Feeling Anxious or Depressed? It May Be In Your Gut (Not Your Head)

gut-brain health

By Verena Vomastic, PhD 

While medications are available to treat symptoms of anxiety and depression with varying degrees of success, recent research efforts have begun to explore the gut-brain connection as an alternative path to influencing the health of our minds. It is becoming increasingly evident that there is a strong link between the gut microbiome and mental health.

Mind and Brain

Anxiety and depression are among the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in the United States, affecting the lives of millions of people every year and creating significant burdens on our healthcare system. Anxiety disorders typically involve worries about the future and fears triggered by current events. Depression is categorized as a mood disorder and typically linked to combinations of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. Anxiety and depression, while not the same, are often experienced together.

Research has shown that mental disorders are brain disorders that can be related to changes in the anatomy, physiology, and chemistry of the nervous system. For example, reduced activity in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex or damage to this area of the brain have been linked to disorders such as ADHD, schizophrenia, and depression. Damage to the Hippocampus, which plays an important role in regulating the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, a major mood circuit, can be a contributing factor in mood disorders.

The Gut

The gastro-intestinal (GI) tract (or gut) stretches from the mouth to the anus. It includes the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine (colon and rectum). Associated with the small intestine are three accessory organs: liver, gall bladder, and pancreas.

The gut has its own brain—the Enteric Nervous System (ENS), a subdivision of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ENS is embedded in the lining of the gut and is responsible for monitoring and controlling the digestive system.

The human body harbors many trillions of symbiotic microbial cells (the human microbiota), consisting primarily of bacteria in the GI tract. The microbiota is involved in maintaining homeostasis. The genes harbored by the microbiota make up the human microbiome.

The Gut-Brain Connection

The gut has a bi-directional connection to the brain via the Vagus nerve, the wandering, tenth Cranial Nerve, which provides constant communications through neurotransmitters between the ENS and the Central Nervous System (CNS). This construct, known as the Gut-Brain Axis, is vital for maintaining homeostasis. A stable gut microbiota contributes to appropriate signaling along the gut-brain axis.

The largest number of immune cells in the body resides in the GI tract. When the immune system detects inflammation in the GI tract, it alerts the brain, and the brain responds by releasing stress hormones. As a result, neurotransmitter levels are altered, which can lead to a variety of brain-related symptoms, to include anxiety and depression.

When we experience stress, we may get butterflies in the stomach as the brain alerts the ENS. Moreover, scientific studies in humans have linked the experience of negative emotions, such as fear, anger, and sadness, to the development of acute GI-tract infections.

Leveraging the Gut-Brain Connection

The Human Genome Project (HGP), which was completed in 2003, made the surprising discovery that the human genome contains only 20,000 to 25,000 protein-coding genes—about 20 percent of the number expected. As a conceptual extension of the HGP, the National Institutes of Health launched the Human Microbiome Project (HMP) in 2007. The HMP is aimed at characterizing microbial communities found at multiple sites in the human body and at exploring how changes in the microbiome affect our health.

A growing body of evidence shows that beneficial gut bacteria support positive mood and emotional well-being. One study showed that altering the gut microbiome with probiotics can decrease feelings of anxiety and positively affect emotional processing. Another study provided evidence that prebiotics used to nourish beneficial gut bacteria were helpful in reducing stress levels and anxiety.

The Gut Environment

A number of factors, including chronic stress, poor nutrition (low fiber, high sugar, processed food), medications (antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, steroids, acid blockers), and environmental toxins (heavy metals, EMF), can negatively impact the gut environment and communications along the gut-brain axis. Resulting symptoms may include abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic yeast infections, heart burn, fatigue, skin issues, as well as mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.

In The Biology of Belief, Dr. Bruce Lipton provided scientific evidence that our genes do not determine our destiny and that the environment critically influences gene expression. Perhaps we can extend this concept to the human microbiome and recognize the importance of maintaining a healthy gut environment as a requirement for good mental health.

Supporting Gut Health

Holistic approaches to achieving and maintaining a healthy gut environment may include stress-reduction techniques, such as meditation, yoga/yoga therapy, tai chi, chi gong, sound healing, and specific energy-balancing exercises; chiropractic care; nutrition coaching; cleansing/detox programs; toning of the Vagus nerve; and a range of targeted NES protocols that can be tailored to complement and enhance standard scan-based protocols.

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