The Connection Between Gut, Mood and Behaviour
Do you ever wonder why you sometimes experience “butterflies” in your stomach when doing something exciting, or have a “gut feeling” about a particular scenario? This is because our gut microbiota, i.e. the community of microorganisms living in the gut, does much more than just aid in digestion, immunity and metabolic functioning – it is a crucial connection to our brain and potentially our mood! Yes, the brain and the gut “talk” to each other – but maybe not in the way you think.
The Gut as the Second Brain
Although the gut tends to be overlooked as a bodily organ that is simply in support of aiding the body’s digestive and metabolic processes, current research suggests that the gut is actually the human body’s “second brain”. In fact, our gut is responsible for creating and harbouring a large percentage of the
body’s neurotransmitters. Up to 95% of the body’s serotonin – also known as the “happy” hormone, which is the neurotransmitter responsible for stabilizing our mood, is produced in the gut.
The Bidirectional Relationship Between the Gut and Brain
The gut and brain communicate with each other in a constant, dynamic and two-way direction through a sophisticated signalling system. This relationship between the gut and the brain is referred to as the “gut-brain axis”. The vagus nerve is an important channel by which information is transmitted between the gut and the brain. This bidirectional communication means that the gut sends signals to, as well as receives signals from the brain. The vast majority (90%) of signals travel upward, keeping the brain constantly informed about gut activity.
The Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis
Scientists have known for many years that the gut and the brain are linked. For instance, we know that psychological stress negatively affects gut function and that it is an important factor in the development of gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome. More recently, there has been a growing body of evidence indicating that the gut microbiota plays a key role in how the gut and brain communicate. This has led to the concept of “microbiota-gut-brain axis” being established.
Scientific evidence accumulated in recent years from mice and human studies suggests that the gut microbiota affects some aspects of brain function and behaviour, including emotional behaviour. In animal studies, germ-free mice or those with a severely disrupted microbiota had an abnormal response to stress, differing patterns of social interaction and alterations in cognition. As for human studies, several have reported that patients with depression or anxiety have an altered gut microbiota. Evidence for the influence of gut microbes on the human brain include placebo-controlled trials suggesting that modulation of the gut microbiota may produce changes in mood or behaviour. While the underlying mechanisms of the crosstalk between the gut microbiota and brain remain to be fully understood, several pathways have been identified, which include the vagus nerve, the immune system, the endocrine system, and bacterial metabolites and products. Short-chain fatty acids, which are metabolites produced by the gut microbiota, possess neuroactive properties and can initiate gut-brain signalling.The gut microbiota also helps preserve gut permeability. Disturbances of microbiota balance, known as dysbiosis, may disrupt these pathways and trigger changes in the blood-brain barrier permeability, leading to not only gastrointestinal issues, but also, possibly neurological ones.
How Can We Shape Our Gut Microbiota to Help Support Gut-Brain Communication?
Until more is elucidated on the microbiota-gut-brain axis, we can strive towards healthy gut microbiota, which is important for gut and overall health.
Have a healthy diverse diet
Diet is one of the key factors that influence the composition of the gut microbiota. A healthy lifestyle and maintaining a varied diet allow us to preserve the diversity and health of our microbiota. A greater diversity of microorganisms in the gut microbiota is directly correlated with gut and overall health and well-being. The more diverse the diet, the more diverse the microbiota. A diverse diet includes fibre-rich foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, as well as probiotic-containing foods like probiotic yogurt
What we know from current research is that stress can induce significant changes in the gut microbiota composition and function, which can lead to intestinal inflammation and difficulties with digestion and issues related to the microbiota-gut-brain axis. Some ways in which we can help manage stress include:
Mindfulness – This practice allows us to become more present and less judgemental with our current physical, mental and emotional state. Being mindful has been shown to decrease stress levels, and we can practice mindfulness in a variety of ways such as practicing meditation, diaphragmatic breathing, gratitude, and journaling.
Seeking Support – Seeking support and connection with loved ones and friends can help ease the burden of stress. Additionally, connecting with a therapist can allow you to better manage stress through learning effective coping skills.
Movement – Movement has been shown to help decrease stress levels and in turn, boost our mood and behaviour. Movement can take many forms such as walking, dancing, running, weight lifting, cycling, and more! Do what works best for your body and what you enjoy
Maintain proper sleep
Sleep quantity and quality may contribute to gut microbiota diversity. Poor sleep has been linked to poor gut microbiota diversity, which in turn can affect our overall health.The Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Adults recommend 7 to 9 hours of good-quality sleep for adults.
In conclusion, while there is evidence that gut microbiota may influence our mood and behaviour, more research is needed to better understand how this happens. But one thing is for sure, our brain and gut are in constant communication, so we can all benefit from healthy lifestyle strategies to support our gut microbiota.