You know those times when the world seems to get together and try to tell you something?
It started with an email from my dad: ‘Holy Sh**?’, attached to it was a link to a medical article exploring the idea of microbes in your gut affecting your mood; ‘Interesting?‘. Next thing I know, my podcast selects at random an episode from way way back in 2012, and begins chirping on about guts, and how their health can directly affect your mood. Interesting… The very same day, I swing open a locker door at the gym, and an advert screams back at me- ‘TWICE THE GUTS. DOUBLE THE GLORY‘- accompanied by a pair of legs that I assume belong to Mo Farah, running to victory somewhere. Ok world, yes. I get it. That’s three coincidences to you this morning. Very clever. So… I thought I’d better eventually look into it, just out of curiosity…
Turns out, our guts are pretty awesome. It’s like your body has this tube running right through it, and we’re all hollow on the inside. It’s basically the job of the gut to sieve through everything that we eat in order to get all the good stuff into our bodies, and keep anything that isn’t so good for us out. So everything that is inside our gut is actually outside of us.
Anyway. Until the mid-19th century, the guts were an area of total mystery. People back then believed that the gut was really the source of our emotions and deepest darkest feelings. And I don’t blame them- I certainly feel as if my deepest emotions come from within my stomach region, or perhaps my chest, rather than from any where near my brain or my head. And sure, maybe that’s more to do with the placement of my adrenal glands, but all these studies I’ve been reading begin to make me think that there’s actually more behind it than just that…
More and more scientific and medical studies recently (such as the one my father sent me) are exploring the idea of your mood actually coming from, and being affected by, your guts…
Guts are a natural ecosystem of bacteria. There’s apparently 100 trillion bacteria inside me right now. That’s ten times more than the number of cells in the rest of my entire body. I’m more bacteria than me. The vast majority of these bacteria perform an array of very useful tasks that help me to stay healthy. On the other hand, a few of these little critters are really nasty. Imbalances in the population therefore, can make me seriously ill. When I was born, I was totally sterile. That means that over the last 22 years of my life, I’ve collected every single one of my own bacteria buddies along the way. My ecosystem is going to be pretty much unique to me. As in any ecosystem, it’s important to have diversity too. So all the more swimming in rivers, eating mud, licking windows, and kissing strangers for me (I don’t kiss strangers. Or lick windows. I might have eaten mud).
So, there’s all these studies on the mood-gut link. To summarise and simplify how these experiments work, basically, you get some mice and put them in a stressful situation (a bit of water does the trick) to see how they react. Feed the first lot of the mice lots of happy gut microbes in their diet. These mice will start swimming and they just don’t give up. They will keep on swimming and swimming. Determined. Compare this to the reaction of a second group of non-happy-microbe-gut-filled mice. These begin in much the same way, trying to paddle their way out. But soon they begin to give up. They stop swimming, curl up into a ball, and, basically, go into a little mousey despair.
So why does all this happen?
Well, when you are put into a stressful situation your brain reacts by putting you into a panic, or flight and fight mode: lots of adrenalin, heart rate and blood pressure shoot up, muscles tense, digestion shuts down, etc. All of this is very helpful to you when you’re in a threatening situation to help you escape. Very helpful, that is, until you can’t escape. In that case, your brain continues to stimulate panic more and more until, finally, you are overwhelmed and, much like the second lot of mice perhaps, you curl up into a ball and despair. Not very useful.
Enter your gut.
Let me explain… There is a nerve that runs pretty much directly from the brainstem to the gut and vice versa (via the tongue, heart, lungs etc.), called the vagus nerve. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, lots of lovely anti-stress hormones are released in the brain: acetylcholine, prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin, to name a few. These hormones change some of the way in which the brain functions. They appear to quiet the mind, preventing it all from becoming too overwhelming for our little mice friends. And with what can we stimulate the vagus nerve? Well, with our guts. It really is, a gut feeling. Happy-microbe-filled-guts = less stressed and happy(er) mice. Basically.
The more my own little ecosystem in my gut thrives, the more the bacteria down there should keep on doing a good job at stimulating my vagus nerve, and, in turn, the more calm and in control I should feel. Science!
Now, this all very interesting, sure, and, wow! the wonders of biology, and all that, but really… all I care about right now is how to get this happy-microbe gut thing going for me, because I’m in recovery after all. My vagus nerve (or perhaps my gut stimulants) don’t appear to be doing the most grand of jobs right now.
So here’s a few things I’ve found to give your guts some loving…
- Consider avoiding using antibiotics unless really really necessary, as they can damage the microorganisms in your gut.
- Avoid any sort of detox flush-out-the-system diets (plus you already know that these quick-fix diets never work in the long term, so quit while you’re ahead)
- Avoid eating overly processed foods.
- Avoid drugs- and yes, I’m afraid that means alcohol. And caffeine.
Yeah, it’s hard. That might seem like a lot to give up already to some people. It’s all about gradual change. And who said anything worth it should be easy?
So, let’s see what you actually can do…
- Eat plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, mostly found in oily fish
- Have lots of vitamins and pH balancing foods like all sorts of leafy vegetables in various brilliant colours (your stomach is acidic, so you’re looking for alkalines)
- Incorporate spices like ginger, turmeric, mint, and cinnamon, into recipes (teas are great too!)
- Replace white carbohydrates with whole grain to get all that wonderful fibery goodness
- Incorporate plenty of probiotics into your diet: yoghurt (look for ‘live and active cultures’ on the label), basically anything pickled, chutneys, salsa, ketchup, soy sauce- the list goes on.
If you really want to do something drastic for your gut, you might even consider shifting to a Paleolithic diet, which is basically limiting yourself to only what our human ancestors would have eaten. That means no to refined sugars, no to a lot of dairy products, no to any sort of processed grains etc. There’s a lot of ‘no’s. Maybe I’ll try it out some time when I’m feeling particularly disciplined and post up some recipe ideas for you all.
But… there’s still a little more to this story…
There is, alas, a flipside to all this vagus nerve business. The line is open at both ends, and too much stress in the brain can affect the other way too. Gut problems such as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), indigestion, and heartburn, are often linked directly with stress. For example, many people find that when they travel to somewhere new, for the first few days at least, they suffer with constipation. That’s the stress talking, in your guts, whether you’re conscious of it or not. So, vagus nerve, friend or foe? You tell me.
If you want to find out more about the mood-mind-gut link, click here to listen to the podcast that inspired this post. Look out for a future post exploring other ways to stimulate your vagus nerve (the right way up!) too.
I do hope you’re all well. And, as always, feel free to comment below.