The amazing 'mind–gut connection'
The directive to 'go with your gut' is more than a throwaway line from pseudo-science. Frances Dalton, a nutritionist and medical advisor for the MINDD Foundation, which promotes mind-body approaches in healthcare, says the gut is being recognised as the second brain.
Your second brain
"There are millions of nerve cells around the intestines, almost as many as in the brain," Dalton says. "This means the gut has the ability to process information about what is going on and put a response into action separate from the brain and central nervous system."
Intestinal nerve cells have similar conversations to those between neurons in the brain – using neurotransmitters as a kind of phone. There are around 30 neurotransmitters used by the so-called enteric nervous system, the same number as in the brain. The enteric nervous system employs more neurons than the peripheral nervous system and spinal cord respectively.
"Whatever affects the mind will in turn have some impact on gut function," says naturopath Lyn Craven. She calls this lifelong two-way convo 'gut instinct'.
Thus, the belly is also intimately linked to emotions and vice versa.
Mental illnesses linked to the gut
"People who are frightened enough, without question show gut problems," says the University of Melbourne professor of enteric neuroscience Joel Bornstein.
"That's the brain talking to the gut and the gut talking back to the brain, saying, 'I'm uncomfortable'.
Dalton says many conditions thought to be purely anomalies of the mind, like mental illnesses, are now being linked to the gut.
"Many of the so-called psychological problems people are faced with today such as anxiety, depression, and even more serious conditions such as schizophrenia and autism are related to problems in the gut," she says.
"Programs that work to heal these gut problems and address the resulting deficiencies are very successful in helping the majority of people with these types of disorders."
Gut bacteria may also improve general brain function , research suggests.
In a UCLA study, women aged 18 to 55 who ate yoghurt containing probiotics twice a day for a month exhibited decreased activity in two brain regions that control central processing of emotion and sensation. They also showed greater connectivity between a region known as the periaqueductal grey and areas of the prefrontal cortex associated with cognition while those who skipped the probiotic showed greater connectivity of a different area.
Drawing on findings that most of the body's neurotransmitter serotonin resides in the gut, not the brain, Julia Ross' book and protocol The Mood Cure employs amino acids – the constituents of protein and precursors to neurotransmitters – to correct emotional fallouts.
"Your brain relies on protein – the only food source of amino acids – to make all of its mood-enhancing chemicals," Ross says.
"If you are not getting enough protein, you won't be able to manufacture those crucial chemicals."
Including protein in every meal is a good way to maintain adequate levels of amino acids – many of which the body can't manufacture ('essential amino acids'). Fish, eggs, chicken and beef contain all 22 amino acids.
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) has recently been linked to unbalanced gut bacteria.
According to research at the University of Toronto, low levels of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria in the gut could contribute to CFS symptoms. Gut bacteria communicates with the nervous system by way of the vagas nerves, so it makes sense that it can influence mood. The same bacteria also converse with the immune system, which largely resides in the gut.
"Research shows that patients with CFS and other so-called functional somatic disorders have alterations in the intestinal microbial flora," says Dr A Venket Rao, researcher at the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto. "Emerging studies have suggested that pathogenic and non-pathogenic gut bacteria might influence mood-related symptoms and even behaviour in animals and humans.
"We found a significant rise in both Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria in those taking the Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota (LcS), and there was also a significant decrease in anxiety symptoms among those taking the probiotic vs controls."
Even certain symptoms of autism are now being linked to disturbances in gut bacteria. "There's good evidence that gut bacteria can upset behaviour, and that appears to be the case with autism," says Prof. Bornstein.
So is your diet a factor?
People may experience a ‘gut-wrenching’ feeling from time to time or even ‘butterflies’ in their stomach. These are very common expressions. The gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion. Some feelings – anger, sadness, anxiety, joy – can trigger symptoms in the gut.
The brain has a direct link to the stomach. Particularly true in cases where a person experiences gastrointestinal distress with no apparent physical cause. For such functional GI disorders, it is problematic to attempt to heal an upset stomach without considering stress and emotion.
Responding to stress
Be it mental or physical stress, your internal adrenaline and other organs may strengthen your muscles to give you that extra boost of speed to meet with certain feeling and moods. Our bodies have a self-defence mechanism that is able to fight when there is danger to help you survive. Understanding this, any stress-related factors can possibly affect your body movement. Studies have suggested that going to therapies as well as a better diet can help reduce and overcome stress.
‘You are what you eat’ – Is that true?
Yes, absolutely! We all know that sticking to a nutritional diet is hard. Weight loss programs are good for those who find it difficult to stick to a worthy diet. At Jenny Craig, their menus are tasty and nutritious, with the perfect balance of protein, fibre, carbohydrates and healthy fats. A lot of nutritionists will tell you to avoid eating processed foods. A wise choice would be to take a sufficient high-quality probiotic supplement to help get the nutrients in your diet and help you stay focused with your goals and live a healthier life.