Why Gut Health is Mental Health
For years, researchers have known that the gut contains neurons that look uncannily similar to those in the brain. Part of the enteric nervous system (ENS), these cells communicate directly with the central nervous system, providing vital information on what’s going on in the stomach.
Despite this fact, the idea that the gut could affect mental health wasn’t always mainstream. But recently, researchers are having a change of heart. Now they’re wondering whether conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) might correlate with depression, anxiety, and a host of other conditions.
The brain-gut connection
Throughout evolution, the brain and the gut learned to work closely to protect the host animal. The best strategy was for nerve cells to coat the bowel to collect signals from the brain and transmit information back.
Thus, a kind of two-way signaling system developed. On the one hand, you had master regulation from the brain, telling the gut what to do. And on the other, you had the stomach sending feedback about the food being digested, keeping the whole system in sync.
This setup allowed animals to optimize their digestion. For instance, you’ll often notice that your digestion slows or stops when you’re stressed or haven’t eaten for a whole day. Your brain takes this as a signal that you should reserve your energy for other activities. However, when you are well fed and in the “rest and digest” state, your brain and gut will work together to extract energy from your food.
The system is not merely mechanical. It’s not just a matter of the brain telling the gut what to do and the gut relaying information to the brain. What’s happening in the stomach can affect mood too.
For instance, researchers are now coming to terms with the fact that the type of bacteria living in your stomach can affect how you feel. People who have unhealthy microbiomes - mainly those eating a western diet - produce pro-inflammatory compounds, such as putrescine, that harm mental wellbeing. Meanwhile, those who eat plenty of vegetables and whole grains have bacteria that generate anti-inflammatory substances, like butyrate, lowering inflammation in the brain.
Science linking gut health to mental health
There’s quite a bit of science that links gut health to mental health, much of it in animals. A groundbreaking Japanese study from 2004, for instance, found that germ-free mice raised in sterile conditions with no bacteria in their bodies exhibited much higher fluctuations in stress hormones.
Other studies have found that transplanting unhealthy bacterial species can transmit depression symptoms from one species to another. In a somewhat bizarre study from Chonqing University, investigators found that they could take gut bacteria from depressed human patients, insert it into mice, and make them depressed as well.
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