammatory, and nutrient rich characteristics.

2. Supplement With Probiotics: 

Probiotics are live bacteria you can consume through food or supplements. Taking probiotic supplements can help recolonize the gut with healthy bacteria after it has taken a toll. Taken regularly these supplements can also work as a preventative, maintenance regime.  

Talk to a healthcare provider to see if this is a good option for you and what sorts of probiotics you would do best with; this is important because randomly taking probiotics can actually dysregulate gut microbiome balance.

3. Know Your Prebiotics:  

Prebiotics are basically food for your gut bacteria. Prebiotic rich foods include garlic, onions, apples, fresh vegetables, chicory root, flax seeds, and more. 

There are also prebiotic supplements in the market. Although these can be helpful and convenient at times, sticking to eating real, unprocessed foods is always the best call for overall health. 

4. Fermented Foods: 

Fermented foods are a powerful source of prebiotics and some of them like yogurt even contain live healthy bacteria. Eating fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha, can help support healthy gut organisms. 

In the case of having known colonization of unhealthy bacteria (conditions like systemic candidiasis and others), these foods should be limited until the unhealthy agent has been eliminated or is under control, as many of these foods also feed and strengthen unhealthy bacteria. 

5. Get Good Sleep: 

The quality, efficiency, and duration of our sleep can affect our gut microbiome. Studies have shown that significant changes to sleep-wake cycles can affect the balance of the gut microbiome.

Gut flora is sensitive to circadian rhythms, so a sleep routine with a steady bedtime and wake-up time can help maintain the balance of our gut microbiome. 

For tips on better sleep check out our article on how to optimize your sleep.

Gut Health: What is it and why does it matter?

healthy meal vancouver

Gut health has become a large concern among health and wellness experts in all areas, and the importance of a healthy gut seems to be more and more significant for overall health. 

As research in this area evolves it is clear that gut health has more diverse functions in the body than simply digestion, and that it may be one of the most important factors in many health aspects from proper energy metabolism to brain function and immunity.  

Let’s take a look into what the gut is and why it matters to our health

What exactly is the gut?

When we talk about the gut we are referring to a complex ecosystem that works synergistically to carry out functions that are essential to the body’s survival. 

What we call “the gut” is basically the entire gastrointestinal tract (GI tract for short) and the living organisms that reside in it. 

GI tract: The GI tract encompasses all of the moving parts from the moment we ingest food to the moment we eliminate waste. This includes key organs like the mouth, esophagus, stomach, liver, pancreas, small and large intestines, and rectum. 

Gut Microbiota: The entire system of organs and cavities in the GI tract  is colonized by billions of microscopic creatures known as the gut flora or gut microbiome. These include bacteria, fungi, and archaea. 

Our bodies are inoculated with these microscopic organisms from birth, and they play a large role not only in digestive processes, but also in immunity, brain function, and mood changes. 

The gut’s main functions

The role that our guts play in our overall health is quite significant, and modern medicine is paying more and more attention to gut health as a crucial source of preventative care and health-oriented goals. 

To understand how the state of our guts can affect different aspects of health, it is important to first look at some of its main functions:  Digestion, immunity, and brain function. (It is important to state that this is by no means an exhaustive list of the gut’s functions. The nuance and complexity of this system extends further than this article.) 

Digestion and nutrient absorption

In each step along the GI tract, food gets broken down into smaller pieces, metabolized by enzymes, and reduced to a form that allows our body to use it for energy. Micronutrients like vitamins and minerals are released and absorbed into the bloodstream, and any waste material is separated to be eliminated. 

The physical lining of the gut ensures that food travels through the appropriate channels and moves along in a timely manner. Some parts of the digestive system (like the esophagus and intestines) even support this movement by autonomic contractions of the gut lining known as peristalsis.  

This gut lining, especially in the small intestine, is also responsible for allowing necessary nutrients and compounds to be absorbed into the blood stream so that our bodies can use them for energy, tissue building, and other metabolic processes. 

The gut microbiota also plays a key role in digestion through fermentation of carbohydrates into useful sources of energy, synthesis of vitamins (mostly vitamin K and B), and supporting the metabolism of lipids (fats and oils). [1]

Immunity

The gut works as a main source of immune protection against foreign elements. It does this through both mechanical and biochemical processes. 

The tissue lining in the GI tract is known as the gut barrier. When healthy, the gut barrier creates a mechanical barrier that keeps all toxins and undigested food from leaking into the bloodstream. 

Any leakage of unwanted material outside of the gut lining can cause the immune system to respond and attack any foreign compounds, and if untreated it can cause severe immune reactions that can lead to many chronic conditions. This dysfunction in the gut lining is known as leaky gut syndrome.

