“Never ignore a gut feeling, but never believe that it’s enough.”-Robert Heller
Our gut is perhaps the source of the human animal’s most visceral experiences, responsible for countless ways that a human being perceives his existence. For the biologist, it is merely a tube by which animals, including humans, transfer food to the digestive organs. Recent scientific investigation and thousands of years of human experience confirm that it is far more complicated than that. Studies have confirmed that not only does the gut transfer food to vital organs, but it plays a role in our physical health, mental health, emotional stability, and impacts the study of human immunology, neurology, endocrinology, and pathology.
Since 2007 scientists have been attempting to catalog the over 100 trillion microorganisms that live in the human gut. Although your initial reaction may be one of disgust, the majority of the 500 species living in your bowels are an essential part of human health. Most of us have become familiar with the term “good” bacteria and the positive role that it plays in digestive health. Science is just now beginning to realize how this good bacteria also influences the human brain and the state of a person’s mental and emotional health.
While studying the impact of good bacteria on digestion, scientists were surprised to find that the ingestion of probiotics modulated the processing of information that is strongly linked to depression, anxiety, and the human stress response. A study of 45 subjects conducted over a three week period showed a significant increase in the efficacy of prebiotics on the subjects capacity to handle stress when compared to a placebo. The study concluded that the consumption of prebiotics reduced the production of cortisol and aided in the maintenance of emotional control. Most people are somewhat familiar with probiotics supplements, such as yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut, but are less familiar with prebiotics that can be gained by eating chicory, artichokes, raw garlic, onions, asparagus, wheat bran, and other carbohydrates that contain soluble fiber. These prebiotic sources nourish the microorganisms that contribute to positive mental health, allowing them to proliferate and grow. While this study concluded that additional research is necessary, they stated that the effect of these foods in this particular study was similar to what has been observed in individuals taking antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications. “I think pre/probiotics will only be used as ‘adjuncts’ to conventional treatments, and never as mono-therapies,” the study’s lead author, Philip Burnet, told The Huffington Post. “It is likely that these compounds will help to manage mental illness… they may also be used when there are metabolic and/or nutritional complications in mental illness, which may be caused by long-term use of current drugs.”
Gut bacteria interacts with the enteric nervous system, which regulates a host of human activities that most of us take for granted such as digestion, production of hormones, and regulation of thyroid and adrenal activity. The enteric nervous system also produces 95% of the serotonin in your body, a neurotransmitter that has been associated with feelings of well-being and happiness, and is enhanced by the prescription drugs Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, and other SSRIs. Scientists now know that it is not the brain which regulates gut activity, but the gut which helps to regulate the brain. Michael Gershan, chairman of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at New York–Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, refers to this as the “second brain.” He states that, “The second brain contains some 100 million neurons, more than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system.”
Our bodies respond to stress, physical or mental, in the same manner making no distinction. Any stress or bodily inflammation will impact the entire nervous system. What we eat will impact the enteric nervous system. Our gut communicates with the brain through the vagus nerve which interacts with our parasympathetic nervous system, controlling our ability to calm ourselves down. Quite simply, the food that we consume will impact how our bodily systems communicate and, as a result, the state of our emotional health, well-being, and the way that we perceive the world around us.
Prebiotics and probiotics have the potential to be used as adjuncts to more conventional treatments for mental health, but not as replacements. The effects of psychotherapy and psychopharmacology can be impacted greatly by a diet rich in prebiotic’s/probiotics. Whether a person is suffering from emotional issues or not, everyone can benefit from a diet that has gut health in mind. It is recommended that you you eliminate the following from your diet as much as possible:
· industrial vegetable oils
· oral contraceptives
Be sure that your diet is rich in:
· foods that contain soluble fiber such as chicory, artichokes, dandelions, asparagus, raw garlic, and leeks
· active culture yogurt. Read the label and avoid those that are loaded with sugar and artificial ingredients
· pickled fruits and vegetables
While the research on the efficacy of the use of prebiotics/probiotics is promising, none of the researchers are saying that it will ever replace psychotherapy or psychopharmacology. It can and should serve as an adjunct therapeutic intervention. Statistics indicate that approximately 70% of Americans take prescription medications of some type and 20% take psychiatric medications. The vast majority of those taking psychiatric medications do no other therapeutic interventions such as psychotherapy, meditation, or nutritional supplementation. It is quite possible that many who initially run to a doctor for a pill when they are experiencing difficulty and problems in living may do better with a few months of psychotherapy, a cleaner, healthier diet, and a consistent exercise regimen..
Even if your emotional health is sound, being aware of and attending to gut health is one of the simplest and most cost-effective ways to keep the human engine running smoothly.
Hippocrates’s advice may come across as fourth century BC hyperbole, but he’s probably right about one thing. We all should be a little more aware of the medicinal effects of the food that fills our gut.
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