Although we’re often conditioned to think of bacteria as evil germs wreaking havoc on our health, we do in fact, need a balance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria in our guts to regulate the immune system. This balance can be the difference between whether we are sick or well, both mentally and physically.
Does your stomach churn when you’re under a great deal of pressure at work? Have you ever felt sad and gloomy the morning after the night before? This is because our brain and our guts are in constant contact with each other, thanks to the neurotransmitter serotonin. As a result, our mental states can have a significant influence on gut health and vice versa.
In a healthy gut, the good bacteria far outnumber the bad, although this can be affected by challenges and upheavals in our lives. Feeling stressed, depressed or anxious, for example, can affect the functioning of the gut, leading to physical symptoms of being unwell, such as cramping, bloating, diarrhoea, or constipation.
And this works both ways. When our digestive system is upset, the brain interprets messages from the gut, even before we begin to feel the symptoms, which can influence our moods negatively.
“People who have conditions like irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease have a higher risk of having anxiety or depression,” says Doctor and Author Giulia Enders, who has given a TED Talk on the science of the gut.
“Many people will think I have this gut thing and maybe I also have this mental health thing. Maybe, because science is not clear on that right now, it is just that their brain is feeling sympathy with their gut.”
How to improve the gut—brain relationshipIncreasing the number of good bacteria in the gut may help improve overall health, from digestion, to immune function, skin and a reduced risk of many diseases.
Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain these friendly bacteria. Findings show that taking probiotic supplements and eating foods that contain probiotics, could alleviate mood and anxiety disorders.
The bottom line of good gut health is a healthy, varied diet. Eating a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, whole grains and fermented foods, such as natural yogurt and kefir, is shown to promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.
So next time you hear someone refer to ‘gut instinct’ or the feeling of being ‘gutted’, you’ll know there’s much more in it than a turn of phrase.