Where do emotions come from and why are they important to us as humans? From early times philosophers have asked this question. Of course, the obvious answer would be that emotions arise in the brain, center of all thought. If that is true, why do we feel these emotions throughout our whole body?
Hormones, neurotransmitters, electrical impulses, and the like radiate signals throughout the body carrying messages that tell our organs how to act. Emotions were once important for our survival in a fight or flight capacity. Hiding or altering authentic emotions to conform to social expectations wasn’t a thing. In fact, raw gut reactions could be the difference between life and death. This all makes pretty good sense.
Recent scientific findings have discovered a surprising source of raw emotion. Gut reactions could be just that, emotions originating in the gut. The population of microbiota in our gut may play a critical role in how we react to and interact with our world.
Several pathways connect our gut to our brain. Most notably, the Vagus nerve provides direct communication between gut and brain, but the two also talk via hormones, peptides, and immune mechanisms. Microbes can access any of these pathways, plus secreting their own metabolites into the bloodstream, according to this article.
Of course, we know that chronic stress can lead to digestive issues, but recent evidence suggests that this path is bidirectional. The path goes both ways! A pilot study by Pinto Sanchez, et al. in 2017 found that the probiotic Biobifidobacterium longum reduces depression in patients with IBS. Our little gut buddies have also been shown to alter tryptophan metabolism and 5-HTP (3) which both affect mood. I have noticed that when I indulge in foods that I am sensitive to, my creativity, motivation, self-confidence, and feelings of worth take a severe hit. Anecdotal evidence and laboratory findings for oral probiotics alleviating feelings of depression and anxiety are prevalent, but more studies in humans are needed to be absolutely sure.
This knowledge has some encouraging possibilities for modern medicine. Many people suffer from depression or anxiety after taking a round or two of broad-spectrum antibiotics. Some of this feeling could be due to recovering from whatever illness necessitated the course of antibiotics, but taking probiotics may help lessen the duration or perception of negative feelings.
Many foods and common over the counter medications have adverse effects on our little gut buddies including highly processed food, preservatives, antacids, and artificial sweeteners, colors, and flavors. Additionally, environmental factors also alter these important little dudes. Hand sanitizer, preservatives in lotions and shampoos, pesticides, and the lack of microbial diversity in modern soil all have the potential to affect our inner biome. With the sharp increase in depression and anxiety, maybe we should be paying more attention to what we eat and come into contact with.
Lack of connection, with both ourselves and each other, also has the potential to affect our little gut buddies. That is because the gut-brain axis, or more accurately the microbiota-gut-brain axis, is bi-directional. What we think and feel cycles around through the gut and back up to the brain in a continual pattern. Ever lost your appetite during a bad dinner date?
What can you do to help your gut buddies perform at their highest potential?
- Focus on fiber. Fiber and resistant starch feed the microbes in our gut. Our ancestors ate close to 100 grams of fiber daily, as do isolated people who live the way our ancestors lived. Compare that to the 15 grams of fiber consumed by the average person today. The diversity of microbes in the guts of people who consume diets high in fiber is astonishing compared to ours (4). Also to be noted is that these people rarely take antibiotics, have lower fat diets, are outside in nature almost exclusively, never use hand sanitizer, and live in close-knit communities.
- Eat dirt. No, really. Eat locally grown produce, do some gardening, get dirty! Get outside and experience nature. Forest bathing has become a new favorite hobby for people in the holistic health community. This will not only help your immune system (most of which is in the gut, by the way), it will improve your mood in several ways. Not only will you get some sunshine and fresh air, it will also be a unique source of probiotics.
- Get a pet. Not only will the companionship help boost your mood, the extra microbes in your house is good for your gut. Even if you don’t go out and get dirty on a regular basis, your pet will.
- Eat a variety of probiotics. I try to get several kinds of probiotics in my body daily. This may include yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchee, fermented veggies, and probiotics in pill or powder form. An important note here is that most sauerkraut and pickled veggies are made with vinegar which kills the microbes, so although it may be a good source of fiber, they are not a good source of probiotics. Read the label. It should say “live cultures” on it or at least not have vinegar in the ingredients list. Or make your own. It’s super easy and fun! Also, be sure the yogurt or kefir you are buying isn’t full of sugar. If it has fruit or flavoring, it probably has too much sugar. Plain Greek yogurt is what I get (full-fat) unless I make my own. I make my kefir at home with either coconut water or full-fat organic milk.
- Get PREbiotics. Prebiotics feed your little gut buddies. The microbes in your gut live way down in your large intestine. By the time food gets that far down, it has mostly been digested and the nutrients have been shipped off elsewhere. That is why fiber and resistant starch, or prebiotics, are so important. Unfortunately, processed food is largely devoid of prebiotics, so our poor little gut buddies are starved. Fortunately, prebiotics are fairly easy to come by, although rather odd. Chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, cooked and cooled rice or potatoes, underripe bananas, raw or fermented asparagus, and raw garlic are all good sources. You can supplement prebiotics as well.
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