Gut Feeling: What Your Gut May Be Telling You About Your Health
Butterflies in the stomach. Feeling nauseous and that your “stomach is dropping into your gut”. Most people can relate to one or both of these experiences. What you may not of asked yourself is “Why is this happening?” The gut has recently been called “The 2nd brain” of the body because of the amount of neural connections and neurotransmitters that reside there. The gut is home to the microbiome, which is a civilization of bacteria that help with the functioning of digestion and fighting off infections. There are 100 times more microbes (bacteria) then there are human genes in the body. Western medicine has begun focusing on the importance of the human microbiome and how it impacts someone’s overall health. As a holistic counselor, my focus with the gut is how it impacts one’s mood and can it lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns.
The microbiome is an incredible place. Each person has their own unique makeup of bacteria and antibodies. Humans have the same types of bacteria but the amount of those different types of bacteria vary from each person. When the microbiome is unbalanced with one type of bacteria (also called dysbiosis) it can lead to infection, illness, and mood changes. Dysbiosis is caused by food, environment, and medicine. If a person dines on fast food for most meals, their gut microbiome will look different than someone who eats a variety of whole foods. Research has also shown that certain types of environments can impact the variety of bacteria in the gut. If someone lives in an environment that is heavily polluted and ingesting pollutants at home, those can lead to certain types of bacteria being unable to thrive in the body. Medications can also cause dysbiosis in the body. Antibiotics kill off both good and bad bacteria in order to heal an infection. This is why some doctors may suggest a probiotic to take while on antibiotics in order to protect the gut microbiome. According to healthline.com, it can take the gut microbiome one year to rebuild after taking one week of antibiotics. Dysbiosis can also lead to feelings of sadness, anxiety, and worry.
Serotonin, the neurochemical responsible for feelings of happiness and contentment, also resides in the gut. In actuality, 95% of the serotonin in the body resides in the gut. The purpose of serotonin in the gut is to help with the movement of food through the digestive tract. When someone is experiencing sadness, anxiety, panic, or worry, they may also experience digestive issues. Other neurotransmitters reside in the gut, including dopamine. While the research in the West is in its infancy in regards to the impact of food and mood, there is documentation that this theory has been around for some time. In the 19th century, French pathologist Charles Bouchard studied the impact of food on the colon. He found that certain foods in the colon were causing toxins that were “making people sick and crazy”. This theory led to the removal of an individual’s colon (Anderson, Cryan & Dinan, p. 142). Dr. Bouchard was not far off with his theory. Since 95% of the body’s serotonin resides in the gut, the function of the neurotransmitter can be impacted by what one ingests. As a society, Americans have come to rely on eating on the go. Eating on the go has helped us keep up with a fast-paced lifestyle but has not done us any favors in our mood and physical health. So how can we change this?
Diet and lifestyle changes such as Paleo, Keto, and Whole30 have risen in popularity because people want to go back to eating whole foods. We are becoming aware of how much processed foods and sugar are leading to illnesses we are trying to avoid. Eating processed foods and sugar can also lead to mood changes and instability. Sugar is 8x more addictive than heroin. That is quite alarming given that almost everything has sugar in it. We are trying to do better and live better and that begins with the food we eat. Individuals are also looking at their households and how things in their own environment can impact their overall health. Houseplants are becoming more popular because of their natural detoxifying properties. Some people have also opted for more natural cleaning products to use in their homes. These changes and more can help an individual feel better from the inside out.
So what can you do today to help yourself feel better from the inside out? Below are some things you can try starting today!
Mindfulness/Meditation: Our society’s fast paced lifestyle can keep our bodies on constant alert and pumping chemicals that negatively impact our sleep, digestion, and body’s ability to fight off infection. Mindfulness and meditation are great tools to have and use on a daily basis. Mindfulness doesn’t have to be sitting on a meditation cushion and meditating for 30 minutes. I would encourage you to become mindful during your morning routine. For instance, when you are brushing your teeth, say to yourself “I am brushing my teeth. I notice the bristles feel soft on my gums. I notice how my tongue and teeth feel after I brush.” Doing that each morning can set you up for being present and aware.
Acknowledge your feelings: It is tough to be present with difficult emotions, especially during a busy day. You have a lot of things on your plate and the last thing you want to do is sit with difficult emotions. However, some of these difficult emotions lead us to engaging in behaviors that we are trying to avoid (i.e. eating the doughnuts in the breakroom). When you notice that you are feeling angry, frustrated, annoyed, or confused, sit down and put your hands over your heart. Breathe and name the feeling that you are feeling. Sit with yourself and allow yourself to calm down. This may take 2 minutes or 10 minutes. Take as much time as you need.
Practice breathing: Most Americans breathe incorrectly. This is because of our fast-paced lifestyles. Most people chest breathe rather than belly breathing. Chest breathing is a type of breathing our body does when we are feeling threatened or in crisis. This usually involves breathing in and out of the mouth. When someone breathes like this, they’re not getting enough oxygen to other parts of the body. Belly breathing is the way to get air to all parts of the body. Begin by sitting in a comfortable position. Place your hands on your belly. Take air in through the nose and try to bring the air down to the belly. It make take a few tries before you can bring air down there. When you bring air down to the belly, your belly will expand. As you release the air, the belly will contract. Practice bringing air in through the nose and releasing it through the mouth. Allow yourself to make noise when you are releasing the air through the mouth. The more noise, the more cathartic it feels.
Try houseplants: Research houseplants that are good for purifying the air. There are many to choose from. If you have pets, make sure the plants are safe to be around pets.
Try whole foods and cut out sugar: Cutting out sugar is one of the most difficult but rewarding thing you can do. Sugar significantly impacts our mood and health in a negative way. Try incorporating whole foods (foods that don’t come packaged) into your daily routine.
Talk to your medical professional about probiotics: Talk to your doctor about probiotics. Ask him/her about what they would recommend and how much to take. Also ask your doctor about probiotics if you are being prescribed an antibiotic to fight off an infection.
Our brains and bodies are not disconnected. What we think, eat, feel, and live in impacts our overall well-being. By trying one of the suggested activities, you are choosing to be in control of your health and wellness. You are opting for a more preventative way of life, rather than fighting things as they come. You are in control of your health and happiness.