You know that half an hour before you leave your apartment for a date? Deciding to do things that don’t really matter like watering your plants, talking to your cat or adding yet another coat of mascara? Or is it just me? Am I the only one that gets a little nervous when about to sit to a meal with a potential future holder of my heart? Those things are all variant behaviors stemming from stress and the happenings in your stomach, well we call those butterflies. They flutter in before dates, speeches, job interviews, jumping out of airplanes and so on and they happen because there is a brain in our belly.
Yes you heard me right - most people are only aware of the cluster of nerve cells and neurons in our heads, but there are just the same, a grouping of neurons that run throughout the digestive tract. Most importantly to note here, just like the ones atop that make up our mind, these nerve cells below in our belly are susceptible to neurotransmitters - the chemicals that affect our functions, feelings and behavior; “The gut, essentially, has a mind of its own and is in constant dialogue with the central nervous system”(Body Ecology) .
So what the heck is a butterfly in your stomach? Columbia University’s Dr. Michael Gershon for the New York Times explains, “researchers are beginning to understand why people act and feel the way they do. When the central brain encounters a frightening situation, it releases stress hormones that prepare the body to fight or flee. The stomach contains many sensory nerves that are stimulated by this chemical surge” of hormones as well (New York Times). In other words, when your mind is stressed your gut will be too because they are connected and are made of the same thing.
As a result for good health and happiness it is imperative to, “establish a healthy inner ecosystem with beneficial microflora”(Body Ecology).
Your Gut: The Second Brain You Didn’t Even Know You Had
The gut does more for us than just digest. It is often referred to as our second brain; There is, “an often-overlooked network of neurons lining our guts that is so extensive some scientists have nicknamed it our ‘second brain’” (Scientific American). Our gastrointestinal tract - the long tube from mouth to exit that includes the esophagus, stomach, intestines, colon and so on - is made largely of nerve tissue - in fact, “the gut contains 100 million neurons -- more than the spinal cord has” (New York Times).
The brain and gut share a lot of the same tissue and as a result, “the little brain in our innards, in connection with the big one in our skulls, partly determines our mental state” (Scientific American). The link between brain and belly is why for example to treat irritable bowel syndrome, doctors sometimes prescribe depression medication; “Because both the brain and the gut share much of the same tissue, there is an uncanny relationship between the nervous system and the digestive system. This is why, for example, SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are sometimes prescribed for bouts of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)” (Body Ecology).
A Good Gut, Equals A Good Mood
Although your brain and belly share some of the same tissue, there is no thought or decision making being done in your gut; Your belly is not going to solve a calculus problem, it is just a system of neurons that like those in the brain are influenced by neurotransmitters. In fact, you know serotonin, that neurotransmitter responsible for our happiness amongst many other things, “although [it] is well known as a brain neurotransmitter, it is estimated that 90 percent of the body's serotonin is made in the digestive tract” (Cal Tech). In effect, “nearly every substance that helps run and control the brain has turned up in the gut. Major neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, norepinephrine and nitric oxide are there” (New York Times).
The gut and brain are made of some of the same components and they are also linked by the vagus nerve; “the two nervous systems [are] connected via a cable called the vagus nerve” - “fibers in the [the vagus nerve], carry information from the gut to the brain” (New York Times and Scientific American). Consequently, “because your gut and brain are inextricably linked, a disruption in either one has the capacity to seriously affect the other” - “a big part of our emotions are probably influenced by the nerves in our gut”, says professor Emeran Mayer of UCLA (Mind Body Green and Scientific American). He continues, “gastrointestinal (GI) turmoil can sour one's moods, everyday emotional well-being may rely on messages from the brain below to the brain above” (Scientific American).
Better Your Gut Health: Time to Pay Attention to the Bacteria in Our Bellies
In all, “the body has two brains -- the familiar one encased in the skull and a lesser known but vitally important one found in the human gut. Like Siamese twins, the two brains are interconnected; when one gets upset, the other does, too. The brain in the gut plays a major role in human happiness and misery. But few people know it exists, said Dr. Michael Gershon, a professor of anatomy and cell biology at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York” (New York Times).
Many factors determine our gut’s health including the trillions of bacteria in our bellies. These bacteria release neurotransmitters themselves and because our GI tract is a nervous system so closely linked with our brains, both literally and in character, it is important to keep the guests in our gut well and good; “Micro-organisms in our gut secrete a profound number of chemicals, and [researchers] have found that among those chemicals are the same substances used by our neurons to communicate and regulate mood, like dopamine [and] serotonin” (New York Times); A gut that, “isn’t fortified by billions of probiotics, [or helpful microorganisms], can get out of balance and overrun with yeast and bad bacteria, which produce chemicals and by-products that are directly toxic to the brain”, leading to ailments including brain fog, issues with memory, depression, anxiety and so on" (Mind Body Green). In all a, “thriving microbiome teeming with beneficial bacteria is one of the most important keys to a balanced and fulfilled life” (Mind Body Green).
