The Brain + Gut Connection, and its effect on mental well-being
January 20, 2022
Gazing into the vibrant saturation of a summer sunset, have you ever thought to yourself, Who am I? If you’re like most of us, you’ve searched for answers to this ancient human question in art, love, work, and the depths of experience. But did you know that one clue to who you are, including aspects of your physical and mental well-being, might be found inside your gut?
Loving the tart taste and effervescence of kombucha might be enough for you. It would certainly make sense to us if it were! But preliminary research also suggests that a diverse microbiome - the collection of bacteria in our gut - may also be connected in complex ways to our mental well-being. While the connection between gut health and mental health is still unfolding, the potentially far-reaching benefits of having a healthy gut microbiome offer another reason to partake of raw, unpasteurized fermented foods.
Your gut’s microbiome - composed of the more than 100 trillion microbes that populate your intestinal tract - is as unique as your fingerprint. Deep within the 25 feet of your intestines, your microbiome is working to defend you against pathogens and absorb the vitamins and amino acids that you consume. Immune cells learn to mobilize in the gut, and it’s home to more than 20 varieties of hormones.
According to Chemical and Engineering News, up to 90% of your serotonin is produced in your gut! New discoveries are constantly being made about possible connections between your gut's microbiome, and your mental and physical wellness.
The gut is also our largest sensory organ, with a surface area 40 times that of our skin! One of its central functions is to gather information for the brain, communicating that we’re getting enough nutrients, how our immune cells are functioning, and what our hormones are up to.
The vagus nerve mediates an on-going, complex “conversation” between the gut and the brain. How well it facilitates the gut-brain conversation can impact our health in multiple ways, including our mental health. Preliminary research suggests that the diversity of the microbiome can enhance the functioning of the vagus nerve. Beneficial bacteria may affect vagus nerve activity via the microbiome, impacting communication with the brain and helping with stress regulation.
The importance of maintaining the health of the exquisitely sophisticated organ we call the gut and its resident microbiome is clear. But what exactly do we mean by a “healthy” gut? A healthy gut contains a diverse population of microbes, creating a balance of beneficial and “bad” bacteria. The presence of some “bad” bacteria helps the immune system recognize which microbes to fight.
In an unbalanced microbiome, “bad” bacteria - the pathogenic kind that can cause infections or give us food poisoning - flourish. This triggers a response from the immune system - get those bad bacteria out! - and results in increased inflammation which has been linked to depression. Although the exact nature of the relationship between inflammation and depression isn’t yet fully understood, studies suggest that a balanced microbiome may help create the conditions for a healthy symbiotic relationship between our gut and our mind.
The gut is an ecosystem whose complexity continues to emerge. Having a healthy gut means having enough good bacteria, along with a scattering of “bad.” In other words, rather than trying to eliminate the bad, the way to achieve gut health is to faithfully tend the good. So what can we do to nourish our hard-working gut? Probiotic-rich foods like raw kombucha, kefir, yogurt, and sauerkraut feed the beneficial bacteria in the microbiome and help maintain its balance. Accepting the bad with the good doesn't just help sustain us during difficult times. It also helps us keep our guts healthy!
It’s certainly not as simple as saying that drinking kombucha will make you happy - other than, of course, by way of its deliciousness. But as connections continue to emerge between microbiome diversity, the functionality of the nervous system, mental health, and the food we eat, promising implications for the benefits of a healthy gut may follow. Until then, enjoy your kombucha! Cheers!