Gut Bacteria and Mental Health: How Microbiome Affects Moods

Your brain and the bacteria in your gut might seem like an unlikely duo, but together they affect your mood more than you may know. For every cell in your body, there exist ten bacterial cells. Most of these organisms live in your gut. Collectively these gut-dwelling bacteria are referred to as the microbiome

What is the Microbiome?

The microbiome consists of trillions of bacterial cells. Beneficial and harmful bacteria alike coexist in the gut. Every individual has a unique balance of bacteria that can vary due to genetics, diet, and environment. 

Your DNA predetermines the bacteria you’re born with. Then, typically, you’re first exposed to outside bacteria when you drink your mother’s breast milk. As time goes on, you collect more and more bacteria from the foods you eat and the places you travel. A single microbiome can contain anywhere from 300 to 1,000 different species of bacteria. 

The microbiome –also referred to as the gut flora– is an essential mechanism in humans and other animals. The bacterias in our guts help break down hard to digest foods such as carbohydrates. In addition to playing a vital role in the digestive process and metabolism, they also stimulate the immune system and regulate the mood

There is a noticeable difference between a balanced microbiome and a gut with disproportionate levels of harmful bacteria like candida overgrowth. It sends a ripple effect through the entire body. 

How Do Microbiomes Affect Mental Health?

The gut has bidirectional communication capabilities with the brain. Simply put, the brain can signal to the gut, and the gut can signal back. This communication is made possible by the vagus nerve. With over 100 million neurons in the intestines, the gut is often called “the second brain.” It’s the only organ to maintain its independent nervous system. 

The gut plays a massive role in our mental well being. In fact, it produces around 90 percent of the body’s serotonin and a host of other neurochemicals. The microbiome plays a vital role in our mental health too. When the beneficial and harmful bacteria fall out of balance, this can cause changes in the brain. Mood, anxiety, concentration, and more can all be swayed by gut bacteria.

It’s important to remember the connection between the gut and brain is a two-way street. Just as an unbalanced microbiome can cause brain issues, psychological stress can hinder the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.

How To Improve Microbiome Health

Harmful bacteria can ramp up anxiety, while beneficial bacteria can calm it. With this in mind, the overarching goal in improving your microbiome health is to balance the bacteria in your gut. Treating inflammation is another goal. But before we get down to brass tax, let’s discern if you need to improve your gut health in the first place. 

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Signs You Have a Microbiome Issue 

Aside from mental distress, there are plenty of other signs pointing to an unbalanced microbiome. Here are a few symptoms to look out for:

  • Sudden or unintentional weight change. Gaining or losing weight without making a significant change to your activity level or diet can be a sign of an unhealthy microbiome. 
  • Stomach issues. Bloating, diarrhea, and heartburn all point to gut problems. 
  • Fatigue. Unhealthy microbiome can cause sleep disturbances and chronic fatigue. Serotonin is one of the primary neurochemicals involved with sleep. Since it is created in the guts, any issues there can disrupt production. 
  • Skin irritation. If inflammation caused by harmful bacteria goes unchecked, aggravating proteins can leach into the body. This can lead to itchy skin and even eczema.
  • Migraines. The Journal of Headache and Pain confirmed this, but they’re still not entirely sure why. They believe it could be due to the bidirectional signaling we talked about earlier. 

If you notice any of these issues, go to your doctor to confirm that they are associated with a microbiome issue. They can set you up on a treatment plan that can work for you.

Use Probiotics

There is emerging evidence that probiotics can help boost mood and cognitive function. Probiotics can be found in food, drinks, and supplements. They work by delivering beneficial bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium into the digestive tract.

Once integrated, they can support the existing bacteria and alleviate microbiome issues. Probiotics are a promising potential treatment for anxiety and other mood issues caused by an unbalanced gut. 

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Change Your Diet

The food we choose to eat can have consequential effects on the digestive system and the mood. Highly processed, salty, and sugary foods eaten in excess can wreak havoc on the beneficial bacteria in your gut. Processed foods break down into the stuff bad bacteria love to feast on. If you maintain unhealthy eating foods, detrimental bacteria could grow in numbers and throw your microbiome out of balance. 

Eating healthy, fiber-rich food supports the good bacteria in your gut. You can also incorporate foods and supplements called a prebiotic into your routine. Prebiotics feed the good bacteria that already exist in the microbiome.  

In Conclusion, Listen to Your Gut

Treat your “second brain” with care. Maintaining a healthy gut is the avenue to a more energetic, stress-free you. Pay attention to how your digestive tract is feeling and see if it lines up with what’s going on in the mental health department. If you’re feeling anxious and unmotivated, it might just be an issue with your microbiome. So embrace those beneficial bacteria and feed them well!

By Dr. Kenna D. Venekamp

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