What Is Your Microbiome and Why Does It Matter?
In the last five years, researchers have learned more and more about the the organisms in our own intestinal tract, our microbiome. Let’s talk about the connection between those organisms and their affect on our physical and mental health, for better or for worse.
The types of specific organisms that flourish there have a strong influence on the function of the brain and nerve pathways — and, therefore, on your mood and peace of mind.
What does Depression have to do with your belly?
Anyone who suffers from depression may know there’s an inherited tendency for that to occur. If either of your parents also struggled with depression, the chances are stronger that you might, too. But beyond your own personal DNA, there’s another huge area of DNA that may influence the moods you experience far more.
Deep within your intestines is a community of microscopic bacteria which are both helpful and harmful. This community of trillions of mutually beneficial microbial cells make up the bacteria of your gut. We call it your personal microbiota. Each of these cells contains genes, and the combination of the genes in all of them is your own personal microbiome.
If the genes in your microbiome influence low stress and a positive outlook, the effect on your mood is likely to be positive. But if the genes in your microbe-flourishing gut are favorable to high stress and melancholy, the impact on your outlook is likely to push you into a rut of stressed living.
For the most part, this microbiome is friendly and beneficial to your digestion. It makes use of far more nutrients from your food than would be possible without it. However, in recent times, scientists discovered that this same community of bacterial organisms are to blame for inflammatory and autoimmune diseases like atherosclerosis, asthma, and autism.
You can change your life
Learning to understand the microbiome and even influence its effect is potentially a superbly rewarding endeavor.
So we have to ask: if this teeming ecosystem of bacteria in our intestines can accomplish good productive health-promoting feats, or trigger destructive diseases that can cripple us for life, is there a way to affect this microbiome so it does good and not evil?
To better understand the answers to this and other questions, we need to understand how the natural flora in the gut exchanges information and products with the brain.
The vagus nerve can bring the strongest guy to the ground
And it turns out there’s a nerve that connects the two, called the vagus nerve.
Have you ever seen someone faint at the sight of blood? This fainting reaction happens when the vagus nerve tells that person’s brain to suddenly dilate blood vessels in the body, which results in fainting… and they go out like a light.
It’s the reason that you might see a picture of something gory, and feel a sick feeling in your stomach right before your brain declares “lights out” and you fall to the floor. It’s the vagus nerve that sends those signals.
So with that in mind, what does the vagus nerve communicate to the brain, and what determines that choice?
Think of it this way:
When friendly, health-promoting bacteria ( probiotics) dominate the environment in your gut, those bacteria tell the brain that the environment is favorable for an upbeat mood. Then the sullen melancholy feelings mysteriously melt away. Nutrients and protein are sent to the brain to nourish that upbeat mood, and your glum outlook subsides.
But the opposite is true if the dominating bacteria promote depression, stress, and anxiety.
The gut is the largest organ in the immune system? Really??
The gastrointestinal system is the largest organ in the immune system. This flourishing ecosystem of bacteria can have a positive or negative effect on other aspects of your well-being. So it’s important to your daily welfare to understand how this happens. Then you can take action to promote the best possible environment in your gut for your best well-being and mental function.
Certain bacterial families weaken your immune system, decrease your confidence and emotional stamina, and promote a chronic long-term condition of high stress.
Others reduce stress and promote wellbeing and resilience.
Studies have shown that the more extreme stress is in your life, the community of symbiotic organisms in your gut will create a favorable environment for chronic stress, and unfavorable for mental relaxation.
Stress or Relaxation
Just as “birds of a feather flock together” so it is with these organisms. If you allow stress to go unchecked, the bacterial environment in your gut will shift. And it will come to match that ecosystem of stress and illness. Over time, you’ll find you feel locked-in and stuck in that stressful lifestyle and the outlook that goes with it.
But, it’s also possible to actually change the environment in your gut. It can be made to support low stress, an upbeat outlook, and energy to enjoy life. And you can do it through the foods you eat, the things you do for pleasure, the amount of sleep you get, and more.
For instance, studies have discovered that when lab animals were given probiotics, their high anxiety behaviors were calmed and their immune response was normalized, as well as their apparent relaxation.
If probiotics do that much for lab animals, how much more will they do for you?
Certain bacteria in specific families are considered “psycho-biotic” organisms because, like the probiotics just mentioned, they have an antidepressant effect on the brain.
Further, through systems involving these gut microbes, nutrients are processed and passed through the blood-brain barrier. That improves the relaxation of processes that take place in the neurons. (The nerves that carry information signals to and from the brain.)
The point here is that these probiotic systems are even equipped with a transport to make sure the right nutrients reach the brain and produce the hoped-for results.
This is all great news for those of us who feel we drew the short straw concerning mood disorders in our family tree. It turns out that by investing in the mountain of genetics in our gut microbiome, we have the power to turn our genetic destiny on its proverbial ear.
Watch for my blog next week. Learn more about good microbiota to nurture. See a list of actions you can take, foods you can eat, and factors you can include in your daily life. All of this will ensure your probiotic heroes are flourishing in your gut promoting your best, most productive, and well-adjusted self.
To the flourishing of your best self,
Lori Calabrese, MD
If you’ve suffered from depression, anxiety, or other mental health obstacles and have not had relief, Dr. Lori Calabrese, MD offers innovative psychiatric solutions. Contact us here for an in-depth evaluation. We’ll learn which solutions could work for you best and transform your life as you know it. We’re here to help you find your very best self.