Gut Health is Mental Health. Here's How to Happily Manage Both. –

Gut Health is Mental Health. Here's How to Happily Manage Both.

8 mins

Our primal chemical pleasures, buoyant good moods, and general sense of empathetic well-being originate in the bowel to a large degree. Seriously. This is a feel-good phenomenon the Hallmark Corporation is at pains to monetize with a colorful series of bowel-themed greeting cards. We wish them luck.

Table of Contents

Word is out: your gut is an emotional wreck. No, you didn’t mishear. I said “your gut is an emotional wreck.” Doesn’t make a helluva lot of sense, does it? How can one's gut be an emotional … anything? 

We (scientists, scholars and researchers, I mean. So "they" is more accurate) are just beginning to understand the weirdly intimate connection between your intestinal tract and your — well, your brain. And “brain” in this context means both the autonomic mechanical systems AND your emotional life. Seriously.

The Gut-Brain Axis and Your Enteric Nervous System

Don't panic, but you have an enteric nervous system and it lines your bowel like a — hey, didn't I just ask you not to panic?! Breathe. That's it. Breathe. Where was I?

..oh, yeah. Your enteric nervous system lines your bowel like a communications network, exchanging crucial info with your brain—as uncomfortable as you may feel about your bowel and brain yammering away behind your back day and night. What can a bowel and brain possibly have to talk about anyway? 

Brain: "My oligodendrocytes see to it that the impulse speed of myelinated axons increases linearly with the axon diameter."

Bowel: "..wha?"

Awkward. But this connection, the so-called Gut-Brain Axis, has such a profound effect on your nuanced mental states, some overzealous researchers actually refer to our gut as our “second brain”. 

Don't take it personally—we all know how reckless gastroenterologists can be with their words.  

But it's a fact: the relationship between the trillions of swarming microflora in your gut and your mental fitness is a strong one. Biology can get a little weird. Stop the presses.

What Exactly is the Gut-Brain Axis?

The Gut-Brain Axis is approximately as nutty as it sounds. To understand the robustness of this gut-to-brain conversation, we have to first acknowledge how busy your intestines are with an activated citizenry. It’s like a separate country down there in the intestinal tract—a crowded country—with specialized bacteria in the gut numbering around 100 trillion. We say “about” because the researchers grow tired of counting right around the 92 trillion mark, and who can blame them?

These swarming gut-buddies (not a scientific term), in combination with the enteric nervous system embedded like a radar-sensitive mesh in the walls of your intestinal tubeway, send and receive biochemical messages—a ceaseless, ongoing conversation between the gut and the brain. But here's something odd. Chemicals that we associate with mood, happiness, and depression are largely produced in the gut. The enteric nervous system employs some 30 neurotransmitters to send messages up the vagus nerve to the brain, and these include the feel-good neurotransmitters even the biologically incurious know by name. 

Seratonin, Dopamine, and Your Magical ... uh ... Bowel.

About 90% of your serotonin—regulator of anxiety, happiness, and mood—is produced by the bacteria in your gut, and about 50% of the body's dopamine—unembarrassed and wholly legal provider of chemical pleasure— comes from the intestinal sub-basement, too. Knowing this, the strange relationship between gut health and mental health starts to make a little sense. 

Dopamine molecule, but really, really close-up. And polished, apparently.

Yes -- our primal chemical pleasures, buoyant good moods, and general sense of empathetic well-being originate in the bowel to a large degree. This is a feel-good phenomenon the Hallmark Corporation is at pains to monetize with a colorful series of bowel-themed greeting cards. We wish them luck. 

Viva Las Vagus: How the Gut-Brain Axis Affects Your Mental State. And More.

The enteric nervous system communicates freely with the central nervous system and your brain via the vagus nerve; the longest nerve in your body (in case you were wondering).  The vagus nerve (VN) is one of 12 cranial nerves that connect your brain to the body it controls. Some of these cranial nerves control sensations, and some control motor function, or movement. 

The vagus nerve itself regulates digestion, respiratory rate, heart rate, certain of your reflex actions, and such high-level glamor functions as coughing, sneezing, swallowing, and ... um ... vomiting. It also regulates your mood in ways that are increasingly the subject of scientific study.

Because the cranial nerves are numbered according to their comparative points of origin in the cranium, the mildly mysterious vagus nerve is technically in position #10, conferring on it the appropriately shadowy name Cranial Nerve X. 

What’s mysterious about the vagus nerve? Hang on to your hat. Various studies seem to indicate that the VN may actually have a role in producing feelings of compassion, empathy, and other such nuanced, particularly human traits essential to the human social fabric. Yeah, we're still talking about your bowel and a nerve

Increasing evidence of the VN’s possible centrality to human emotion led the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley to pose the non-rhetorical question, “Is there a biological fingerprint for compassion? 

They were able to pose that question because the robustness of an activated VN can actually be quantified in terms of what is called a Vagal Tone; a measure of VN influence based on the relationship between the inhale/exhale cycle and the standing heart rate.

