Like the plot in a bad science fiction movie, your gut bacteria may have more control over you than you think. Recent research has uncovered links between changes in our mood to the type of bacteria that may be present in our system. To summarize, your gastrointestinal system has both “bad” and “good” bacteria. If the bad bacteria in your system gets out of hand, you can get really sick. The good bacteria, on the other hand, controls these primary functions in your body:
-Regulates digestion and metabolism
-Extracts and makes vitamins from your food
-Programs your immune system
-Builds and maintains the walls of your gastrointestinal tract
-Fights epic battles with the bad bacteria to maintain balance and harmony (Kind of like the 300 Spartans defending Sparta.)
Outside of the nervous system, the gastrointestinal system has the highest concentration of nerves (100 million neurons) in the body, causing a unique link between brain and gut chemistry; thus, it is often referred to as the body’s second brain. Your gut helps produce about 95% of your body’s serotonin, which plays a role in your mood and your GI activity. Medication used to treat depression such as serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), increase the amount of serotonin produced in the body, which can damage the linings in the intestines and cause bowel disorders.
So if bad bacteria can affect your mood negatively, it’s safe to assume that good bacteria can help alleviate symptoms of mood disorders. Studies have shown that beneficial bacteria can actually help relieve anxiety. How can this be? There are two theories on how bacteria can have such an effect on the brain. One is that bacteria monopolize the immune system and send messages to the brain by causing inflammatory symptoms. The other theory is that bacteria and the brain communicate along the vagus nerve. Since realizing this, researchers are now discovering the effects of probiotic treatments on mood and anxiety disorders, which has shown remarkable improvement in mental state when patients are put on a probiotic and diet regimen. It also goes hand in hand with developing new ways of managing digestive disorders such as IBS, Crohn’s disease, and leaky gut syndrome which are often linked to depression and anxiety.
Research suggests that the slightest imbalance between the good and bad bacteria can affect your mental state causing anxiety or depression. And vice versa. Even antibiotics and mild stress can affect the delicate balance of your gut, throw your whole system out of whack and make you more prone to infection.
Here are some ways you can help promote the good gut flora to flourish:
1. Eat lots of fresh vegetables and fruits: Not surprisingly, eating a meat- and dairy-based diet causes the “bad” bacteria to increase, while eating a plant-based diet encourages the “good” bacteria.
2. Limit processed foods: processed, packaged foods with additives, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners (like soda) wreak havoc with your gut health. Prioritize whole, unprocessed foods.
3. Try probiotic foods: these include vegan yogurt (made with coconut, soy, or almond milk), fermented foods like miso, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, etc. If these foods are not to your taste, there are even some brands of vegan protein powders that have live probiotics in them, like Garden of Life Raw Meal brand. Blend it up in a smoothie for a tasty protein-filled snack.
4. Eat smaller meals: Smaller meals eaten throughout the day makes digestion easier–which keeps the good bacteria happy.
5. Get plenty of sleep: Getting enough sleep is crucial for controlling your hunger hormones (ie ghrelin) and keeping cravings in check. It’s also critical maintaining a healthy immune system.
Related: Can Your Gut Microbes Make You Fat?
Also by Krystle: How to Taste Food Like a Professional
Photo: Daniela Vladimirova via Flickr