Like it or not, you have microorganisms all over your body: On your skin, eyelashes, in your mouth, saliva, bowels and all sorts of other places. Researchers have estimated that the average person has 2-3 times more bacteria than cells in their body. The numbers shake out to be about 2 to 6 pounds of bacteria, or, if you’re a more visual person, imagine: The size of a Mexican cottontail rabbit, 5 packages of bacon, 5 bunches of bananas, or two Costco rotisserie chickens.
Grossed out yet?
It would naturally follow that the composition, status and health of these microbes can have a big impact on your health.
What is The Gut Microbiome and What Does it Do?
The definition of the term microbiome has evolved since its 1988 introduction by Whipps J, Lewis K, Cooke R, in Manchester University Press. The term originated from the Ancient Greek words “micro” or small, and “biome,” meaning life.
Over the last 30+ years scientists have explored the complex interrelationship between these teeny-tiny gut bacteria, their genetic material, the environment of our bodies, the food we eat, the rest of the host body, the environment including other living plants and mammals, extending to the planet at large.
Until recent years the gut microbiome was considered a “black box” of mystery, but thanks to innovations from the Human Microbiome Project (HMP), The United States National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the MetaHIT (Metagenomics of the Human Intestinal Tract) consortium, advances in technologies and projects have enabled scientists to dive into to the details.
In order to stay up to date with advancements in scientific research into the microbiome, the MicrobiomeSupport Project was created and an updated definition was established, which essentially states:
The term microbiome broadly encompasses the microorganisms in your body, including their genetic material, their activities, the environment they live in and their ever-changing ecosystems including cells and bacteria.
What is the Gut Microbiota and What Does it Do?
The gut microbiota refers to the “assemblage of microorganisms” present in your gut. This includes all of the bacteria, viruses, eukaryotes (this refers to cells that have a nucleus), and archaea (a term often used to refer to bacteria because they are made up of just a single cell) that live in your gut.
Every individual has their own unique composition of ever-evolving microorganisms. It is believed that a person’s microbiota is established during infancy, however diet, exercise, and lifestyle play crucial roles in maintaining a healthy microbiota.
The microbiota in your gut play many important roles in your body, here are just a few examples:
- Digestion of fiber and nutrients and absorption
- Production of short chain fatty acids which nourish and protect the cells of your colon
- Make vitamins (for example, vitamins K, B5 and B12 are produced by bacteria in your gut)
- Regulate metabolism
- Maintain the immune system
- Prevent disease
- Produce and alter neurotransmitter levels which impact your brain and mood– specifically dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
- Balance your hormones
- Protect your body from invasion of disease-causing fungi, viruses and bacteria.
- Shapes the structure of your brain itself
What happens when the microbiota goes out of balance?
When it comes to your gut bacteria, balance is the name of the game.
When the balance is right, your body is more equipped to run like a well-oiled machine, but when the balance is off it can lead to a host of issues that may range from annoying to life threatening.
When the composition of bacteria in your gut is out of balance it is referred to as dysbiosis.
Dysbiosis can be caused by external factors or internal factors and impairs the normal functioning of the gut microbiota in maintaining your wellness. Examples of factors that can push your gut out of whack include:
- Certain diets, like those high in sugar, food additives, alcohol, or foods containing xenobiotics
- Lack of exercise
- Disturbances in circadian rhythm from irregular sleep cycles
- Mental stress
- Physical stress
- Tobacco exposure
- Use of medications like antibiotics
Everyone is just a little different and so what sends you out of alignment may be completely different than someone else.
Researchers of the past few years have made a connection between several diseases and health conditions and gut dysbiosis. Whereas in some cases, there is a correlation or association between dysbiosis and disease, in other cases the link points to a causal relationship.
Examples of diseases in the brain that often go along with dysbiosis in the gut:
- Depression: Has been shown to be related to an overgrowth in bacteria from the genus: Eggerthella, Holdemania, Gelria, Turicibacter, Paraprevotella, and Anaerofilum. Depression from stressful events in particular is associated with an increase in Enterobacteriaceae, Escherichia coli and Pseudomonas spp., and a reduction in Lactobacilli spp.
- Anxiety: Can be caused by an overgrowth of yeast (candidiasis), Blastocystis hominis, and Helicobacter pylori (H. Pylori).
- Autistic spectrum disorder: Some research has shown associations between autism and increased levels of bacteria Clostridium sp;, Bacteroidetes, Lactobacillus, and Desulfovibrio.
- Parkinson’s Disease: Increases in anti-inflammatory butyrate producing bacteria Blautia, Coprococcus, and Roseburia (all of which produce protective butyrate), and an excess in Proteobacteria which are inflammatory. An additional study adds that Parkinson’s disease is associated with increased numbers of Lactobacillaceae bacteria.
- Neurological disorders: Including non-descript imbalances in production of neurotransmitters and neurotransmission to and from the brain.
- Sensory Processing Disorders: Research has suggested “direct proof that microbiota affect sensory processing in the brain” stating that “alterations in gut microbiota in individuals with neuropsychiatric conditions, such as autism and schizophrenia, may therefore contribute to sensorimotor gating deficits observed in these disorders.”
