You don’t have to look far to find examples of the mind-body connection with digestive health. Remember the first few times you had to stand in front of the class to give a presentation and you had ‘butterflies’ in your stomach? Maybe you still get bouts of performance anxiety that affect your digestive tract. This is very common. The feeling of nervousness before public speaking is a common theme among even seasoned presenters. Those butterflies represent how the microorganism in your gut feel.
It is not hard to find evidence that this connection between the gut and the brain is somewhat embedded in our collective unconscious. Expressions such as “gut feeling” are of common usage. Many common idioms using the word “gut” are somehow illustrative of a brain-gut connection: “have the guts” – have courage; “hate someone’s guts” – hate someone, which is basically hating their personality, temper or attitude; “spill one’s guts” – to confess, say what’s on one’s mind; “gut reaction” – a basic and instinctive reaction to something.
The gut microbiota (the microbe ecosystem) has become our body’s superstar lately. There has been an explosion of research on the effect of the gut microbiota in all sorts of non-gastrointestinal diseases. In the scope of the diseases of the nervous system, and just to name a few, the gut microbiota has been linked to: migraine, chronic pain, autism, anxiety, depression, multi sclerosis and cognitive decline. It has even been linked to motivation, and higher cognitive functions.
There is a complex two-way street between the brain/mind and the digestive tract. Feelings, thoughts, and especially mental exhaustion can greatly affect the gut. It is equally true that issues in the gut can have a strong effect on mind and brain functions. Interestingly, the microorganisms in the intestinal tract seem to play a more profound effect on the brain and mind perception then we once thought.
This two-way street of communication from the Gut-Brain plays a big part in our lives. Stress, anger, anxiety, depression and other emotions share a common party line on their mood for each other. This means that stress will impact both our brain and our gut. What most people are unaware of is that you perceive the world around you as much from your gut as you do with your brain. It has been shown that over 90% of the nerve pulses in the primary vagus nerve go from the gut to the brain. Not the opposite, which was once thought. It should be noted that this has a large effect on our microflora and can profoundly shape our personality.
The sad and paradoxical reality is that in our society, we ignore this two-way street of communication. Most believe that it is okay to eat junk, while taking acid blockers to try and maintain ideal digestive health and well-being. This has resulted in an epidemic of gut-related diseases that are destroying the health of our society and wreaking havoc for many of us. Look at us, even though we live in a wonderland of medical miracles, we have lost touch with some simple truths about health and wellness that humanity has been aware of for millennia from other cultures.
There has been some exciting research about the gut and its role in anxiety that has come out from the Human Microbiome Project of 2012. One study looked at using probiotic bacteria in mice and then putting the mice into situations that would raise their stress dramatically and measuring the nervous system responses in the different groups. Turns out the probiotic-fed mice were much more chilled out and had lower levels of stress hormones in their blood compared to control group mice. Basically the study showed that probiotic-fed animals were able to handle stress much better than the control group animals that weren’t fed probiotics. One of the researchers titled the study “Chillaxing with Probiotics.”
One of the most dramatic changes in brain-gut interaction has been in the number of cases of autism, or more appropriately, autism spectrum disorder (ASD). For decades the prevalence has been 4 – 5 per 10,000 children, but now it varies between 2 – 12 per 1000 in developed countries. This increase is more than 20 times and is quite alarming.
There has been significant research showing a direct link between the GIT and diet as an underlying cause of this increase. More specifically there is overwhelming evidence that the intestinal microorganisms play a large role. Changing the microbiome of the intestinal tract, through microbial implants and dietary changes, has shown dramatic results in increasing the cognitive function of those with ASD.
It appears that in both ASD and other diseases that some people are highly sensitive to opiates. In some, the incomplete breakdown of gluten and casein produce gluteomorphins (from gluten) and casomorphins (from casein). These peptides can escape across the gut barrier when there is an intestinal permeability issue (leaky gut syndrome). These molecules are then able to cross the blood-brain barrier and cause neurological problems.
Can the subjects of your kingdom have that much influence on your mental health? The evidence is a dramatic yes, and both fortunately and unfortunately change can happen very fast. While you can suffer the extreme ill-effects of an unbalanced kingdom quite rapidly, a review of the literature suggests that you can also reverse some of the conditions described here by positively shifting your microbiome.
When negative organism starts to colonize your Kingdom, they organize themselves into communities called biofilms. These communities may consist of one species of microbe, or a variety of different organisms including bacteria, viruses, yeast, fungi, protozoa, and single-cell microorganisms that live in extreme environments (often referred to as extremophiles). A polymer matrix, which provides rigidity and structure for the microorganisms, is primarily made up of polysaccharides. A good metaphor for this is a group of computer users sharing the same network. These biofilms adhere firmly to a given surface, providing strong protection to the resident organisms while allowing them to thrive and prosper.
If you picture the terrain of your gut as hard ground, polysaccharide enzymes may first be sent in to turn over the biofilm as a pitchfork turns over soil. Next, antimicrobials are used to clean out the clumps and rocks (the bad bugs). At this stage, prebiotics (food for the good bugs) can be sent in to fertilize the gut, finally allowing probiotics (the good bugs or “seeds”) to be planted.
Terrain is everything when helping the subjects of your kingdom to thrive in a healthy way.
Other diseases with microbial and CNS involvement includes: schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Gulf War syndrome, and multiple chemical sensitivity. There will most likely be a longer list as research opens up in this area. There is strong evidence that many health issues that increase dramatically in the elderly also have a dynamic connection to their own personal subjects in their microbial kingdom.
So what exactly does gut microbiome have to do with a person’s mental health? Precisely this: gut bacteria regulate mood. Of course their jurisdiction reaches far beyond the territory of mood and into the realms of neuropsychology. Far from being silent partners that merely help to digest food, the bacteria in your gut may also be exerting subtle influences on your thoughts, moods, and behavior. And according to a new study your gut microbes might affect the structure and function of the brain in a more direct way, by regulating myelination, the process by which nerve fibers are insulated so that they can conduct impulses properly.
Yes, we can take probiotics in the form or supplements and I highly recommend this, but what better way to get them than from your foods. Fermented foods can often deliver probiotics more efficiently that supplement. This is particularly true for children. One of the easiest foods to give a child is ketchup. In our next blog we are going to look at making ketchup that is full of probiotics.
Probiotics in ketchup – how cool is that. And you guessed it, that was the original way it was made before the industrialization of our condiments.