Everyone has experienced butterflies, knots, or the “sick-to-your-stomach” feelings you get when you’re nervous, anxious, or upset. As common as these sensations are, the gut-brain connection isn’t usually considered when dealing with mental health issues like depression or anxiety disorders.
Your thoughts and emotions affect your stomach, and issues that occur in your stomach also affect your brain. This is because a major nerve called the vagus travels from the brain stem to the gut. Most of the messages that travel along the vagus nerve are carried from the digestive system toward the brain and have a strong influence on how your mind works.
Also called the second brain, the gut has its own central nervous system that consists of 100 million neurons and more than 30 neurotransmitters. If you struggle with depression, anxiety, OCD, or any other mental health issue, improving your digestive health can have a major impact on your emotional state.
Friendly Flora: A Happy Brain Needs It
Probiotics, the beneficial bacteria that live throughout your entire digestive tract, outnumber your body’s cells 10 to one. Stress, toxins, sugar and too many complex carbohydrates, and damaging proteins in the diet all contribute to the breakdown of your gut’s probiotic community.
Probiotics’ main duties are to eat up toxic pathogens and maintain the lining of your intestinal tract. This lining prevents the pathogens, toxins produced by pathogens, and food particles from escaping into the bloodstream. When beneficial bacteria become reduced in number, holes develop in the lining, allowing these elements to pass through the intestinal wall and out into the rest of the body.
This results in any number of chronic health conditions, including autoimmune disorders, psychological problems and mood disorders. Probiotic supplements and fermented foods help to increase the population of friendly gut flora. They work to seal up holes in the intestinal lining, which allows your body to heal.
Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride created the Gut and Physiology Syndrome (GAPS) diet specifically for this purpose. This diet has proven to be an effective way to reverse a wide range of both psychological and physiological disorders. You should also note that the GAPS diet is very similar to the primal diet that I always recommend, and in my experience a low-carb, low-fodmaps, Paleo diet can produce the same, if not better, results.
Going hand in hand with friendly flora is the presence of unfriendly organisms. If the gut is overtaken with yeast like Candida, parasites or bacteria, then the toxins that they emit may get into the bloodstream when the gut wall is compromised. Once these toxins are in the bloodstream, then they can travel to the brain and disrupt neurotransmitters, which results in disturbance of mood, thought, or behavior. Thus, assessing and addressing unfriendly organisms can play a significant role in improving emotional health as well.
Food Allergies: Food that Hurts Your Body Hurts Your Brain
Experts in the field claim that undiagnosed celiac disease is more common than most people imagine. According to gastroenterologist Dr. Joseph Murray, about 1.4 million people have this autoimmune disorder and aren’t even aware of it. Many more are sensitive to gluten without testing positive for the disease.
Mood and behavioral disorders of all kinds often stem from undiagnosed celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. The gut-brain connection is usually ignored, and doctors fail to diagnose digestive issues as the root cause of depression or anxiety, or other mental health issues including violence.
Not everyone who is gluten intolerant struggles with digestive problems, which makes a proper diagnosis even more difficult.
Other allergenic foods may also impair brain chemistry and cause psychological issues and should be considered when dealing with mood or behavioral disorders. Dairy, eggs, legumes, and nuts are a few examples of foods that can spur autoimmune reactions that manifest as depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, violence and more.
Keep a food diary to determine which foods in your diet might be causing an adverse reaction. Eliminating problem foods one at a time for several weeks at a time can help you effectively pinpoint the cause of your emotional issues. Alternatively, food sensitivity testing can help eliminate the guess work.
Fats: Crucial for a Healthy Brain
Buzzing with activity, neurons and neurotransmitters need plenty of nutrients to keep them functioning properly. Myelin sheaths that protect neurons are made up of 70 percent fat and 30 percent protein, so these nutrients are important for cell function and nerve protection. Fat is also crucial for maintaining smooth neurotransmission and the formation, repair and flexibility of neurons.
Most of your brain is made up of fats, especially DHA omega-3 fatty acids. Salmon, tuna, and sardines are a few of the best sources of DHA. Only a small fraction of the omega-3 from plant sources is converted into DHA, so although high-omega-3 seeds like flax, walnut and hemp are popular, they don’t provide an adequate source of this vital nutrient. However, keep in mind that seafood is often contaminated with heavy metals that can also disrupt brain chemistry. Tuna is usually highly contaminated; so sticking with seafood like Wild Alaskan Salmon is of the utmost importance to acquire cleaner fish.
If you struggle with any mental health condition like depression, anxiety or OCD, getting professional help is your first step to wellness, but don’t neglect your digestive system on your journey toward a healthy mind. Build up your beneficial bacteria, look for any food allergies or sensitivities and unfriendly organisms, and include plenty of natural fats in your diet to support healthy brain function.
Although the gut brain is not directly involved in conscious thought or decision making, it has a profound impact on the state of your mental health. As a matter of a fact, according to Michael Gershon, M.D., author of The Second Brain, “everyday emotional well-being may rely on messages from the brain below to the brain above.”
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