Gut Check: The Gut-Brain Axis and Your Overall Health
Your gut influences your body and mind in so many ways that it's sometimes called the second brain. The gut-brain axis represents the connection between the gut and the brain and their interaction with the immune system and other parts of the nervous system. There's still a lot to learn about this phenomenon, but what has been discovered so far points to fascinating and vital insights that can help you improve your health in different ways.
An Introduction to the Gut-Brain Axis
The gut-brain axis is the intricate system that connects our digestive tract to our central nervous system. It's a two-way street, so it's not just about your gut talking to your brain but also the brain sending messages back to the gut. Since there are more neurons in your GI tract than in your spinal cord, it makes sense that much of what you feel emotionally comes from way down deep inside—and vice versa.
Researchers have discovered many fascinating ways in which these signals affect each other. For example, stress can cause inflammation throughout your body (including your gut), while bacteria can activate nerves in your intestines that send signals directly to your brain. So what does all of this mean? If you want to live healthily and be at ease with yourself, you need to take care of both parts of your body by paying attention to both mental and physical health issues.
How the Gut Affects Emotions, Sleep, Mood, Behavior, and Memory
We've all heard about gut instinct, gut feeling, you know it in your gut—but what does that actually mean? It means a direct connection between your stomach and your brain. A term for this connection is the gut-brain axis—and there are many interesting ways it influences our health daily. For example, when we feel sick or have butterflies in the belly, these feelings originate from signals sent from the gastrointestinal tract to our brains. Scientists estimate that over 90% of serotonin (the chemical responsible for regulating mood) is made and stored in your intestines!
Additionally, according to research published by Dr. Emeran Mayer at UCLA, up to 95% of our feel-good hormones, like dopamine and oxytocin, are released in response to food stimuli within the gut. So how can you harness these connections to improve your overall well-being? You could try eating more probiotic foods, like yogurt with live cultures or sauerkraut.
Why Do We Need Good Bugs in Our Bodies?
Our bodies are home to millions of different types of bacteria, including bacteria in our intestines. These good bugs (probiotics) are essential for digestion, nutrient absorption, and overall health. Studies have shown a direct link between having a healthy gut microbiome and mental health; people who suffer from anxiety or depression often have fewer beneficial bacteria living in their guts than those who don't suffer from these disorders. Also, about 80% of the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin is made in your gut, so it's not surprising that poor digestive health can lead to low moods or depression symptoms.
How Stress Can Affect Our Digestive Tract
Did you know there's a connection between our central nervous system and the digestive tract? This connection is called the Gut-Brain Axis, meaning stress can significantly affect gut health. Stress causes an increase in stomach acid, which leads to indigestion, ulcers, gas, cramps, and more. Our food is meant to be broken down by stomach acids (along with enzymes) before it enters our bloodstream. When stressed out, however, we tend to consume fewer fruits and vegetables (which contain those helpful enzymes), leading to less digestion overall.
Are Probiotics Necessary?
Probiotics are live microorganisms (bacteria, yeasts) that provide significant health benefits when consumed. They are available in supplements and in certain foods, like yogurt. Most people already have a healthy balance of probiotic bacteria in their digestive tract, but supplementation is recommended for those who need an extra boost.
Probiotics help maintain a healthy gut flora balance—harmful bacteria tend to outgrow helpful ones when imbalances are present. When your gut flora is out of whack, it can lead to various gastrointestinal issues, including diarrhea and constipation. Probiotics also promote proper immune system function by fighting off harmful microbes that can cause disease. A healthy amount of beneficial bacteria in your body will keep you feeling great overall!
Examples from Daily Life Observations of the Gut-Brain Relationship
The microorganisms in our gut, popularly known as gut flora or just gut bugs, have been getting a lot of attention lately. One reason is that they have been linked to gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and more severe health issues such as type 2 diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and even autism.The gut microbiota is essential in maintaining the mucosal barrier, host nutrient metabolism and for prevention against pathogens and many other roles that are directly and indirectly linked to gastrointestinal disorders and their prevention. Another reason is that research has shown how important these bacteria are for brain development and function.
Scientists refer to this cross-talk between the gut and brain as the gut-brain axis, which refers to all of those mechanisms by which what goes on in your digestive system affects your mental health. This axis can be seen as either bidirectional, which means that both organs affect each other, or unidirectional, which means that both organs are affected by the same thing.
How to Take Care of the Gut-Brain Axis: Food, Lifestyle
Eating a balanced diet with adequate fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats is key to healthy digestion. Drinking plenty of water each day will also keep you hydrated. (Not all drinks are created equal, though; steer clear of sugary sodas, which have no nutritional value.) Getting more active can help you lose weight and reduce stress levels, another factor that can negatively affect your gut health.
Try sticking to a good exercise routine three or four times per week. It's also essential to get enough sleep—at least seven hours a night for adults. A lack of sleep has been linked to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and depression. You should also make sure you're managing any chronic illnesses; for example, if you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), it's crucial to manage your symptoms so they don't interfere with your overall health.
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