Do you suffer from low mood, depression, anxiety, difficulties with concentration, irritability, mood swings and/or digestive problems including gas, bloating, IBS, diarrhea, constipation, reflux?
Did you know that the health of your digestive tract has a profound impact on the health of your brain (and vice versa) and therefore on your mood?
Well, I'm sure at some point in your life you've had the experience of feeling "butterflies" in your stomach in anticipation for an event? This is no coincidence. The gut and the brain are connected, and I'm going to connect the dots for you. I'm also going to provide you with a few simple things to incorporate into your daily routine that will have an enormously beneficial impact on both your digestive and brain health. We are going to hit 2 birds with one stone!
But, before we get to the goods, I think it's important you understand how these two seemingly distant "organ" are so intimately connected....
Your gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), which runs from your mouth to your anus, is, in a structural sense, quite simple. It is a hollow tube that takes food in one end (your mouth), breaks it down, absorbs what it needs and then excretes what it doesn't out the other end (your anus). However, while relatively simple in its structure, it is arguable one of the most important and influential organs in the body, it is literally your “second brain”. So important is it’s role in overall health that it even has it’s own nervous and immune system (the enteric nervous system and gut-associated lymphatic tissue)! It plays a large role in immunity, detoxification, hormone & vitamin synthesis, blood sugar regulation, and brain health. (1)
In this context of mental health, our discussion will focus on the incredibly influential role of the gut-brain axis.
The gut-brain axis is a bidirectional (travels in both ways) communication pathway whose main highway is the vagus nerve. Along this "highway" travels nerve signals, hormones and other signaling molecules that impact both gut & brain health. And while we’ve termed it the gut-brain axis, the latest science has shown that it is actually a microbiome-gut-brain axis. (2)(3) The “gut” being the hollow tube made up of epithelial (skin-like tissue), muscle and mucosal (mucous) layers. The “microbiome” being the complex community of microorganisms that line the inside of this tube. The importance of making this distinction lies in the fact that the gut flora (the population of microorganisms) produce a multitude of neuroactive (brain influencing) molecules, such as acetylcholine, histamine, melatonin and serotonin, that act locally, but that also communicate with the brain via the vagus nerve. Therefore, the state and health of these microorganisms plays a vital role with regards to the types of "messages" sent to the brain. For example, when we consume foods that are allergic or inflammatory in nature (we’ll talk about which ones below) our gut flora initiate an immune response that eventually reaches the brain, resulting in brain inflammation. This is bad news, since overwhelming research is now showing that inflammation in the brain is at the root of almost all chronic diseases including mental illnesses such as depression, Alzheimers and ADHD. In fact, in one double-blind crossover study, 20 healthy male volunteers were administered an endotoxin that resulted in an increase in inflammatory markers, which also triggered classic depressive symptoms. (4) Now, this is not to say that inflammation is the only cause of depression and anxiety. However, if by fixing our gut we can reduce symptoms of bloating, gas and discomfort while also improving our mental well-being, isn’t it worth doing?
So, now we get to the good part.
Here are some tips you can begin implementing today that will promote a healthy flora, improve digestion and invariably result in a positive impact on your brain, and therefore mental health.
1) Avoid or minimize inflammatory triggering foods
Each of the foods below is known for triggering inflammation by activating an immune response in the body (which starts in the gut). In general, the extent to which these foods provoke an inflammatory response is person and dose dependent. However, for those of you in poor gut or mental health it is good to consider a 3-6 week period of abstinence while your body “puts out the inflammatory fire":
2) Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables
I know, I sound like a broken record. However, eating your vegetables (especially dark leafy greens) is one of the simplest and most effective ways to boost antioxidant & anti-inflammatory levels, increase fiber, and provide a multitude of other essential vitamins and minerals. In the context of gut health, fiber has 2 very important roles. One, it helps to move things along in your bowel, which means food doesn’t sit and ferment. Second, many vegetables contain prebiotic fiber that helps to feed the good bacteria in your gut. And remember, a balance of good bacteria is needed to maintain a healthy gut and therefore a health brain. Vegetables high in prebiotic fiber include onions, garlic, Jerusalem artichoke, asparagus, leeks and dandelion greens.
3) Eat more probiotic rich foods
Fermented foods are an excellent source of gut-friendly bacteria. Examples of this include: cultured vegetables (sauerkraut & kimchi), kombucha, kefir based beverages, tempeh, and yogurt (preferably sheep or goat, grass-fed and organic).
