Did you know that you have approximately 100 trillion microorganisms and 500 bacterial species living in your gut?  We have 10 times more bacteria cells than human cells in our body.  Gut bacteria affect our nervous, hormonal, and immune systems playing a major role in countless bodily functions including digestion, manufacturing of hormones and production of vitamins.  The balance and makeup of these bacteria have an effect on how we feel mentally and physically.

Unfortunately our modern lifestyle has an adverse affect on our gut bacteria.  Bad diet, stress, and medications can reduce the good bacteria (probiotics) and increase the amount of bad bacteria in our digestive tract.  There are a lot of people walking around with an imbalance and dysregulation of gut bacteria.  It is imperative to restore this balance in order to improve gut health along with systemic health involving the brain.

Current research shows a correlation between our digestive tract and the brain.  The balance of gut bacteria can have a profound influence on our behavior, thoughts, and mood.  Evidence shows that healthy gut bacteria produces and regulates the amount of neurotransmitters in the brain such as Serotonin, Dopamine and GABA which affect mood, pain and cognition.  An imbalance of these can lead to behaviors such as anxiety, and depression.  Studies have shown that this can alter brain chemistry.  By eliminating the good bacteria in mice, they act in ways that mimic human anxiety, depression and autism.  In another study it was found that 2 strains of bacteria were found more affective than antidepressant medication for treatment.  This is the tip of the iceberg with the number of scientists and practitioners around the world researching and speaking about the gut-brain connection.

So how do we heal our gut and improve mental health?

1. Consume probiotics in food and supplemental form.  Adding a diverse amount of friendly bacteria can significantly reduce your susceptibility to the negative affects of stress.  Certain species of probiotics help your body produce GABA, which produces calming affects in the brain.  Others have been found to reduce stress hormones such as cortisol and increase tryptophan, serotonin, and omega 3 fatty acids in the brain leading to proper mood change and cognition.  You do not necessarily have to supplement with probiotics.  By eating fermented probiotic rich foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, natto, pickled cucumbers, kefir and yogurt, you can enrich the gut.

2. Feed the good bacteria with probiotics and resistant starch. Existing probiotics in the gut need to be nourished and supported by eating and supplementing with prebiotics. These are substances that we cannot digest, passing through the digestive tract promoting growth of many different strains of good bacteria.  Prebiotic rich foods include sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, asparagus, and squash.  Overall you should be eating a wide variety of whole foods, including prebiotics and resistant starch to support your gut health.  Eating the standard American diet of sugar, Trans fats, and high calories will dramatically have a negative affect of your gut bacteria while eating lots of whole foods will increase the diversity of good bacteria.

3. Lastly avoid antibiotics unless it’s absolutely necessary. Broad spectrum antibiotics do not differentiate between good and bad bacteria destroying both. Antibiotics can save lives, but they can also destroy your health if they are not completely necessary.  Studies have shown that that antibiotic use can lead to profound changes and rapid loss of diversity in the composition of the gut bacteria leading to chronic health complications.

Promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria through positive lifestyle choices can make our brains function optimally and feel better.  An overgrowth of bad bacteria can make you feel mentally weak, tired and ill.  Changing the composition of our gut bacteria through lifestyle and dietary interventions is emerging as a very effective and practical way to treat anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders.

Blog Written by Dr. Jason Richer