Gut Feelings. The secret to happiness is in the (very) little things
The gut-brain connection provides a fascinating insight into not only our physical health, but also our mental health. Learn what effect probiotics are having on our gut health and our mood.
Shortly after birth, you were colonized by trillions of micro-organisms that settled down in your gut for life. Made up of more than a thousand species, these micro-organisms are important allies in your health. They boost your immunity to colds and diseases. They help you digest food and produce vitamins. And now, they’re emerging in a starring role as mood managers.
If you find yourself feeling blue, bothered, or bogged down by stress, the blame may lie in your gut. The micro-organisms that reside there are thought to help boost mood, banish anxiety, and alter emotional processing in your brain.
One group of researchers used probiotic supplements to alter the gut microbiome (the community of micro-organism species living in your intestines) of 55 healthy adults and studied the effects. After just 30 days, levels of anxiety, depression, and the stress hormone cortisol all dropped in those taking the supplement.
Another study involved patients with chronic fatigue syndrome—a group that frequently experiences anxiety and depression along with persistent fatigue. After two months, those who had taken a daily probiotic felt fewer symptoms of anxiety.
Depression and anxiety disorders are complex and it can be a challenge “to identify subtypes of individuals and match them to the best treatment,” says Dr. Jane Foster of McMaster University, a member of the Brain-Body Institute, St. Joseph’s Healthcare. “Currently many drug or other trials are often necessary before an effective treatment is found.”
For those experiencing symptoms within the spectrum of disorders, interventions that focus on gut health offer a promising strategy.
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With the many communication pathways between intestinal bacteria and the brain, it should be no surprise that the gut influences our emotions. For every anxious grumble, gut-wrenching sadness, and grumpy growl, there is a message going to and from your brain.
“There are many paths between gut and brain,” says Foster. “We are only just starting to figure out which aspects are connected.”
The vagus nerve has emerged as one important pathway for these mood-altering messages. This network of neurons, named for the Latin “wandering,” meanders through the chest and abdomen connecting key organs to the brain stem.
Gut microbiota and probiotics may also be influencing brain activity through neuroactive byproducts and with their ability to communicate to cells that produce serotonin.
Food for thought
Each person has a profile of gut microbiota as unique as a fingerprint. It is influenced by genetics, gender, and age, all of which cause it to change throughout a lifetime. It can also be affected by probiotics and diet.
Your long-term diet impacts which micro-organisms are present in your gut. An unhealthy diet can create an environment that does not support your healthiest and happiest self. But don’t fret if you’ve been indulging in cookies and coffee. Your gut microbiota can experience a speedy recovery.
Dietary changes lead to the presence of different micro-organisms, and probiotics found in fermented foods can also make their way to your gut. Including a range of fermented foods and supplementing with probiotics is a great recipe for a balanced mood.