Note: this edition of “Gut Health 101” is part 7 of an 8-part series on the microbiome.
For many of us when we hear the term “gut health” we simply think about digestion. Thankfully, gut health is much more than just breaking down the food and drink that you consume. This next section of my Gut Health 101 series on the microbiome will dive into a newer discovery of the microbiome: how the gut bacteria interact with and even influence the nervous system.
So far we’ve covered a general overview of the microbiome, the relationship between your diet, digestion, and your microbiome, what vitamins and hormones are made by your gut bacteria, how your gut bacteria protect you from infections, a short introduction to short chain fatty acids, how your microbiome helps trains and influences your immune system, and how your gut microbiome helps detox your body. We are now at the conclusion to this introduction to gut health. Let’s learn how your gut health modulates, or influences, the nervous system.
It was once believed that the gut was responsible for only one thing: digestion. Thanks to the emerging microbiome field, we are discovering new things every day. Areas within the body we once thought were sterile have bacteria living peacefully within. The idea of cleanliness is enough to keep us from disease (germ theory) has been replaced with the knowledge that having a diverse microbiome actually keeps us healthier than living in a sterile environment (terrain theory). We also believed that mental issues stem from chemical imbalances within the brain, but now we’re discovering that gut health has a direct influence on mental health.
The gut and the brain are connected by several body systems: the nervous system, endocrine system, and immune system. As we know, any disruption in one system can have an effect on another. We are not just a series of individual organ systems working independently of one another housed within our body. We are a body that is composed of individual organ systems that work in concert with one another. Keep that in mind as we dig a little deeper into the gut-brain connection.
Even before we could properly quantify this connection, scientists have known that the gut influences mental health for more than 100 years. They would frequently prescribe enemas and other colonics to “clear the system of toxins.” Now that technology has caught up to some degree with our intuitive knowledge, we can start confirming our observations.
The main route of communication between the gut and the brain is the vegas nerve. This nerve is a direct connection between the gut and the brain. Pair this with the gut-immune system connection plus the immune system-brain connection, you now have an even deeper connection between these two seemingly unrelated organs.
How exactly does this work?
Like all other interactions within the body: cell signaling. Cells talk to one another using a sophisticated system of proteins and hormones. These compounds tell the neighboring cells what is going on, which then pass that message along to the end destination. Each hormone and protein serving a specific purpose.
When you think about some of my earlier posts in this series (if you need a brush up START HERE), if we have a less diverse ecosystem, there will be less diversity in cell signaling. Less diversity, as we know in rainforest science, leads to an unhealthy ecosystem. Keeping up with the theme from earlier, supporting a diverse microbiome gives your body the full range of cell signaling in order to keep all areas of the body healthy and functioning at an optimal level. This is done through eating a whole-food, plant-based diet (with the flexibility of protein sources, which is dependent on the individual), consistent and appropriate movement for your lifestyle, and stress management.
What’s the common theme among all of this?
Diversity is key to health.
While changing your diet, exercise, and stress management techniques may not completely eliminate mental health challenges, it does have the potential to reduce symptoms and make management easier.
Now that we’re at the end of our Gut Health 101 series, do you have any lingering questions? Comment below or send me a message. Tell me your thoughts on this series.