4) Promote your ‘Rest & Digest’ state
One of the biggest impacts you can make on your gut & overall health is by managing your stress. I intently chose to use the word “manage” because not all stress is bad. Stress can be motivating and through it’s actions in the body allow us to be alert and focused to be able to perform certain tasks. However, chronic stress becomes harmful as it depletes our resources and causes many important body systems to break down. One of the vulnerable systems is our gut as it relies heavily on a “rest & digest” state for it’s optimal function. Only when the body is relaxed is the GI tract and all it’s associated organs (liver, gallbladder, pancreas) able to work cohesively to break down food, assimilate nutrients and move toxic waste for excretion. Dysfunction in these processes due to chronic stress often results in the symptoms of gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, poor immune function (chronic cold & flu, auto-immunity), food allergies, hormonal imbalances, and mood disorders including anxiety, depression, ADHD, etc.
As an added insult, stress can directly alter the composition of our microbiome, shifting it towards a more immune-provoking population of bacteria.
Stress is a constant part of life. However, we can learn to manage it so that our body is not compromised by it. When it comes to your digestion, the following exercise is an excellent way to initiate a rest & digest state and prepare your body for food. In doing so, you can ensure that what you eat actually gets translated into nutrients that your body can use to heal, repair and make important brain neurohormones.
First: Sit down. Yes, that means no standing while eating.
Second: Take 10 deep belly breaths before putting any food in your mouth. What does a belly breath mean? It means with each breath, focus on filling up you lower abdomen with air. It may sound like a silly technique, but the science behind it is real. With each deep breath in you cause your diaphragm to move downwards, and in doing so it “massages” (causes stimulation) of your vagus nerve. And just to remind you, your vagus nerve is the nerve responsible for initiating your parasympathetic nervous system that causes us to transition into our ‘rest & digest’ phase.
Third: Chew, chew, chew! The act of chewing is another key part of the digestive process that has gotten swept aside in the name of our go-go mentality. However, the mechanical act of chewing is actually the first step in digestion. When we compromise this important step, we put a larger burden on the rest of our digestive tract; forcing it to chemically break down “chunks” of food. Inevitably we end up with some undigested particles that remain in our gut. This has 2 important consequences: 1) We don't maximize the absorption of important brain nutrients & 2) Undigested food is allowed to ferment and cause gas and bloating, which also disrupts the balance of good and bad bacteria.
I hope I've helped you to understand the connection between your brain and your gut. And I hope I've inspired you to know that you can make a profound impact on your mental health by promoting a healthy flora. Depression, for example, is not a disease state; rather it is a symptom of an underlying problem. And although not the only cause, inflammation (caused by poor gut health) has been elucidated as a major underlying cause of this symptom. So, when we "put out the fire" in our gut, we build a foundation of resilience that supports a healthy brain.
Supplements to consider
I always promote dietary and lifestyle changes as the foundation of any healthcare protocol. A golden rule in naturopathic medicine is that you CANNOT supplement/medicate your way out of a poor diet/lifestyle. In plain terms, you will never be able to put out a fire if you keep feeding it fuel. However, in situations where an individual is nutritionally taxed and/or to provide some support during the initial phases of a treatment plan, supplements can be enormously beneficial. I have provided a list of some important categories to consider in any protocol that addresses gut health.
Happy gut healing!
Dr. Rachael Lovink, ND
Dr. Rachael Lovink is a licensed Naturopathic Physician in Victoria, BC. She has a passion for helping you uncover the root cause of your illness. Her special interest is in the treatment of mental illnesses (such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, etc) with the use of non-pharmaceutical intervention such as targeted supplements, dietary intervention, IV nutrients/injections and lifestyle counselling.
The Information provided by Dr. Rachael Lovink is intended solely for educational purposes, and is not a substitute for the medical advice provided by another physician or healthcare professional. You must never disregard professional medical advice, or delay seeking medical advice because you are accessing and using the information provided by Dr. Rachael Lovink. The Information cannot be used for the purpose of diagnosing, treating, or in any way mitigating a specific health issue or disease. It can also not be used with the intention of prescribing a medication or other modality of treatment. You must always speak with your physician before starting any new approach to managing your health, including vitamins and minerals, exercise and other therapeutic modalities. Further, you should seek medical advice immediately if you suspect that you have a medical problem regardless of using the information provided through the website.