The ancient ayurvedic emphasis on breath, for instance, is tied to stimulating, and reaping the benefits from, a vibrant vagus nerve. Modern imprecations to use patterned breathing to modulate mood and stress, to help insomniacs, and to keep nervous flyers from having embarrassing fainting spells in the moments before takeoff (he confessed)? Vagus, baby. When you breathe in such a way as to stimulate the vagus nerve, the results can be frankly astounding

The Greater Good Science Center article linked above suggests, through a study done with both young children and college students, a direct link between a resonant vagus nerve and one’s felt experience of compassion in the presence of other people’s suffering. For real.

The vagus nerve is indeed Cranial Nerve X. With each new study, more secrets are being revealed about this unsung body part and its role in the most deeply human parts of our emotional and social makeup

Your Microbiome: Unionized Stewards of Your Health and Happiness

While studies of the vagus nerve strongly indicate it may be more than a direct phone line from the gut to the brain (and back again), the health and hardiness of the gut’s microbiome is definitely tied to emotional well-being and mental health, as biochemically conveyed up and down the vagus highway. A less-than-fully powered bacterial population in the gut gives rise to bad chemical signaling that leads to depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, and worse. 

Because the microbiome is a living community in your gut, it is in your interest (to say the least) to assure the proper care and feeding of this population whose unhappiness will always be chemically expressed as your own. Think about that. 

The bacteria in your microbiome play an unexpectedly large role in your mental and emotional life. Feed them! Care for them! Sing to them! (This third suggestion is not backed by science and should in any case not be done in a public place). The point of all this? When your trillions of gut bacteria are happy, you’re happy, too. If you’re into that. 

But, like … how? What? Wherefore? 

Gut Health Supplements and Mental Health: How to Keep Your Microbiome Pumping Out the Happy.

Your gut is not just something to clutch in agony after a meal of your Aunt Marge's dreaded "meat loaf". It is your emotional and physical wheelhouse. How best to pamper those 100 trilliion helpmates down there as they work their little asses off to keep you heathy and happy? See below...

 scanning electron micrograph of an actual gut bacterium

Probiotics—foods that that contain living microorganisms to add to those good bacteria already living it up in your gut—are a known thing. Think of them as gut health hacks. Getting the goods through activated foods is the best route to pleasing your digester. Kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha, plain yogurt, goat and sheep’s milk, apple cider vinegar, tempeh (fermented soybeans), miso—these all contain helpful bacteria produced during the fermentation process. 

Antibiotics — avoid them as much as possible. The antibiotic is clearly the functional opposite of a probiotic, and is going to be working against the busy and positive biotica in your gut. There are times when an antibiotic is essential to healing, but the CDC once estimated that 30% of antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary.

Do what is right for your health while remaining aware of the trade-offs. Antibiotics somewhat indiscriminately mow down the beneficial organisms in your system alongside the bad guys. 

Eat Your WaterWhere have you heard this before? Yes, yes -- you can go everywhere with a fancy and mildly humiliating designer water bottle in hand, taking mechanical sips every four-and-a-half minutes. Or you can eat your way to the internal wetlands beloved of your microbiome and digestive tract.

Zucchini, lettuce, watermelon (duh), cucumber, celery — you get the idea. Fruits and veggies with high water content satisfy the munchies while sending agua down to your micro army. The fiber thus consumed is icing on the gut-cake. Though there is surely a less disgusting way to say that.

Easy on the booze — alcohol in unwholesome quantities can inflame the gut, give you ulcers, and slow down your post-meal stomach- emptying process, degrading the food stuck in your duodenal traffic jam. A wee bit too much booze just generally causes one or another degree of havoc down there in Happy Town.

The pleasant sensations associated with your third martini are not shared by the hollering, fist-shaking microbes set afire by all that hooch. Listen to their micro-outrage. Your body is a temple. When was the last time you entered a temple that reeked of gin? Be cool.

Prebiotics— Four fancy-sounding syllables that simply mean gnoshing on unprocessed stuff like garlic, flaxseeds, leeks, onions, oats, chicory root, lentils, apples, asparagus, bananas, jicama, corn, onions, barley, walnuts…feed your grateful microbiome with the stuff it thrives on. Do your own research on natural prebiotics and get eating. It should come as no surprise that nature provides lots and lots of the stuff. 

In a hurry? Don’t have time to stand at the kitchen counter and laboriously chew through a fistful of raw asparagus? No problem!

There are ingenious and lovable supplements that can also bring joy to the gut. One way or another, feed your subterranean friends. Their happiness is yours.

Exercise—As boring as this advice is, it will never go out of fashion. And you’ll be pleased to learn that moderate exercise is sufficient to pamper and encourage the 100 trillion pals you’re talking care of. A healthy-but-not-too-intense exercise regimen has a positive effect on the composition of your gut posse.

Remember; exercise doesn’t have to mean doing jumping jacks for an hour or running around a track in your neighbor’s borrowed, grandfatherly gym shorts.

Take a brisk walk around a neighborhood you love. When that Doberman jumps the fence for the umpteenth time, bearing down on you like a cyclone with teeth? Pick up the pace and get the hell outta there. As usual.

It’ll be good for the heart, and a tidy little dopamine rush besides—courtesy of your swarming, happiness-obsessed gut. Treat it well.

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