Did you know that the composition of our gut bacteria has an important connection to the state of our mental and overall health?
All animals have a complex community of about 500 different species of bacteria living inside of their intestinal tracts. In fact, our bodies contain more bacterial cells than human cells! Our relationship with these bacteria was previously believed to have been purely a co-existence. However, several studies are now revealing that the relationship is more mutualistic, meaning that although our gut bacteria is not necessary for survival, they do benefit our health. These bacteria ferment undigested carbohydrates, manufacture vitamins such as Biotin and Vitamin K, train our immune systems, prevent allergies, and keep disease-causing bacteria populations in check(1). It is well known that our brain sends signals to our guts, which is why we use the term "gut feeling" and tend to feel nauseous when we are stressed or nervous. However, it has recently been suggested that this communication is a two way street, meaning our gut is sending signals to our brain as well.
The foods we eat have the ability to change our microbiome. Diets rich in vegetables and other fibrous foods allow beneficial bacteria to thrive, while the typical Western diet which is rich in fat, cholesterol, sugar, and processed foods allows pathogenic or disease-causing bacteria to thrive. When the gut bacteria is imbalanced, gastrointestinal symptoms can develop as well as, depression, anxiety, cancer, and obesity(1).
A study done by scientists at the Gail and Gerald Oppenheimer Family Center for Neurobiology of Stress (2) and the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at UCLA(3) found that changing composition of gut bacteria can affect brain function. They studied 3 groups of women: one group had yogurt with probiotics twice a day for four weeks, one group had yogurt with no bacteria, and third group consumed neither. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was performed both before and after the studies, and the results showed that the women who did not consume any probiotics had an overall decrease in activity in the areas of the brain responsible for emotion, cognition, and sensory function. This study successfully demonstrated the direct connection between gut bacteria and physical and well as emotional health.
So what are some simple ways you can improve your gut health?
- Consume probiotic foods such as high quality yogurts, fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi, kefir, tempeh, and miso on a regular basis. You could also choose to take probiotic supplements. Probiotics are especially important after taking a round of antibiotics. Antibiotics kill all the bacteria in your gut, not just the ones making you sick by taking probiotics afterwards you're giving your body a good start at repopulating the intestines with healthy flora.
- Reduce consumption of refined sugars and carbs and increase consumption of leafy green vegetables. Refined sugars and carbohydrates, such as those found in processed foods, cereals, pasta, and white rice, can negatively affect gut health by creating an overgrowth of yeast and other bad bacteria. Leafy green vegetables promote healthy bacteria, as well as providing the body with important vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
- Reduce stress levels. Stress wreaks havoc on our digestive tracts. Try a simple meditation or breathing exercise. You could also read a book, take a hot bath. stretch, or go for a quiet walk, whatever makes you feel calm and relaxed. Taking a few minutes each day to wind down not only will improve digestive health, it will allow to experience overall better health.
- Move your body. Exercise plays a role in composition of gut bacteria as well. Engaging in regular physical activity can reduce the number of bacteria related to obesity (4). So whether it's walking, swimming, biking, yoga, or weight lifting, find a way of exercise that feels good for you!
- Get those zZzZ's. Disruption of our natural circadian rhythm can also affect our intestinal flora (5) and can eventually lead to inflammatory diseases.
- Listen to your body! If you notice that after eating particular food you have bloating, acid reflux, cramps, gas, nausea, or any other discomfort take a break from eating it. It is best to not eat anything else while experiencing this symptoms as it will cause added stress on the body. By recognizing when symptoms occur, you can begin to identify potential food intolerances and what foods you should be avoiding.