Tips and Tricks For How to Cultivate a Good Gut and Happy Microbiome
Want to increase your potential for happiness, “just recently scientists have discovered that certain bacteria have the special ability to generate that ‘feel good’ mood. Bacteria not only interact with neurotransmitters, there is direct communication between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract [and these] gut beneficial bacteria send mind-boosting chemicals and messages to the brain" (Body Ecology). Below are tips and tricks to encourage beneficial bacteria in your belly:
1) Eat Fermented Foods
Fermented foods help to create an environment within the gut that allows beneficial bacteria to thrive (Dr. David Williams).
Examples of fermented foods to chow on: kefir, kimchee, miso, sauerkraut, pickles, and kombucha, lassi, beer, tempeh, and apple cider vinegar with the mother.
2) Eat More Fiber
In week 7, I wrote about the benefits of fiber. We all should be getting about 25g a day of fiber, but most Americans average below 10g. The little guys living in our stomach love to feed on fiber, in fact a recent, “study shows that when microbes are starved of fiber, they can start to feed on the protective mucus lining of the gut, possibly triggering inflammation and disease” (Scientific American).
Tips for upping your fiber intake? Certain vegetables like artichokes and broccoli are high fiber. Check out my week 7 post and stop by the Well, There’s This High Fiber, Low Carb shop. I also have a recipe section for meal ideas.
3) Take a Probiotic
“Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are good for your health, especially your digestive system. We usually think of these as germs that cause diseases. But your body is full of bacteria, both good and bad. Probiotics are often called "good" or "helpful" bacteria because they help keep your gut healthy” (WebMD). Consult your doctor before taking any supplements but especially if you are deficient and suffering from an intestinal disorder, taking a probiotic supplement may help add beneficial bacteria to your microbiome. I offer a probiotic supplement in the Well There’s This wellness shop or just click this link.
4) Eat Prebiotic Foods
Feed your little fellows! “Prebiotics act as food for probiotics. In other words probiotics [the beneficial microorganisms found in our GI Tract] eat prebiotics” (Prebiotin) Examples of foods with prebiotics include: garlic, onion, asparagus, banana, and seaweed.
5) Cut Sugar
In week 7, I discussed the benefits of cutting sugar and carbohydrates. Here is more reason to cut the sweet stuff: Sugar, "promotes the growth of bad bacteria in the gut, hampering the growth of the beneficial kind. Diets high in sugar, refined carbohydrates and processed foods basically provide an all-you-can-eat buffet for the bad bacteria to thrive”(I Quit Sugar).
6) Cut Artificial Sweeteners Too
It is best to train your palette away from craving sweets in general because artificial sweeteners as a substitute may not be doing you so well; “Artificial sweeteners are widely used as replacements for sugar. However, some studies have shown that they can negatively affect the gut microbiota” (Healthline).
7) Eat Less Animal Products, Especially Red Meat
Eating dairy and meat quickly alters gut bacteria, and not for the best: “Switching to a diet packed with meat and cheese, alters the trillions of microbes living in the gut, scientists report in the journal Nature.
The change happens quickly. Within two days, the types of microbes thriving in the gut shuffle around. And there are signs that some of these shifts might not be so good for your gut: One type of bacterium that flourishes under the meat-rich diet has been linked to inflammation and intestinal diseases in mice” (NPR).
8) Open a Window
“A 2012 study highlights the importance of opening windows and increasing natural airflow. The researchers found that this can improve the diversity and health of the microbes in the home, which in turn benefits our bodily microbes” (Natural Living Ideas).
I touched on the benefits of working out in week 6, but “exercise has an important influence on gut flora. It not only increases species diversity and reverses gut microbiota changes associated with obesity, but it also works to reduce stress and the impact that it has on the bugs in your digestive system” (Natural Living Ideas)
“Getting your hands dirty in fresh soil will introduce your immune system to the trillions of microorganisms on the plants and in the ground. Gardening also eases stress and gets you outside in the fresh air – two important factors in a healthy gut” (Natural Living Ideas).
Bonus Tip 11) Intermittent Fast
In week 2, I wrote about the benefits of intermittent fasting, but this process of on and off eating may help the little guys in your belly: “Researchers are discovering that when you eat can have just as much of an impact on your gut bacteria as what you eat, and that carving out a chunk of nonfeeding time for yourself every day can both increase the diversity of your gut bacteria (this is a good thing!) and stop inflammation—a major contributor to most diseases—in its tracks.
How does it work? Well, daily fasting allows your hardworking gut microbes, and your entire digestive system, to take a break and fully clean out. This time off also gives your friendly flora a chance to reset and focus on tasks other than digestion—like boosting their population” (Mind Body Green)