1 – Your gut bacteria are a key part of your ENS!
When it comes to our body, bacteria are often perceived as the enemy but this way of thinking is slowly changing, especially when it comes to our gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The GI tract, or gut, is home to over 100 trillion different microorganisms (as well as over 70% of our immune cells) and each of these microorganisms, or gut bacteria, has a whole host of different roles to play, from breaking down foods such as carbohydrates to supporting our metabolism.
It’s hardly surprising then, that your gut is often thought of as your body’s second brain and even has its own nervous system, the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). This special system is composed of microorganisms, neurotransmitters and hormones and actually contains more than 100 million neurons – that’s more neurons than your spinal cord!1 Although the ENS can act independently of your central nervous system, it can also relay messages to it when necessary and vice-versa.
Your microorganisms keep this system ticking over nicely so, when imbalances between your friendly gut bacteria and unfriendly gut bacteria occur it can have a knock-on effect on both your ENS and your central nervous system, impacting your levels of certain crucial neurotransmitters, which help to relay messages between the two. This can sometimes result in poorer moods, especially when serotonin is involved!
2 – Friendly bacteria help to produce serotonin
I’ve mentioned how important your friendly bacteria are when it comes to managing certain digestive processes but did you know that they can also contribute to the production of feel good neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine?
In fact it’s estimated that around 90% of your body’s serotonin is manufactured in your gut.2 This makes having a healthy gut an extremely important asset for mood as serotonin is crucial for regulating not only your mood, but your appetite and social behaviour too! In the past, research has even suggested that there could be a link between a lack of serotonin and depression.3
Okay, but where does dopamine, the ultimately happy hormone, come into the picture? Well, similar to serotonin, it’s thought that 50% of your dopamine is produced in the gut! However, that’s not all – some recent studies have also found that lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, two strains of bacteria that reside in the human gut, may be capable of influencing your production of GABA, another tranquilising neurotransmitter that can help to reduce anxiety.4
So far, this evidence mainly revolves around animal trials wherein scientists found that these two strains reduced anxiety-like behaviour in rats. Despite this though, the results definitely merit further study and research.
3 – Unfriendly bacteria can produce neurotoxins
Friendly bacteria help to produce feel-good neurotransmitters – so far, so good but what about the unfriendly bacteria? Well, unsurprisingly, they can have an opposing effect with unfriendly microorganisms helping to produce what are known as ‘neurotoxins.’ Neurotoxins are harmful substances that can negatively impact your nervous system and, in cases of gut dysbiosis, it’s not unheard of for your gut to release high levels of toxins and amines into your bloodstream which can convince your brain to stimulate feelings of anxiety, stress and fatigue!5
4 – Gut dysbiosis can lead to gut permeability
I may have mentioned gut dysbiosis already but here I’m going to go into a little bit more detail! Gut dysbiosis occurs when your population of unfriendly bacteria starts to overwhelm your friendly bacteria. This can bring on a range of unhappy symptoms such as bloating, flatulence, diarrhoea and constipation which can create problems when it comes to the permeability of your gut.
Think of your gut lining as a very fine mesh keeping undigested food particles and other nasties out of your bloodstream. In cases of gut dysbiosis, this mesh can become thinner and less effective which means that these undigested food particles can leak into your bloodstream. Once this happens, your immune system will trigger a widespread inflammatory reaction.
This is not good news for your mood as, if your gut is inflamed, very often your brain is too! When your brain experiences inflammation it can affect how it utilises tryptophan, an amino acid that is often used in the production of serotonin. Instead of helping to manufacture this feel good neurotransmitter, tryptophan becomes involved in the production of chemicals such as quinolinate, which can encourage feelings of anxiety.6
In fact, those with leaky guts often exhibit depressive symptoms and studies have found that those suffering from depression often have elevated levels of inflammation, so the two are very much interlinked.
5 – Poor gut health can impact your digestion (and stress levels!)
