There are trillions of bacteria living in your gastrointestinal system. They keep your body in balance, digest food and help your intestines absorb nutrients. Even though we’ve known about them for decades, we’ve only recently started paying attention to them. Now you can’t go to the grocery store without seeing probiotics: products designed to support gut health. It may be more critical than helping you digest food. Gut microbiome research has shown there may be a connection between your gut health and the health of your brain.
Your Second Hidden Brain
If you ask someone where their brain is, they’ll usually point to their head. Most people don’t know the human body has two brains — the one in their skull, and the one in their digestive tract. This second brain, known as the enteric nervous system, or ENS, controls digestion from the moment you swallow a bite of food until it passes out through your body’s waste system. It manages more than 100 million nerve endings throughout the gastrointestinal tract.
These two brains communicate with one another, which could be the foundation of the brain-gut connection. Already, researchers are theorizing it could benefit individuals with irritable bowel syndrome. By treating both the brain and the gut, doctors could help traditional IBS treatments become more effective.
What other effects could this connection between the brain and gut have?
Gut Bacteria and Neurochemistry
The bacteria in your gut, along with the ENS, may play a more significant role than anyone had previously anticipated. Gut microbiome research has found connections between an unhealthy gastrointestinal microbiome and some psychiatric conditions, from depression and anxiety to schizophrenia and even some neurodegenerative diseases.
This discovery might sound fantastic, but there is a problem with it — causality. It’s difficult to determine if the symptoms of a neurological condition result from an imbalance in gut bacteria, or if the disorder is the cause of the imbalance.
That hasn’t stopped probiotics manufacturers from claiming their products can help emotional health, and it has led to a lot of new research into the connection between the gut microbiome and the brain. Many research labs, from the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health to the Office of Naval Research, have pledged millions of dollars over the next few years to discover the exact connection between gut health and mental health.
This isn’t the first time we’ve tried to research this connection — the topic comes up every time a pathogen manages to penetrate the blood-brain barrier — but it’s the first time researchers have had the time and funds to make some discoveries.
Maintaining Good Gut Health
If you’re concerned about the health of your gut microbiome or how it could be affecting your physical and mental health, what can you do to protect the health of your gut?
Start by taking a close look at what you eat. Many foods you might consume every day — like fatty fried foods or red meats — can have a detrimental effect on your gut health. Fermented foods — from yogurt to kombucha and kefir — all contain bacteria that can help bolster the microbes already working away in your digestive tract.
Getting plenty of fruits and vegetables is also important. The fiber in fresh produce has three jobs. First, it helps fill you up, so you don’t overeat. Second, it acts as a food source for the bacteria in your gut, keeping them in tip-top fighting — or, in this case, digesting — shape. Finally, it helps keep everything moving through your intestinal tract. Studies have even found getting enough fiber in your diet can reduce your risk of heart disease by up to 10 percent.
Finally, focus on reducing the stress in your life. There’s a reason they call stress the “silent killer” — it can creep up on you and get overwhelming before you realize it, and there’s a direct link between stress and a higher risk of death from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease. Too much stress can also be harmful to your gut bacteria, causing them to die off and throw your body out of balance. Whether you take a mental health day or need to meditate for a few minutes is up to you — try to reduce the stress you experience every day.
This connection between gut health and brain health could open up the doors for new kinds of medicine that treat the body as a whole, rather than treating the gut and brain as separate entities. Everything is connected, and scientific proof of that could turn the medical community on its ear. To maintain your gut health, try to live a stress-free life and add more fiber and fermented foods to your diet.