“All Disease Begins In The Gut” – Hippocrates
With the variety of things that wreak havoc on our digestive systems these days, it may seem impossible to try to get back in balance and restore yourself to optimal health. But it’s not just about digestive issues alone, as gastrointestinal health can be the root cause for many other health issues including brain and mental health.
Your Gut’s Role in Your Health
When it comes to mood, it’s not all in your head — it’s in your gut, too. The brain influences the digestive tract and vice versa. Our esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and colon have a big say in how our minds and bodies function and how happy we feel. The gut is a critical group of organs that we need to start paying more attention to. Doing so may be the secret to improving our overall wellness.
Inside Your Other Brain
If it seems as if your stomach sometimes has a mind of its own, that’s because it does. The gut’s lining houses an independent network of hundreds of millions of neurons — more than the spinal cord has — called the enteric nervous system. It’s so complex and influential that scientists refer to it as “the second brain.” In addition to being in charge of the digestive process, your gut lining is the core of your body’s immune system and defends you against such foreign invaders as viruses and bacteria.
Cells in the gut lining also produce 95 percent of the serotonin in our bodies (the rest occurs in the brain, where the hormone regulates happiness and mood). In the gut, serotonin has a range of functions, including stimulating nerve-cell growth and alerting the immune system to germs.
Thanks to serotonin, the gut and the brain are in constant contact with each other. Chemical messages race back and forth between the brain’s central nervous system and the gut’s enteric nervous system. When we’re stressed, scared, or nervous, our brain notifies our gut, and our stomach starts to churn in response. When our digestive system is upset, our gut alerts our brain that there’s a problem even before we begin to feel the symptoms. Scientists suspect that our moods are negatively affected as a result. The gut is sending messages that can make the brain anxious. You’re in good mental shape only if your gut lets you be.
Our Tiny Symbiotic Guests That Outnumber Us, Ten To One
Other key — and minuscule — players in all this brain-and-bowels communication are the microbes that line the walls of the gut. There are hundreds of types of bacteria in the gut; some of them do helpful things like break down carbohydrates in the intestine and produce infection-fighting antibodies and vitamins, while other, destructive bacteria secrete toxins and promote disease.
In a healthy gut, the good bacteria far outnumber the bad. But what’s going on in your head can affect the balance. Being under a great deal of stress or feeling depressed or anxious could change the way your bowels contract and how your immune system functions, which in turn can change the type of bacteria in the small intestine and colon, he explains. Symptoms can include cramping, bloating, diarrhoea, or constipation.
For instance, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a disorder that causes abdominal pain, diarrhoea, and constipation, often accompanied by gas and bloating and sometimes by anxiety and depression, can be related to an overabundance of bad bacteria in the small intestine. Women are particularly susceptible to this, especially if they experienced sexual abuse or psychological trauma as a child. It’s not known if the stress causes the symptoms or vice versa. But the two definitely feed off each other, and IBS flares in stressful circumstances.
Gut Health and Weight Management
Your gut health can massively impact your ability to lose body fat (note, I make a point about losing body fat, not weight – as, unlike many ‘fad-diets plans, I believe it is more important to focus on body fat than over weight) . An imbalance can also affect the way in which your body stores fat (efficient storage that makes it easy for the body to use the energy in the fat cells, or inefficient, hard to shift fat cells).
The Probiotic Prescription
Our stressed-out lifestyle may be our stomach’s biggest enemy. Our hectic pace of life, which leads to our reliance on junk food and overuse of antibiotics, is throwing our internal ecosystem out of balance (Dysbiosis); I am convinced that there’s a link between our gut bacteria and the rise of food allergies and autoimmune diseases — digestive issues including Crohn’s disease and Colitus, as well as other problems including Diabetes, Asthma, Hay Fever and Rheumatoid Arthritis to name just a few — in the industrialised world (it is worth noting that these modern day illnesses are almost unheard of in isolated, remote communities). When there is a loss of balance in the different types of intestinal bacteria, they send signals to our immune system to overreact and become inflamed, leading to disease.
Increasing the number of good bacteria in our GI tract, by taking probiotic supplements and eating foods that contain probiotics, may help combat such health problems, a growing number of scientists say. New research indicates that specialised strains of these good bacteria could also alleviate mood and anxiety disorders. In turn, probiotics can help reduce the symptoms of long-term chronic diseases.