Feeling Stressed? It's Not All in Your Head: How a Healthy Gut Is a Healthy Mind
All of us have felt stressed or anxious at one point or another. In light of the current Coronavirus pandemic and the uncertainty surrounding it, taking care of our physical AND mental health is now more important than ever. New research reveals that the mind and body are more connected than you think and gut health could play a major role.
Ready to take care of your gut and your mind? Let's hop right in!
Gut Health Is Mental Health
We always talk about having a 'gut feeling' or that something is 'gut wrenching'. Or maybe you’ve felt butterflies in your stomach. Why do we always reference our gut when we are talking about our feelings? Does it actually feel?
Doctors have long known that mental health is associated with the gut which is home to trillions of bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms. This is our gut microbiome.
Recently, researchers have shown that psychological disorders are associated with gut microbe patterns. Presence of certain types of bacteria is consistently associated with higher quality of life, while others are associated with depression and anxiety.
The Gut Is Our Second Brain
The gut does way more than just moving food through the body!
Remember that feeling in your stomach right before making a big speech? This is your gut temporarily slowing down digestion in response to stress.
The gut is constantly talking to the brain. It has an extensive neural system with over 200 million nerves that connect to the brain via the gut-brain axis and the HPA axis. These bidirectional information highways use a language of chemical messages and hormones to relay feedback between the gut and the brain.
The gut microbiome also plays an important role in regulating nerve signals to affect sleep, appetite and mood. Many building blocks of chemical messages are actually produced through fermentation by certain strains of gut bacteria. This includes essential brain chemicals that play a vital role in our mood and emotions like serotonin and dopamine. In fact, the 95% of serotonin in the body is found in the bowels! 
What Happens When the Gut Microbiome Is Imbalanced?
The gut microbiome is incredibly dynamic and adaptive to your body's daily challenges. However, it is particularly sensitive to some factors such as chronic stress, diet and medication.
The intestinal lining is a tight barrier that controls what gets absorbed into the bloodstream. This barrier becomes 'leaky' when the body is under chronic stress, allowing partially digested food, toxins and bacteria to penetrate the tissues underneath. As a result, the body releases pro-inflammatory signals and reaches systemic inflammation.
Inflammation is a way for our body to protect ourselves. Its job is to quarantine the area and recruit the immune system to fight possible infections. However, when inflammation is chronic, this becomes a problem as it can manifest in other illnesses.
When the gut is inflamed, the following can happen:
- The HPA axis becomes over-activated and releases large amounts of cortisol. Cortisol is like your body’s natural alarm bell. Under chronic stress, this alarm bell stays on and can disrupt important bodily functions, leading to depression, anxiety and insomnia. 
- The microbiome composition undergoes changes. The production of brain chemicals associated with emotion and mood regulation is affected as only certain strains of bacteria can produce them.
- Circulating endotoxins from gut microbes can manifest in the skin, causing rosacea and acne, or affect digestive processes, leading to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
How Can You Restore Balance in The Gut?
This may seem like a lot to tackle but don't worry!
There are many things you can do to restore microbiome balance and manage your stress levels. A healthy microbiome can modulate the 'leakiness' of intestinal walls and inhibit the release of cortisol from the HPA axis to relieve anxiety.
Here are some things you can do:
Eat nutritious and unprocessed food
We all have our guilty pleasures, but processed foods can contribute to inflammation in your body. Try to slowly replace them with fruit and vegetables to rebuild your gut lining and balance the gut microbiome.
Cooking veggies do not have to be boring!
Check out one of our wonderful recipes here using purple sweet potatoes!
Have a diverse diet
Research has shown that a diverse microbiome is a healthy microbiome. By eating a wide variety of foods, in particular legumes, beans and fruit, you can promote the growth of healthy and beneficial bacteria.
- Eat fermented foods
Fermented foods like yoghurt, miso, kimchi and sauerkraut all contain healthy bacteria and can reduce disease-causing species in the gut.
Probiotics are living microorganisms that can promote favourable species of gut microbes when taken as a supplement. Research has shown that probiotics are able to dampen the inflammation response as well as lessen the HPA axis response to chronic stressors. 
Eat foods containing prebiotics
Prebiotics are soluble fibres that can stimulate activity and growth of pre-existing gut bacteria. Some prebiotic-rich foods include oats, apples, bananas and cacao.
Only take antibiotics when necessary
Antibiotics kill both disease-causing and healthy microbes indiscriminately and can disrupt your gut bacteria's innate ability to eliminate the bad bacteria. You should only take antibiotics when it is medically necessary.
Your gut microbiome plays an important part in many aspects of your overall health. It is important to take care of it. By maintaining a diverse microbiome, you can ensure that both your physical and mental health are in check. Sometimes how you feel is not in your head but in your gut too!