The emerging link between mental health and digestive health is changing how we view healthcare. While much research remains to be done and proven, the long-term promise could extend as far as managing problems of the mind by alleviating conditions in the gut.
So complex is the gut, which has its own nervous system (itself in constant communication with the central nervous system), that it is often called the human body’s second brain – able to regulate itself even without the brain’s intervention.
Trillions of microbes reside in our guts – these can be bacteria, fungi, protozoa and even viruses. The gut is a factory for many of the chemicals necessary to the human body’s functioning, from hormones to neurochemicals, and these microbes in essence could be considered its workers. What these workers make can have a direct impact on everything from your digestion to your mood.
Here’s what we know about how the gut can influence your brain.
Composing a beautiful mind
The human brain is the most exquisite and complex structure in the universe that we know of. It is constantly abuzz with activity, keeping the show going in the symphony of human existence.
These complex systems that regulate cognition, emotions, sensations, and executive function are fantastic when they work – but they can also get dysregulated, says Dr Shrilakshmi Desiraju, a researcher and pioneer in the probiotics space who co-founded Triphase Pharmaceuticals.
Any dysfunction in these processes can have cascading effects on the rest of the body, including on our mood.
Gut microbes: Our better halves
The emerging link between gut and brain health has been well-documented. When the gut is disrupted – whether from food that adversely affects your digestive system or diseases like typhoid or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) that directly affect gut health – it is linked with an increased prevalence of mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
A range of unhealthy habits can also disrupt our guts. Dr Desiraju says this could include eating your food without chewing it properly or bingeing on junk food.
When we eat without being mindful, such as when we’re bingeing junk food while watching TV, we may be ignoring our body’s own signals to stop eating, she adds. This causes a cascading event, such as toxin accumulation, which Ayurveda refers to as “ama.” This results in poor absorption of nutrients and hampers the elimination of waste.
Accumulating indigestible food in our guts is a bad idea. Non-disease-causing bacteria normally break down indigestible carbohydrates by fermenting them and producing a little amount of gas. When these microbes are overloaded with difficult-to-digest food, they struggle to process them.
Such a scenario becomes an opportunity for disease-causing bacteria like H. pylori to thrive. They step in and cause excess gas production, which causes bloating. This can affect our mood. These discomforts over prolonged periods can increase the risk of developing chronic disorders like cardiovascular diseases.
Research has shown that gut signals control hunger, but the unhealthy habit of binge eating can train your brain to ignore these signals. Here’s how:
Ghrelin and Leptin are two hormones that work hand in hand to control appetite. Ghrelin triggers a hunger signal, while Leptin sends a satiation signal. They both do their jobs by sending signals to the brain.
Junk food is poor in nutrients which do not generate the necessary triggers for Leptin to do its job. This leads to an overworked Ghrelin which continues to send signals to consume more.
When we become sad or tense, our brains secrete more cortisol, the hormone responsible for emotional eating among many others. In this situation too, poor Leptin is neglected. The outcome can be unhealthy weight gain.
Another mental health impact of unhealthy eating can be indecision. As Dr Desiraju explains, when we binge eat in an emotional state, our brains produce more cortisol which creates more feelings of hunger, besides affecting other hormones.
Ghrelin works in overdrive, sending signals to keep eating. But Leptin is sending signals too, saying “STOP!”. But, in emotional states, Leptin’s signals may not be received.
Healthy gut, healthy mind
Confused gut health signals can lead to a groggy mind. “Due to the cascading effect of cortisol on the body, you might start feeling groggy or indecisive,” explains Aishwarya Sampath, Nutrition and Wellness coach, co-founder of Goodness to You.
Take the example of Nishant Mahadev, a team lead in a finance firm, who saw his gut health go awry after he started working from home more. “I used to stock up on chips, cookies, and other snacks at the grocery store and munch on them as I worked,” he says.
The solution was relatively simple: He turned to a nutritionist and changed his diet. Soon after, he was feeling better than ever.
“I adopted healthy eating practises like choosing fruits over snacks and including grains, veggies, and curd in meals,” he says, adding that by managing his nutrition, he can now keep himself active and motivated, sleeps well, and even works harder in the gym.
Ayurvedic approach to digestive health
Ayurvedic treatments have long linked mental health with imbalances in other parts of the body, including in the digestive system. One example is the imbalanced state of agni, the digestive fire considered responsible for metabolic activities.
We had mentioned the accumulation of toxins termed ama. In Ayurveda, ama is understood to initially form in the digestive tract. If left unchecked it leaks into bodily tissues and transforms into amavisha – leading to tissue disruption, chronic inflammation and disease.
An unhealthy accumulation of ama is treated by giving buttermilk supplemented with digestants such as ginger, pepper and cumin. Buttermilk, a known pre and probiotic, is also given in Ayurvedic detoxification and purification procedures, sometimes in the form of enemas as part of the basti procedure, especially for conditions like IBS.