Okay, so your gut health can impact your brain and mood which can stimulate feelings of anxiety and stress but, just as importantly, your gut health affects your digestion. If your population of unfriendly bacteria is overwhelming your gut then, not only does this put you at risk of experiencing unpleasant symptoms such as diarrhoea or constipation, it also means that your body won’t be able to absorb nutrients as efficiently.
This could potentially lead to deprivation in certain vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin B12, vitamin D and magnesium – all of which are vital for supporting your mood and energy levels. When your levels of any of these nutrients are low, it can often induce symptoms such as fatigue, anxiety, tension, and, in the case of magnesium, muscle cramps and spasms.
It also doesn’t help that the digestive symptoms I’ve mentioned themselves are enough to raise stress levels – a sudden bout of diarrhoea or prolonged constipation can be very frustrating and upsetting to experience. However, with stress comes more inflammation and thus a vicious cycle is often formed where your digestive symptoms upset your stress levels and vice-versa.
How can I improve my gut health?
Look into prebiotics - When it comes to supporting and improving your gut health, many people tend to focus all their attention on probiotics. This initially appears to be the most logical course of action – if your gut is lacking in friendly bacteria then surely a greater intake of gut-healthy probiotic strains should be enough to sway the balance, decreasing the presence of unfriendly bacteria in your gut.
However, this line of thinking ignores one key problem – the environment of your gut. It doesn’t matter how many probiotics you’re taking, if your gut environment is toxic to them then they won’t last long. That’s why, before you go stocking up on probiotic foods such as sauerkraut or kombucha, I’d look into prebiotics. Prebiotics help to create a better environment for your friendly gut bacteria, allowing them to flourish and enhancing their longevity.
Just as with probiotics, there are certain foods that have inherently prebiotic qualities such as chicory, asparagus, onions, garlic and bananas; however you may also wish to consider a supplement such as our Molkosan Original. This contains plenty of L+ lactic acid which can help to feed your friendly bacteria, plus it’s super simple to incorporate into your day-to-day routine as you can combine it with smoothies or take with a little water. Once you have a gut-friendly prebiotic then you can look into probiotics.
Keep your bowels moving - If your bowel is sluggish then this can create all sorts of problems. If waste products aren't getting removed from your body then it means that all of these nasty toxins are building up, which can lead to an increase in unfriendly bacteria as well as digestive discomfort. That's why our Digestive Advisor Ali recommends that you try and keep your bowel moving and one of the best ways of doing this is by drinking plenty of plain water. It may also help to include more fibre in your diet – green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale or wholegrains like brown bread or quinoa are good options here. If constipation does occasionally strike, you could try a remedy containing linseed, fragula and senna which can help to get your bowels moving, easing many of the unpleasant symptoms associated with this type of digestive upset.
Think about what you’re eating – The foods you put into your body matter, both when it comes to your mood and the health of your gut. Refined sugars and processed fats are perfect for feeding your unfriendly bacteria so it’s important that you take a serious look at your intake of these foods – remember, white bread and pasta still contain quite a hefty amount of sugar! Instead, focus on foods that can help to feed your friendly bacteria – fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kombucha, and kefir are great options here and if you want a better idea of how to incorporate these into your diet, please check out our Nutritionist Emma’s recipe for Fermented Tomato Ketchup below! Make sure you’re getting a decent intake of fresh fruit and veg, complex carbs and healthy fats and, as I’ve mentioned, be sure that you’re drinking plenty of plain water – at least 1.5-2 litres a day!
Reduce your stress levels – There’s a lot of evidence mounting that your gut may well be able to influence your mood but the reverse is also still very true. When you experience tense emotions such as stress, it can impact your digestive system, causing symptoms such as diarrhoea or constipation, not to mention it also makes you more vulnerable to inflammation. I’ve already spoken about how these issues can affect your gut so try to look at ways of tackling stress, anxiety or other mood problems. Here at A.Vogel Talks Mental Wellbeing, we have a range of blogs that offer our top tips and suggestions for boosting your mood and reducing stress so why not check some of them out? We also even offer a gentle stress remedy, AvenaCalm, which can help to ease mild symptoms of stress and anxiety so don’t worry, you’re not alone, we are here to help!