If you’ve ever felt butterflies in your stomach when you were nervous, or known the truth of a situation through your ‘gut feeling’, you’ve experienced what has fast become a fascinating area of research—the communication between your gut and your brain.
Specifically speaking, the communication involves three participants: our brain, our gut, and our gut microbes—that community of bacteria that live in our gut and inner lining of our intestine. In his recent book The Mind-Gut connection (HarperWAve), Emeran Mayer, MD, explores this complex connection through various lenses, and offers some guidance on how to support your mental and emotional health by focusing on supporting a healthy microbiome. One area that holds a great deal of promise is the communication that can happen between our gut microbes and our brain, specifically the emotional part of our brain.
It turns out that there are gut microbes that can produce neurotransmitters that can alter our emotional state. GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is a neurotransmitter that is a major player in the nervous system where, Mayer explains, “it keeps the emotional part of our brain, the limbic system, in check.” A wide array of anti-anxiety medicines use the same signaling system to synthetically control anxiety. Early research showed that under certain conditions, the brain was affected by GABA produced by microbes in the gut. The question became: could those microbes be encouraged to flourish in the gut, helping to relieve anxiety in an individual? While this research is still in it’s early stages, there is promising evidence that shows that both anxiety and depression can potentially be alleviated by supporting a healthy microbiome.
So, how do we keep your gut microbes healthy? Mayer offers the following as ways to promote a microbiome that will support your mental and emotional health:
Think of your Microbiome as an inner farm. Every bite you take affects the health of this inner community, so feed it organic, whole foods, free of added synthetic ingredients.
Support the diversity of your microbiome. A resilient and healthy microbiome will thrive with moderate amounts of lean meat, along with a variety of prebiotics, which are found in plant fibers. Our microbiome has evolved to become adept at recognizing a vast quantity of different plants and herbs, so the more variety here, the better.
Include probiotics and fermented foods. Including these in your diet will ensure a wide range of microbial diversity, and will also provide sustenance for the beneficial bacteria already present.
Fast occasionally. The idea here is that starving your gut microbes can be beneficial to both the makeup and performance of your microbiome, and possibly even your brain. An empty stomach triggers an intriguing action, called the “migrating motor complex,’ which Mayer describes as a “weekly neighborhood street sweeping,” essentially cleaning from the esophagus to the end of the colon. There is also potential for fasting to reset the sensory system that allows for the brain and the gut to communicate effectively.
While there is still a great deal to learn and understand in how our brains and our guts interact and communicate, what we already know is enough to encourage each of us to think of this inner community, provide it with nourishment, and help it to do it’s work of supporting our mental and emotional well-being.
Discover more about how listening to your gut can curb anxiety.