Gut Health & Mental Health: Understanding The Gut Brain Connection

Gut Health & Mental Health: Understanding The Gut Brain Connection

According to a story published in The New York Times in 2015, microbiologist Mark Lyte of the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, along with other experts, discovered that the microbiota secretes various chemicals, but among them few are similar to the elements “used by our neurons to communicate and regulate mood, like dopamine, serotonin, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).” Lyte added these “appear to play a function in intestinal disorders, which coincide with high levels of major depression and anxiety.”

Back in 2014, Norwegians researchers analyzed the excrement of more than 50 people and found that the feces in depressed people contained a specific common bacteria. Thanks to studies like these, experts are now widely accepting that gastrointestinal irregularities are linked with several mental health issues like depression, anxiety etc. Research even reveals that certain bacteria in the gut can lead stress and anxiety which can actually damage the immune system.

According to a 2015 Behavioral Brain Research publication:

“The brain-gut axis is a bidirectional communication system between the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal tract. Serotonin functions as a key neurotransmitter at both terminals of this network. Accumulating evidence points to a critical role for the gut microbiome in regulating normal functioning of this axis. There is also substantial overlap between behaviors influenced by the gut microbiota and those which rely on intact serotonergic neurotransmission.”

Whenever we feel excited, anxious, nervous, stressed, frustrated, angry or even happy, our gut knows it. Every emotion that generates in the brain sends a signal directly to our gut. This goes to show that the gut feeling we usually have when something is not right is actually our microbiota helping us make intuitive decisions with higher cognitive skills. Our mood impacts the health of our gut and our gut health influences our mood.

Healing the mind through the gut

Lyte and his fellow researchers are doing excellent work in understanding how gut health can help in treating mental disorders. In fact, researchers are now suggesting the use of “psychobiotics” – using tailored probiotics  – to treat mental health issues.

Psychobiotics are a novel class of probiotics that influence the functions related to the central nervous system (CNS) and managed by the gut brain axis (GBA). The process is conducted by the GBA through the metabolic, neural and humoral pathways to enhance gastrointestinal (GI) function and operate in an anxiolytic and antidepressant capacity. Psychobiotics can be defined as live organisms that results in various health benefits, when consumed sufficiently, especially by people affected by mental disorders. These are a group of probiotics that can create and provide neuroactive substances, like serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid that impact the brain gut connection. 

Psychological well being is a result of good mental health. Proposed by Timothy G. Dinan of University College Cork and his colleagues, psychobiotics have enabled scientists to work on a virgin aspect of neuroscience. It has been observed over the past 5 years that psychobiotics strains can prevent inflammation & decreased cortisol levels which improved symptoms related to depression and anxiety. Further studies have revealed that psychobiotics can lead to psychotropic effects on stress, anxiety and depression.

Psychobiotics can also effectively improve neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders like –

  • Parkinson’s disease (PD) 
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Alzheimer’s disease (AD)

Moreover, psychobiotics application may enhance cognition in people with AD, motor functions of PD patients, symptoms of ASD and overall GI function. This novel class of probiotics can also control proteins and neurotransmitters like glutamate, serotonin, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). These are crucial for managing memory processes, learning, cognitive functions, mood and neural excitatory-inhibitory balance.

However, facts related to the effects of psychobiotics on neurological conditions and mental and disorders are still somewhat limited as further studies are needed to determine their effectiveness as treatments for psychiatric disorders.

How gut health affects the ‘gut brain axis’

A healthy microbiome is usually charged with good bacteria that are beneficial for you. It breaks down, assimilates and absorbs nutrients from all the foods we consume and fuels our body. Gut microbes also produce dopamine and serotonin which boosts and regulates our mood.

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