Our Gut and Brain Are Talking: ListenHow Stress Impacts More than our Minds
There is nothing worse than anticipatory anxiety. The waiting game, where my mind tries to tell the future, and it only comes up with terrible and illogical predictions. Couple that with waiting in a testing room at a doctor's office, and my imagination will run wild. “Just call my name already!” With every passing moment in waiting, my anxiety grows. While breathing exercises may help calm my heart rate and slow down my mind, it does little to the bubbling that’s begun. Before I realize it, my eyes are darting around for the nearest bathroom. My anxiety is now in my gut, making sitting in my seat quite uncomfortable for obvious reasons —“Rassuli!” —Shit.
It can be easy to mistake these anxious gut traveling symptoms as separate from mental health; I thought as much for years. However, emerging research on the Gut-Brain axis is uncovering a biological highway that connects our psychology and biology. Understanding this highway helped improve my gut health, and if my embarrassing little story above resonated with you, this might too.
The Science The connection we have between our mental health and our gut is largely due to the Microbiota-Gut-Brain axis. As the name states, this is a pathway between our gut (stomach, intestines, colon AKA our gastrointestinal tract) and brain. The microbiota are the community of residential bacteria that live within our gut. These residential microbes are essential in communicating with our brain through hormonal, immune, and neural connections. These pathways are bidirectional within our body and brain, setting up the stage for mental health issues to impact our gut and vice versa. Anxiety, Depression, and the Gut So how does this happen? Well, there are many moving parts, and it can get confusing to understand if you aren’t familiar with biology or psychology. I’m going to break it down in as essential of a way as possible and encourage anyone interested to check out the references I will list at the end for more in-depth exploration. It is estimated that 40 million people in the United States have anxiety or depression. While we often imagine the psychological pain of these issues, they are also known for having somatic symptomatology, which means physical problems such as body aches, pains, or shortness of breath. In the case of the Gut-Brain axis and for individuals like me, we feel anxiety in our gastrointestinal tract. Bloating, constipation, gas, diarrhea… I think you get it. When we experience anxiety or depression, our body’s stress response has the potential to create dysbiosis (remember this name). Dysbiosis is the dysregulation of microbiota within our gut, meaning the balance of microbes we carry becomes unbalanced, and we lose the diversity of microbes living inside us. Microbiota diversity is incredibly important as it helps contribute to our gut’s proper functioning. So let's start to connect some dots. Say an anxiety-provoking event happens, and our body enters a stress response. Biologically, our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) kicks into gear. What is important to note here is that this axis is our central stress response system, and if you’re only dealing with one distressing event, your HPA axis will likely handle it properly. Now say that one moment of distress is not out of the ordinary for you; if you experience multiple distressing events constantly in your life, then you might suffer from chronic anxiety or even depression. When anxiety or depression becomes chronic, our HPA axis can become dysregulated. So why does the dysregulation of the HPA axis matter? Research has shown that when the HPA axis dysregulates, it can lead to dysregulation in our gut, likely meaning dysbiosis (told you to remember it). When you suffer from prolonged anxiety or depression, you’ve likely negatively impacted your microbiome and your ability to adapt to stress (aka your HPA axis). While human studies are still relatively novel within the mind-gut connection, there are a plethora of studies done on mice. One study, in particular, found that when mice experienced depression, it led to a depletion in their microbiota (Park et al., 2013). Furthermore, researchers have found that a lack of microbiota was correlated with increased reactivity to stress (Foster & McVey Neufeld, 2013). If you’re suffering from chronic stress, you may have impacted your microbiota, which may have affected your ability to adapt to stress appropriately. For those interested in non-mice studies, one human study found an underrepresentation of certain residential microbes in individuals who suffer from depression, indicating the possible impact our mental health has on our gut (Naseribafrouei, 2014). This pattern of dysregulation continues in both hormonal and immune system pathways that connect with our microbiota. To keep this article from sounding like a research paper, I won't go into the specifics but will list sources that cover these routes. What To Do? So if you think you may have impacted the diversity of your microbiota because of stress or depression, how can you start to restore it? Thankfully there are several ways to help bring your gut back, but they likely will take time, and you will have to be mindful of changes you notice along the way.
Your Diet: Many of the research articles I came across generally recommended a diet similar to the Mediterranean diet. This diet emphasizes plants and prioritizes white meats over red meats. Plants are essential because they carry the bulk of microbiota diversity that can help you achieve a healthy gut.
Be mindful of processed foods: You’ve heard it all your life, “junk food is bad for you,” but recognize that it's more than just your physical health at stake. A diet filled with processed foods can damage the diversity of microbes in your gut, making you more susceptible to mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
Probiotics/Prebiotics: These supplements are beginning to gain popularity, and they can help people who think they need to increase the healthy bacteria in their gut. Just be aware that it’s unlikely you will see a change immediately. It takes time to build up a healthy gut biome. If you’re not a fan of supplements, you can look up what foods have probiotics/prebiotics and try to incorporate more of them into your diet.
Therapy/Exercise/Meditation/All of the above: At this point, I hope it’s clear that as important as it is to get your gut in order, you need to get your mind in order too. You could eat all the right food and take the right supplements, but if you don’t help your mental health, it could all be for nothing.
References: This article referenced some research, and I’ve cited them below, along with a couple of general books to start looking in the right direction. If you don’t know where to start, I recommend picking up one of the books first. Articles: Foster, Jane A., and Karen-Anne McVey Neufeld. “Gut–Brain Axis: How the Microbiome Influences Anxiety and Depression.” Trends in Neurosciences 36, no. 5 (May 2013): 305–12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tins.2013.01.005. Park, A. J., J. Collins, P. A. Blennerhassett, J. E. Ghia, E. F. Verdu, P. Bercik, and S. M. Collins. “Altered Colonic Function and Microbiota Profile in a Mouse Model of Chronic Depression.” Neurogastroenterology & Motility 25, no. 9 (September 2013): 733. https://doi.org/10.1111/nmo.12153. Naseribafrouei, A., K. Hestad, E. Avershina, M. Sekelja, A. Linløkken, R. Wilson, and K. Rudi. “Correlation between the Human Fecal Microbiota and Depression.” Neurogastroenterology & Motility 26, no. 8 (August 2014): 1155–62. https://doi.org/10.1111/nmo.12378. Books: The Mind-Gut Connection: How the Hidden Conversation Within Our Bodies Impacts Our Mood, Our Choices, and Our Overall Health by Emeran Mayer The Psychobiotic Revolution: Mood, Food, and the New Science of the Gut-Brain Connection by Gary B. Huffnagle and Sarah Wernick
By- Armahn Rassuli