Did you know that 70% of your immune system is located in your gut? Your digestive system is often referred to as the second brain. This is due to the recent discovery of brain-like nerves that are located in the digestive tract. Today we will look at how the gut affects mood and cognitive function. We will also delve into how looking after your gut health will have positive effects on your mental well-being.
Your Digestive System Produces Important Neurotransmitters
Serotonin is known as a happiness or ‘feel good’ hormone. As with all hormones, serotonin is a messenger that is sent throughout the body to tell it what to do. In the case of serotonin, it is responsible for creating a sense of happiness, wellbeing and elation. Your body uses serotonin to regulate mental cognition and give you a sense of reward. It is also needed for learning and memory.
Low levels of serotonin cause depression, negative thinking, anxiety, emotional tension, aggravation, cravings for sugar, and a decreased desire for rewarding activities like sex, social interaction or exercise. Low serotonin also leads to lowered energy levels.
The more serotonin you have, the better you feel. Can you guess where serotonin is found in your body? Serotonin is found in the gastrointestinal tract – or GI tract for short. Smaller quantities of it are also produced in the brain, but your gut is responsible for producing 90% of your serotonin requirements.
Serotonin Is Made by Gut Bacteria
Gut bacteria are responsible for producing the serotonin that we need to feel good. The microbes that are needed to produce serotonin in the gut are:
Dopamine is another well-known happiness hormone. This neurotransmitter makes us feel good when we do a certain activity. It gives us a sense of reward and makes us want to do that activity again. It is also responsible for learning and attention.
Have you ever wondered why you can watch a TV series for hours at a time but struggle to sit through a 30 minute lecture? The answer is because of dopamine release, which occurs when you do things you enjoy. Dopamine causes you to seek out activities that are pleasurable. Triggering the release of dopamine by adding humor to lessons, for example, has been shown to increase attention to detail and improve recall of the information taught.
Low levels of dopamine predispose us to addictive behaviors that cause spikes in dopamine. Our body releases dopamine whenever we do something that feels pleasurable. Having a naturally higher level of dopamine helps us to learn more from our environment and partake in healthy activities that are beneficial to us – like exercising and eating well.
Dopamine Is Made by Gut Bacteria
Dopamine, like serotonin, is made in the gut as well. It seems like this ‘second brain’ has a greater impact on our actual brain than we realize. The gut bacteria that produce dopamine are:
Good Bacteria Versus Bad Bacteria
Good gut bacteria, or beneficial bacteria, are good for us because they break down the parts of foods that we can’t digest on our own. They turn these unusable nutrients into compounds that we need – like serotonin and dopamine. Good bacteria also help to keep bad bacteria at bay.
Bad bacteria, on the other hand, can have disastrous effects on our physical and mental wellbeing. Bad bacteria will attack our healthy body cells and compete for the nutrients that we need. Bad bacteria also decrease the amount of good bacteria that we have.
A Diverse Gut Microbiome Is Important for Health
Your gut microbiome is the community of micro-organisms living together in your digestive tract.Different types of bacteria are almost always at war with one another. If you have too many bad bacteria, you will struggle to develop the good bacteria that you need. Different types of bacteria are needed to balance each other out.
How to Have a Better, More Diverse Gut Microbiome
Good bacteria eat natural things that we can’t digest on our own – like the fiber from plant foods. Bad bacteria eat things that we can’t live without – like healthy cells and important nutrients. Taking control of the things that we consume on a daily basis will help us to host the bacteria that we need to live well. Here are some great ways to improve your gut health by increasing gut biodiversity:
1. Eat more foods that are rich in fiber
Good bacteria eat the parts of plant foods that we can’t digest on our own. By increasing the amount of fiber that you eat on a daily basis, you give these bacteria more food to grow and flourish. Fiber stays in the gut for longer. This ensures that good bacteria have enough food until your next meal. Eating enough fiber will also help to release toxins, improve energy levels, reduce cravings for unhealthy food and give us the micronutrients that we need.
2. Follow a diet that is rich in diversity
Different types of bacteria thrive off different types of food. By eating the same food all the time, you encourage the growth of one type of bacteria over others. This can lead to a microbial imbalance. Eat a variety of different fruits, vegetables, carbohydrates, fats and proteins. This will ensure that you have different types of bacteria that balance each other out.
3. Avoid things that kill off beneficial bacteria
Alcohol can kill off beneficial bacteria. Excessive caffeine consumption and nicotine can also decrease good gut bacteria. Caffeine and nicotine, for example, are compounds produced by plants to repel pests like insects and germs. Processed foods also have a negative effect on gut bacteria. This is because of the preservatives that are added to stop the food from spoiling on the shelves. If it stops bacteria from growing while outside of your stomach, it can stop good bacteria from growing in your gut.
4. Drink enough water
Gut bacteria, like the rest of our bodies, need enough water to thrive. Gut bacteria need more water than we do as a whole because they aren’t large enough to carry their own water stores. Sodas and artificial drinks can hamper gut bacteria because of preservatives that are meant to keep the beverages from spoiling. Additionally, too much sugar consumption will encourage the growth of one type of bacteria over another and cause a bacterial imbalance in the gut.
5. Exercise regularly
Regular exercise improves blood flow. This will help bacteria to get the nutrients that they need and dispose of the things that they don’t. Movement helps bacteria to inhabit a greater portion of our digestive tract. Exercise also improves blood levels of precious nutrients like oxygen and fatty acids, while decreasing the amount of negative by-products like carbon dioxide. This benefits both the gut and the rest of the body.
Science has helped us to realize, more than ever, that we are what we eat. Looking at the benefits of good gut bacteria help us to see that the things that we do to your body have longer effects than we usually perceive. Remember to always do everything in moderation and consult your medical practitioner before making any significant lifestyle changes.
About the Author
Saguren Redyrs, editor of SA Spotters, is a personal trainer who has a passion for making small changes for big results. He would rather spend his Fridays nights at the gym and his Saturday nights studying the human body.
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The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.