The Gut-Brain Connection
Have you ever based an important decision on ‘your gut feeling?’
Have you ever been so nervous you felt nauseous?
What about that feeling of anxiety that gives you ‘butterflies in your stomach?’
The gut-brain connection is REAL, and it can be the reason behind many of your feelings, including the serious trouble-makers: anxiety and depression.
Our gastrointestinal tract is extremely sensitive to our emotions and ‘feels’ these emotions by triggering symptoms. That’s why we feel the nausea or the butterflies as real manifestations of our emotions. It’s for this reason that our gut is commonly referred to as our ‘second brain.’
But HOW are our feelings connected to our gut?
Serotonin is a type of chemical that allows us to relay messages from one area of our brain to another. We call this a neurotransmitter. We have around 100 billion cells in our brain and Serotonin affects most of them in some way.
90% of Serotonin is made in our gut and that is where it does its best work. By interacting with our gut and brain cells, serotonin can play a role in our mood, appetite, sleep, memory, learning, temperature regulation, libido, and some social behaviours.
Sometimes, our serotonin levels are not what they should be, and this imbalance can wreak havoc with our systems.
Some of the reasons behind a serotonin imbalance may be:
- Gut dysbiosis: The bacteria in our gut may be off balance and in turn, may be unable to produce sufficient serotonin.
- Our serotonin may not be reaching our receptor sites.
- We may not have enough receptor sites to receive the serotonin that is being made.
- We may be lacking in tryptophan, the amino acid that serotonin is made from.
Researchers believe that when an imbalance does occur, it can lead to depression, anxiety, panic, anger and even obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Gut dysbiosis often occurs when the bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract becomes unbalanced. A microbial imbalance or maladaptation is when there is an imbalance in the number and diversity of your gut microflora. This can impact our health in so many different ways. SIBO, a common cause of gastrointestinal discomfort, is when bacteria that would normally grow in other parts of the gut, grows in the small intestine. Most cases of IBS are actually misdiagnosed SIBO. A study from 2018 found “that a persistent imbalance of gut’s microbial community, named dysbiosis, relates to inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diabetes, obesity, cancer, cardiovascular and central nervous system disorders.”
What can we do to ensure we have optimal serotonin Levels?
Before we resort to pharmaceutics, there are a number of natural remedies that have proven very effective in regulating mood disorders. Diet, exercise, sunshine and natural probiotics have shown great results in balancing serotonin levels and improving people’s moods.
While there are no foods that can directly increase your body’s supply of serotonin, there are foods (and some nutrients) that can increase levels of tryptophan, which is what serotonin is made from.
According to nutritionist Elizabeth Somer, carbohydrate-rich foods may be a good bet to help increase serotonin levels. These foods cause your body to trigger a release of insulin. This causes any amino acids in the blood to be absorbed into the body – but not the brain. She says, the only amino acid that DOES get absorbed into the brain is tryptophan. It remains in the bloodstream at high levels following a carbohydrate rich meal, which means it can freely enter the brain and cause serotonin levels to rise. Supplementing with vitamin B-6 can also impact the rate at which tryptophan is converted to serotonin.
Protein rich foods contain high levels of tryptophan, but when we eat these foods our levels of both tryptophan and serotonin actually drop. Eating high protein foods floods our blood with both tryptophan and its competing amino acids. They are all fighting for entry into the brain which means only a small amount of tryptophan gets through and serotonin levels don’t rise.
This is not a prescription to eat as many carbs as you like. Be selective about your carbohydrate choices. Stay away from high-sugar foods and rather choose smart or “complex” carbs such as whole grains over simple carbs like cupcakes and cookies. Fruits, vegetables, and legumes also have healthy carbohydrates and lots of great fibre.
Natural probiotics are always a good idea when looking to optimise gut health. Try incorporating these foods into your diet:
Caffeine can also trigger anxiety and compromise our sleep at night. Be sure to monitor your caffeine intake, especially close to bedtime.
The research has shown that the trillions of microorganisms in the gut known as gut microbiota, can actually help regulate brain function. Studies indicate that people with irritable bowel syndrome have a higher-than-average chance of developing depression and anxiety conditions which drives this point home.
Our gut flora is compromised daily by factors like illness, medications, poor diet, stress, and environmental toxins. Because of these common threats, most people should be supplementing their diet with probiotics.
Probiotics are a combination of ‘good’ bacteria and/or yeasts that naturally live in our bodies. These good bacteria act as an internal army, helping to reduce inflammation in your body, impacting our serotonin levels, and affecting our bodies stress response.
I like to recommend spore-forming probiotics like Vivomixx 450 for 30 days after a course on antibiotics, because they contain 8 different strains of bacteria to help re-inoculate the gut and rebalance the gut bacteria after a course of antibiotics. Spore-forming probiotics like these, are surrounded in a coat of protein which makes them extremely durable. This means that no refrigeration is required to keep these probiotics active which makes them extremely convenient and portable.
“You’re only one workout away from a good mood!”
Everyone feels great after a good workout. Studies have shown that regular exercise can be as effective a treatment for depression as antidepressant medication or psychotherapy.
New research conducted at the University of Texas at Austin, found that just a single 40-minute period of exercise can have an immediate effect on mood. When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins that are believed to trigger a positive feeling in the body and help regulate your mood. The brain chemicals released during physical activity are dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. People often say that exercise actually raises serotonin levels which is what accounts for the rise in mood but there are no definitive studies to date that show that this is the case.
Did you know that it’s not just your skin that enjoys a little sunshine? Even your brain has Vitamin D receptors.
Studies indicate that people with low levels of Vitamin D are more susceptible to depression. Improved levels of Vitamin D were shown to alleviate depression symptoms.
If you can, spend some time outside. Just 20 minutes between 10am – 12pm is the best way to get your Vitamin D quota from sunlight. If you are going to be spending more time than that, be sure to protect your skin with sunblock. For those who don’t have the time to be outside as often as they would like, supplementing with Vitamin D3 combined with K2 as a spray is an excellent option.
Good gut-health = good mental health
As we delve into the research, we are more convinced of the gut-brain connection. Good gut health often translates to good mental health.
If you feel your gut-brain connection is off, or if you have been struggling with feelings of depression or anxiety, reach out to me for a FREE, 20-minute discovery call and let me see how I can help you.
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A great description of how the gut and brain are so connected. Good to understand that most of our serotonin is made in the gut. Diet definitely has a huge impact on mental health and in general well being. Very interesting Helen.
Thank you for taking the time to read the article Alli.
This is a very interesting article that really helps me to understand that gut health is so important and that our gut is like our second brain.
Yes Ricky, our gut is always communicating information to our brain.
An interesting and informative article of the brain-gut connection addressing misconceptions and suggestions that can be applied.
Good to be reminded of what we can do to maintain a healthy gut-brain connection.
Really important to understand the synchronicity with which the gut and the brain work together for true health symbiosis to occur
So true Pascale, the gut informs the brain and there are more nerve messages going from the gut to the brain than the brain to the gut, fascinating isn’t it?!
Fascinating and infomative article. I always feel much happier after exercise, it has a very benefitial effect on my mood. It’s also interesting to know that serotonin is made in the gut and how a healthy diet improves mental as well as physical health.
Thanks for your comment Samantha. Serotonin is such an important feel good neurotransmitter!