- Alzheimer’s disease (AD): AD is associated with lower microbial diversity compositionally.
Love this information? An absolutely incredible resource is the National Institute of Health Human Microbiome Project.
What is the Gut-Brain Axis?
The key word here is bidirectional, which means your brain and gut are sending signals back and forth to each other, hence the names First Brain and Second Brain. The intimate relationship between these two brains are the foundation to how the cognitive and emotional parts of the brain interrelate with the functions of the intestinal tract.
The gut-brain axis is the link between the central nervous system (including the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system), and the enteric nervous system (the nervous system located in the gut).
This complex system also involves the Vagus Nerve and the microbiome. According to the research, the microbiome in the gut communicates information to the vagus nerve, which delivers information to the central nervous system, directly changing how you feel, think, make hormones, metabolize neurotransmitters, regulate inflammation, immune health, and much more.
Think of it like a telephone: On one end you have a message from the gut, then the vagus nerve carries that signal through the phone lines to the brain on the other end. The brain receives that information, responds accordingly, and sends a message back to the gut, which in turn makes the appropriate adjustments and sends a signal back.
And so on, and so on.
What can I do today to get my mood and microbes back on track?
We’ve established that the health and balance of your gut microflora plays a profoundly important role in your mood and mind and at this point you might be wondering, “so… what’s the solution?”
The solution that works to cost-effectively relieve suffering, improve well-being, and increase health, is literally at your fingertips.
You can get started today with these 3 steps:
Step 1: Get Good Bugs On Board
Earlier we talked about the form of probiotic, called a psychobiotic, that when consumed influences your microbiome and can improve your mood.
According to the journal Trends in Neurosciences, treatment with certain psychobiotics has been shown to lift depression, reduce anxiety and rumination (or intrusive, obsessive, dwelling thoughts), and improve cognitive abilities. The psychobiotic strains discussed in this study include:
- Bifidobacterium bifidum W23, Bifidobacterium lactis W52, Lactobacillus acidophilus W37, Lactobacillus brevis W63, Lactobacillus casei W56, Lactobacillus salivarius W24, and Lactococcus lactis W19 and W58.
The good news is that you don’t have to go out and purchase these bacteria one-by-one as this combination of mood-balancing microbes is found in a product called OMNi-BiOTiC® Stress Release Probiotic.
Step 2: Add This One Ingredient to Your Diet
I asked Dr. Perlmutter if he could condense all of his years of research into an easily actionable and digestible strategy for healing one’s gut and mood, and he said:
“My top three recommendations for capitalizing on gut health to improve mood are: Consume more fiber. Consume more fiber. Consume more fiber.”
The research has shown that adding fiber to the diet has been shown to beneficially affect the mood, reduce depression, anxiety, stress and improve gastrointestinal health.
My favorite fiber-containing foods are: Flax seeds, lentils, apples, popcorn, avocados, broccoli, whole grains, and berries.
Step 3: The Vagus Nerve Hack
We’ve talked about the vagus nerve’s important role in communicating information back and forth between the gut and brain. Well, the vagus nerve also has another important job, which is to regulate your autonomic nervous system. When under stress, your body shifts into a state referred to as sympathetic activation. When your sympathetic nervous system is activated you may experience symptoms of anxiety, irritability, heart palpitations, restlessness, high blood pressure, a fast pulse, and digestive upset, to name a few.
Stimulating your vagus nerve will shift your body out of sympathetic activation, and into a parasympathetic state. As a result your anxiety will lessen, your heart will slow down, your blood pressure will drop, and your digestive upset will lessen. The signal from the vagus nerve will tell your body to relax, and your microbial composition will respond in turn.
Here’s the hack: Find your pulse (either in your wrist or your neck) and notice the rhythm and rate. Take a deep breath in quickly and hold for a count of 4. As you hold, notice your pulse rate. Then exhale slowly for 4 counts. Notice your pulse as you exhale. Then hold at the bottom for 4 counts. Repeat this cycle 4 times.
You should notice that your pulse slows down on the exhale. This is because long exhalations are a way to stimulate your vagus nerve.
I’ve written an additional article teaching you how to measure your vagus nerve tone, including 3 tips for stimulating and strengthening the vagus nerve, you can find it HERE.
Maybe you found this blog because you’ve felt frustrated by healthcare’s lackluster solutions for your concerns, or perhaps a passion for mind-body healing brought you here, or maybe it was a gut feeling that there was more to the story of mental health.
Regardless of how you got here, welcome. If you’ve been struggling with anxiety, depression, difficulties focusing, and if you’re tired of the endless cycle of “pill, symptom, pill, symptom,” you’re not alone.
It’s time to make a change and there’s never been a better time.
“While integrative-minded physicians have been early adopters of the emerging science intimately relating the gut and brain, I have no doubt that mainstream medicine will soon begin to adopt these fundamental premises,” says Dr. Perlmutter in response to my question about the future of the gut-brain movement. “The degree of influence of gut physiology, especially as it relates to the microbiome, on brain function and health that has been revealed in recent years is both astounding and empowering.”