hi! I am not a doctor/nutritionist/psychiatrist/psychologist/etc – just a self-proclaimed psych nerd who loves learning about everything mental health related. This article is also heavily simplified for readers – i am simply sharing things I’ve learned/found interesting. Please read at your own discretion, and with a grain of salt!
Have you ever felt so anxious or sad that you experience that doomsday sort of gut-wrenching feeling? Or, that excited ‘butterflies in my stomach’ state when you spot a crush? You know, that strange unexplainable churning in your stomach, and you feel all jittery – or in some cases, just that wallowing emptiness that makes you lose your appetite or sleep.
Ever wondered what might cause it? Blame the gut. Your gut plays a key role in your mental health. Good care of your gut can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety or depression, but negligence can quickly turn things sour. So, in layman’s terms, let me try and explain what the gut is doing. Also, take a shot every time you read the word gut.
There is a fascinating relationship between your gut and brain – often referred to as the gut-brain axis. The enteric nervous system, also known as the ‘second brain,’ is the nervous system of the gastrointestinal tract. It is such a complex system that it can operate entirely independently, without additional input from our central nervous system. While it won’t be helping you solve math equations or write an essay the same way our brain will– it does play an important role in managing our inner infrastructure. The Vagus nerve connects our gut and brain, as it helps act as an essential messenger between the two.
Inside the gut, there are a trillion microorganisms – think bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc. – all known as the gut microbiome or the gut flora. The microbiome composition can change throughout your lifetime due to factors such as hormones, diet, well-being, and gut disorders. But, maintaining a healthy composition is vital, as an imbalance of bacteria (also known as dysbiosis) in the gut can send the wrong signals to your brain, thus triggering the way you feel, think, or do. So, what does dysbiosis look like? Bloating, indigestion, constipation, or even diarrhea. And the notorious culprits causing this can be alcohol, processed foods, excess sugar, antibiotics, or other foods your body might be intolerant towards.
When there’s an imbalance of bacteria in the body (ex: where bad triumphs good or vice versa) – your immune system gets activated, which results in inflammation. Your body’s natural stress response. However, inflammations in your gut can cause anxiety or depression and vice versa. Moreover, 90% of serotonin, the mood hormone, is produced in the gut. Most depression or anxiety pills work by regulating the levels of serotonin in the body. So, an unhealthy gut can very quickly affect your serotonin levels which further contribute to mood changes, behavior, or even sleep patterns. Other essential neurotransmitters produced are norepinephrine, acetylcholine, and dopamine, which are all crucial to anxiety, stress, mood, concentration, etc. Therefore, our microbiome can affect how our brain chemicals get metabolized in the body.
The gut essentially communicates with the brain through your immune system, the endocrine system, and the nervous system. So, all those ‘butterflies’ are signals traveling through your Vagus nerves from the brain to the gut, and vice versa. Ever had to ‘trust your gut?’ – when you feel anxious, your gut instantly feels it too. It’s also a huge reason your diet changes when you’re sick, and you need to consume healthier foods to recover. 70% of your immune system is located in the gut – so to build or maintain strong immunity, you’ll need to have a diverse composition of bacteria in your microbiome.
Therefore, eating healthy is not just to maintain your weight or help you feel better about your physical appearance – but it is crucial to help stabilize your microbiome and mental health. In my next post, I’ll be sharing a few things you can do to take better care of your gut health. Till then, watch out for what you eat, and pay close attention to how your gut reacts, and how you feel too!