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Ever had butterflies in your stomach, or been so nervous you’re nauseous? You can thank the connection between your gut and your brain for what you’re feeling. We’ve known for decades the brain can send signals to cause these sensations, but researchers are finding out the nervous system in the gut is relaying messages from the microorganisms in the gut to the brain, which has a powerful influence on our moods.
Before birth, the gut is sterile. Over time, we collect a wide variety of microorganisms that reside primarily in our gut. Some are determined by genetics, but more come from what and who we come in contact with in our environment. Around 90% of the cells in our body are single-celled organisms, mostly bacteria. We are outnumbered by the trillions! These microorganisms in the gut are called the microbiome, and scientists are finding it’s much more involved in our feelings and emotions than we thought.
For example, animal research has found that changing the balance between beneficial and disease-causing bacteria in the microbiome, even by a single bacteria strain, can change brain chemistry and lead to anxiety. Even though over 90% of the signals being sent are coming from the enteric nervous system in the gut to the brain, the brain can also have a strong influence on the gut bacteria. Even mild stress can change your brain chemistry and subsequently the balance of the microbiome, affecting the immune system and leading to infectious disease.
The 100 trillion or so microorganisms making their home in your gut have set up their own ecosystem inside you, and call the shots on many different bodily functions. This leads to the question that’s still being answered – what all can these gut bacteria do?
For starters, they influence digestion and metabolism, helping us break down and extract vitamins and nutrients from foods. They also make vitamins and nutrients for us, through their own digestive processes. Beneficial bacteria, also known as probiotics, build and maintain the walls of the intestines and their lining. Just their presence is protection against harmful microbes, and they produce antimicrobial chemicals to further guard against dangerous invaders.
The microbiome also influences the nervous system. These bacteria produce and respond to hundreds of neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate physiological and mental processes. This gut-brain connection includes learning, memory, moods, emotions, pain perception, and how we respond to stress. GABA, serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, acetylcholine and melatonin are chemical names familiar to many people who struggle with anxiety, depression, insomnia and chronic fatigue, and all are made by beneficial gut bacteria. In fact, 95% of the body’s serotonin, the most famous “feel good” hormone, is produced by the gut microbiome, and used for digestion.
Even though you are outnumbered by this balance (or imbalance) of bacteria inside you, there are things you can do to be a better host to these beneficial microbes to optimize brain health: