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When it comes to your mental wellbeing, did you ever imagine that happiness could be found in your digestive tract?
As it turns out, many mental health disorders improve once the gut heals.
While this may seem farfetched, it’s essential to understand that roughly 90 percent of the body’s total serotonin is produced in the digestive tract. Only 5 percent of serotonin is produced in the brain.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter. It influences many aspects of your behavior, such as:
The right amount of serotonin in the brain produces a relaxed and positive feeling.
Everything from depression and anxiety to obsessive-compulsive disorder and autism are related to an imbalance in serotonin signaling.
Pharmaceutical drugs that treat mental disorders, like depression and anxiety, block serotonin receptor sites. These drugs are known as SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. They manipulate serotonin pathways and can sometimes effectively treat mental disorders.
There is more to serotonin than mood regulation. When you manipulate how serotonin functions in the body, you affect every system that serotonin influences.
For starters, serotonin contributes to the wavelike motion within the intestines that keeps food (and bacteria) moving. In other words, you need serotonin to prevent your meal from putrefying in the digestive tract.
You can also find serotonin in lymphatic tissue, which is an important part of the immune system. It’s a reservoir for white blood cells—your body’s personal army of defense.
Here’s the interesting part: your immune system can change serotonin signals in the central nervous system. Your central nervous system includes the brain, where only 5 percent of serotonin is produced. Researchers believe this is why a leaky and inflamed gut can have such a profound effect on mood.
Another brain chemical called oxytocin also affects the gut in surprising ways.
Oxytocin is widely known as the “love” molecule.
In other words, a surge of oxytocin can make you feel as if time has stopped, and you have forgotten yourself. Studies show that oxytocin naturally enhances trust, optimism, and self-esteem.
Your body releases oxytocin when you touch and bond with others, during the birthing process, and during lactation. In a 2010 study, researchers found that oxytocin has the ability to dampen inflammation in the intestinal tract.
Other studies have shown that cells in the intestinal tract have a receptor site for oxytocin, which tells us that it belongs there. We also know that oxytocin encourages motility—or movement—in the gut.
While bloating and cramping pain may be more obvious signs of intestinal inflammation, less common symptoms, like persistent acne, migraines, and depression, may also be tied to the issue.
When oxytocin levels are stable and elevated, the physical body benefits as much as the mind.
When you experience mental, emotional, or physical stress, you release stress hormones like cortisol. Stress hormones take you out of a peaceful “rest-and-digest” state and into “fight-or flight” response.
The relationship between your gut and your happiness is a two-way street. In other words, leaky gut can also lead to depression and brain fog.
Studies have found that the bacteria living in your gut play a role, too. As it turns out, gut bacteria can detect stress and its subsequent stress hormones. The stability of bacteria that make up your inner ecosystem may be impacted by this stress in the body.
Researchers found that in response to stress signaling in the body, normally harmless bacteria will become pathogenic. When bacteria become pathogenic, they multiply rapidly or mutate, often leading to infection. Once this happens, the inner ecology of your gut is thrown out of balance.
As it turns out, your intestinal cells are not the only ones making brain chemicals. One recent study published in BioEssays hypothesizes that gut bacteria produce brain chemicals—which actively influence the brain!
Still, other studies show that beneficial gut bacteria reduce anxiety. For example, a study published in Gut Pathogens in 2009 found that probiotics reduced anxiety in those with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).
In 2011, researchers found that beneficial gut bacteria may increase gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors in the brain.
GABA is another brain chemical that’s responsible for a feeling of wellbeing and happiness. An imbalance in GABA can make you feel anxious, panicked, and worried. Many people with a GABA imbalance feel guilt over their choices and have a tendency to be disorganized.
When it comes to mental health, there is no silver bullet.
But if you struggle with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or even the aftermath of addiction, nutrition and a healthy inner ecosystem are important factors to examine.
As unbelievable as it sounds, your gut may influence your mental health, so it’s important to keep it in tip-top shape. The best place to start is with your diet. You can support your inner ecosystem and maintain a healthy balance of serotonin and other brain chemicals by consuming foods that contain healthy bacteria. Stress also wreaks havoc on your body, causing inflammation that can result in a leaky gut. Take steps to eliminate stressors while eating a nutritious diet, and you’re on your way to a healthier gut and a happier you.
Donna Gates, M.Ed., ABAAHP, is the international bestselling author of The Body Ecology Diet and The Baby Boomer Diet: Anti-Aging Wisdom For Every Generation. An Advanced Fellow with the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, she is on a mission to change the way the world eats. Over the past 25 years, she has become one of the most loved and respected authorities in the field of digestive health, diet, and nutrition, enjoying a worldwide reputation as an expert in candida, adrenal fatigue, autism, autoimmune diseases, weight loss and anti-aging.
Her groundbreaking work has been instrumental in transforming the natural foods industry. Donna first introduced the natural sweetener stevia to the U.S. in 1994. Her very successful grassroots movement blossomed to tens of thousands enjoying the new sweetener and after three years it was approved as a “dietary supplement,” becoming a common item in every health food store in America. Donna’s cookbook, Stevia: Cooking with Nature’s Calorie-Free Sweetener (Avery) was the first of its kind. The next five years were dedicated to educating on the value of coconut oil, which was demonized as a dangerous fat. Her dedication spurred new research and now coconut oil is promoted by holistic doctors and sold nationwide. Donna also focused on fermented foods and probiotic beverages and reintroduced milk Kefir to the U.S. marketplace. Her innovation continued with “young coconut water kefir,” a fermented drink touted by medical doctors for healing the digestive tract and treating acid reflux.