If you’re used to thinking of your stomach and bowel as of in-and-out food container and nothing else, the results of some recent studies will make you think again.
Scientists have only recently begun to understand the huge role intestinal microflora plays in our overall health — and, in particular, mental health. The intestinal microbiome (a.k.a. the countless microbes that live inside our gastrointestinal tract) is sometimes referred to as the second genome and even the second brain, because, as it turned out, it can massively affect our overall well-being through various mechanisms, some of which are still being researched.
More and more scientific research data is being published on the connections between intestinal microflora and mental health. Keep reading to learn why this line of research can revolutionize the way we treat and prevent depression!
The surprising truth about the gut-brain connection
Let’s face it: we’ve all felt the gut-brain link rather vividly at times, specifically when we were badly stressed out (who didn’t lose their appetite before a dreaded exam?)
There are actually evolutionary reasons behind this particular effect: slowing down of the digestive system is the part of our fight-or-flight response.
The mechanism that enables our intestines and brains to cooperate so effectively is the informational brain-gut highway also known as the vagus nerve. It is the longest nerve in our body which connects the nerve cells of our brain with those of digestion organs (including stomach, intestines, and pancreas). Another way in which communication between the intestines and the brain occurs is through the endocrine and immune systems.
So let’s cut to the chase: with the communication being set up so well between the intestine and the brain, what happens when our gut detects a potential threat and responds with intestinal inflammation?
The change in intestinal microflora affects the function of the intestine itself — and spreads to the central nervous system as well. The inflammation spreading to the brain may then become an essential factor in the development of depression. Anxiety and depression, in turn, trigger gut inflammation; as a result, an infinite loop of depression and inflammation fueling one another can be formed.
What causes gut inflammation in the first place?
Intestinal inflammation is in most cases caused by improper and unbalanced nutrition, exposure to chemicals in the polluted environment and heavily processed foods, lack of physical activity, prolonged periods of stress, and other incompatibilities between the life human body evolved to live, and the life that we actually have in the modern world.
Other reasons include chronic diseases of the digestive system, reduced immune response, allergic reactions, and side effects of certain pharmaceuticals. Hereditary and genetic factors may also be to blame.
The “real” antidepressants
Based on the newly discovered fact that inflammation and depression go hand in hand, some specialists believe that treating the inflammation as a root cause may enhance recovery from depression and reduce the risk of its recurrence. Treatment that lowers inflammation and restores healthy intestinal microflora might turn out to be as effective in treating depression as the actual antidepressants.
Furthermore, lowering the risk of intestine inflammation over time (through long term dietary and lifestyle changes) might play a significant role in preventing the development of depressive disorders in the future.
Discovering this strong and previously unknown connection between gut health and mental health may enable scientists to develop entirely new, more effective ways to prevent and treat depression. In the meantime, we can rely on the knowledge we already have: your gut can be making you depressed or anxious, and in that case, healing your gut means healing your mind.
Here’s to mental health!