November 23, 2020, Information

The mind-gut connection: microbes and emotions

We know there is a connection between our mind and our gut because we feel it. That sinking feeling when we hear bad news, the ‘butterflies’ when we’re excited, the loss of appetite when we’re stressed. These are some of the ways our mind and body communicate. It’s not always immediate or obvious that our mental states are having an effect on our body, but it’s now known that gut bacteria change in response to different emotions. In the last decade revolutionary research has discovered the complex interactions between the brain, gut and emotions, and how the microbiome in our intestines affect our mental health, mood and thoughts.

In Emeran Mayer’s book The Mind-Gut Connection he refers to the digestive system as a supercomputer – complex and powerful, influencing our emotions, sensitivity and even our decision making. The enteric nervous system(ENS) within the gut is often called the ‘second brain’ because it is made up of millions of nerve cells. Thick bands of nerves communicate information back and forth, signalling a variety of triggers, responses and feelings. This bidirectional(two-way) pathway, known as the brain-gut axis processes information that produces ‘gut reactions’. These gut reactions ultimately affect every aspect of lives, from the food we eat to the people we spend time with, basically every decision we make.

In 2007 the Human Microbiome Project made some major discoveries about the influence of the human microbiome on health and disease. The diversity of our microflora has a profound impact on our health – helping to digest food, modulate the immune system, regulate metabolism and detoxify harmful substances. Conversely, diminished microbial diversity is associated with a variety of digestive problems, allergies, immune disfunction and even neurodegenerative brain disorders.

The relationship between digestive function and mood disorders is delicate. Some microorganisms in the gut have been shown to have an effect on depression and anxiety, with about 95% of the body’s neurotransmitter, serotonin, being produced by specialised cells in the intestinal wall. Mayer says, “your gut microbes are in a prime position to influence your emotions, by generating and modulating signals the gut sends back to the brain”. There is now a large body of research showing that some of the most serious brain and emotional disorders are related to changes in the gut microbiome, and the way these microbes communication with the brain. Diet and lifestyle play a huge role in the types of bacteria that inhabit our gut and consequently our physical and mental wellbeing.

Stay tuned for part 2 – What we can do to optimise our gut microbiome

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