The gut microbiome also plays a role in immune defence by producing antimicrobial components that can help fight the spread and growth of unhealthy bacteria. [2] An overgrowth of bacteria or yeast in the gut can also contribute to a leaky gut. 

Brain function and mood

Recent research has observed a direct connection between gut microbiome activity and nervous system processes including emotional regulation, stress and pain responses, and neurotransmitter movement. 

This mutual interaction between brain and gut is known as the brain-gut connection or gut-brain axis. 

This brain-gut connection is a bilateral relationship, meaning that any changes in the gut will affect the CNS and vice versa. This is why stress-related issues can have such a significant effect on gut functioning, and why a poor gut environment can lead to mood disorders like anxiety and depression. 

Multiple studies done on lab rats have shown a direct relation between gut microbiome changes and psychological activity including emotional behaviour, learning and memory retention, and social interactions. [3]

Experts have also observed a connection between gut microbiome states and disorders of the nervous system and cognitive functioning like ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder), ASD (autism spectrum disorder),  Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. 

Common gut health issues

There are plenty of things that can go wrong with our gut and all lifestyle aspects from nutrition to stress management can play a role in our gut health. 

There are however two main issues regarding the gut that can significantly affect our overall health: Leaky gut and dysbiosis. 

Leaky Gut

Leaky gut refers to a gut lining — specifically that of the small intestine — become permeable due to constant irritation. When this lining is damaged, the barrier between the gut and the bloodstream is no longer fully functional. The walls that separate the two develop leaks that allow undigested food compounds seep into the bloodstream. 

This leak of compounds into the bloodstream can generate an immune response to fight the undigested food that the system does not recognize in the bloodstream. The more compounds leak out of the gut, the heavier the response, not to mention toxicity levels in the body. 

These immune responses generate high levels of systemic inflammation, which is a root cause of many chronic conditions. 

Dysbiosis 

Dysbiosis refers to the lack of healthy levels of gut flora or a disbalance in gut bacteria. 

This can happen due to many different reasons including antibiotic use, overgrowth of unhealthy bacteria or yeast (often caused by lack of healthy bacteria), and lifestyle issues such as poor diet, excessive stress, and alcohol abuse. 

The lack of healthy levels of gut bacteria can lead to multiple issues from digestive difficulties all the way up to chronic conditions. As mentioned earlier, dysbiosis can be a factor in developing a leaky gut, which is when our gut health can really start to get us into trouble in other aspects of our health, especially our immune health. 

How to care for your gut?

After this brief introduction to your gut, you might be wondering what are some ways to support and take care of it. 

The rules to a healthy gut can be summarized in a few key points: 

Eating real, healthy foods

Healthy gut bacteria thrives on real, fresh food. Varied vegetables, legumes, and fruit are great sources of food for our gut flora. 

Fermented products like sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, and kombucha often have healthy live probiotics that can strengthen your gut flora population, as well as nutrients that also help them thrive. 

Unhealthy gut bacteria thrive on refined sugar, and simple carbohydrates (added sugars, sweets, desserts, syrups, etc.). Limiting the amount of sugar you consume can support your gut microbiome and keep it balanced. 

Processed and refined foods can affect our microbiome and irritate our gut lining when consumed often. Limiting processed foods (even those under the “health food” section) is often a good idea.

Avoiding antibiotics if possible 

Antibiotics are powerful agents and can really get us out of trouble in acute situations. But when over-prescribed (which happens often) or taken for extended periods of time they can really wreak havoc on our gut microbiome.

Antibiotics kill all microbes, good or bad, so they inevitably lead to some level of dysbiosis. Avoiding any unnecessary use of antibiotics when more natural remedies are feasible can save your gut microbiome from a lot of harm. 

However, sometimes antibiotic use is necessary. In this case having a supplement regime with probiotics is important in order to minimize damage. 

In either one of these cases always consult a healthcare professional to decide what your best option is and how to support your gut through any treatment. 

Reducing stress

As mentioned above, the brain and gut are directly related. Chronic stress has been shown to affect our gut flora levels for the worse which can leave us prone to unhealthy bacteria colonizing our systems. 

Practicing stress reduction techniques can train our systems into better regulation paths which can save us from unbalancing our gut microbiome (as well as many other stress induced ailments). 

Be sure to read our article on chronic stress to learn what you can do to mitigate it.

The bottom line

We might at first glance think of the gut and digestive system as just the structure that processes what we eat, but the truth is that our guts are at the very center of our overall health and have a huge impact on our physical and mental wellbeing. 

Taking care of our gut and keeping it in good shape can help us prevent and even reverse a plethora of ailments and debilitating conditions. 

Overall, a healthy gut makes a healthy body, so paying attention to our gut health should be a top priority in our self-care practices.