The Ultimate Guide to the Gut-Brain Axis

The gut is known as the second brain. However, it might just be the one that’s actually in charge. Within your gut lies an ecosystem of microbes that influence every aspect of your everyday life. This profound impact includes your mental health and mood. Gut health is detrimental to your emotional state due to the gut brain connection.

What is the Gut Brain Connection?

To comprehend the intricacies of the gut-brain axis, it’s essential to understand the levity of poor gut health. As Father of Medicine, Hippocrates, famously stated,

“All disease begins in the gut.”

– Hippocrates

Hippocrates made this bold statement because the gut biome is at the epicenter of everything going on in our system.

Standard American Diet (SAD) and Mental Health

Everything you consume, whether it’s a beverage, food, or medicine, goes down to the gut. Either these consumed items get broken down for nutrients and energy (gut healing foods) or flushed out with toxins (processed foods).

With a McDonald’s on every corner, it’s safe to say that the average person isn’t always eating diets rich with micronutrients. Fatty foods, GMOs, and pesticides have done a number on the Standard American Diet.

These inorganic options are confusing for your body to process during the digestion of food. Overconsumption of foods containing artificial ingredients and unhealthy fat content causes backups in the system.

Anytime there is a backup, it spurs the growth of harmful bacteria. These bacteria feast on sugars and fats within your body. In turn, they destroy healthy cells and tissues in the gut lining. This creates forts of dead cells that serve as shelter for inflammation.

What is The Gut-Brain Axis?

Your gut-brain axis is a bit more complicated than getting hangry after a couple of hours without eating. Our body has a built-in alarm company that allows your system to know there are invaders onboard. These are neural tissues. They live on the ends of cells and nerves.

Neural tissues act as barometers for what is going on inside your body. When all is well, they don’t react much. However, when inflammation is present, the neural tissues get on the case!

Inflammations alter the pH balance in their surrounding environment [*]. Overly acidic environments release vapors that negatively stimulate the neural tissues. These neural tissues send messages back to the brain. The brain reacts accordingly, triggering pain sensations and other tactics to draw our attention to the inflammation within [*].

Vagus Nerve and the Gut Biome

Some of the most influential neural tissues in the system lie at the end of the vagus nerve [*]. The vagus nerve attaches to the brainstem.

Like a turkey thermometer, the base of the nerve sits at the top of our gut. Neural tissues at the tip of the nerve gauge the activity going on in the stomach. Based on their reaction, the neurons will send electric impulses across their axons. This critical role makes the vagus nerve is the backbone of the gut-brain axis.

Gut Biome and Mood Disorders

As we mentioned, bacteria play a crucial role in the formation of inflammation. Just like harmful bacteria have an impact on the system, so do beneficial bacteria. No matter which side of the spectrum these microorganisms reside on, they can all be classified as microbes.

Different types of microbes include:

  • Archaea
  • Bacteria
  • Fungi
  • Yeast
  • Virus

Microbes were your first introduction to life. They were beside you in your mother’s womb and helped formulate the immune system you have today. These tiny life forms have been with you since day one, coexisting with over a trillion other microbes in what is known as your microbiome.

Unbeknownst to you, there’s a battle for supremacy going on inside of you. While it’s happening at all times, you feel the most when the harmful bacteria are winning. These are the moments where mental health issues may arise.

What Causes Mental Health Issues?

Mental Health covers a number of issues that can be moderate to life-threatening. When we talk about mental health, we mean conditions that can have a negative impact on your brain and/or thought process.

So, we’re also covering issues such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Autism
  • Depression
  • Cognitive Abilities
  • Memory
  • Stress
  • Mood Swings
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue

While many life occurrences may trigger these episodes, there always seems to be one culprit always in the thick of things. We’re talking about the hormone, cortisol [*].

Cortisol and Mental Health

Cortisol is essential for your body. It’s the system’s built-in instinct. When you encounter a stressful situation, it triggers the adrenal glands to pump out cortisol. As this hormone hits the bloodstream, your brain makes a split decision–fight or flight.

When cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands, it causes us to approach the current situation with a sense of urgency. Based on the interaction, your body will supplement with a follow-up hormone.

In the case of getting through a public speaking assignment or walking down the aisle for your wedding, cortisol will succumb to dopamine (calming neurotransmitters) or adrenaline (energy-bursting hormone). These are signs that the situation is going to be all right. Now, cortisol production can cease.

If the situation we face is continuous stress (like a bad marriage or harsh working conditions), more cortisol will pump into our bloodstream. These are the moments where you can’t handle going to work, don’t want to get out of bed, or refuse to get together with loved ones. Inevitably, stress breeds more stress.

While each mental health condition is unique, they are usually tied to too much cortisol. Think of filling your gas tank. Whether you use unleaded or premium, a 10-gallon tank holds 10-gallons. Anything more will spill out. So, if you pour in 9 gallons of unleaded, it’s impossible to add 2 gallons of premium as well.

Hormones Affected by Cortisol

Under chronic stress, the flood gates for cortisol are wide open. Therefore, your body doesn’t have the time or room to create other beneficial neurotransmitters and hormones such as:

  • GABA – Calming Neurotransmitter
  • Dopamine – Reward Hormone
  • Serotonin – Joy Neurotransmitter
  • Melatonin – Sleep Cycle Regulating Hormone
  • Testosterone/Estrogen – Reproductive Hormones

We need a variety of hormones and neurotransmitters produced to keep our systems in check. Let’s take a look at how these hormones contribute to our mental well-being.

Hormones and Mental Health

Our bodies are a delicate machine. The sum of the parts keeps the whole together. When there is a lack of any hormone being produced, it will throw your entire system out of whack. As a result, you may suffer from bouts of mental health issues.

Testosterone and Estrogen

Hormones you lack in the wake of stress include testosterone and estrogen. This will deplete your sex drive and may increase the chances of infertility.

Signs of low testosterone/estrogen include:

  • Disinterest in Sex/Too Much Interest in Sex
  • Erectile Dysfunction/Premature Ejaculation
  • Mood Swings
  • Lack of Sleep
  • Weight Gain
  • Excess Weight in Breasts/Gynecomastia

Coming to terms with these life-changing situations can cause anything from a fleeting bout of anxiety to maturing into full-blown Major Depressive Disorder.

Melatonin

Another hormone that cortisol overload disrupts is melatonin production. Due to our circadian rhythm, our body has figured out when the sun sets and rises. On cue, you should get tired around two hours prior to bedtime and start to stir awake moments before your alarm goes off [*].

With too much cortisol in the system, there is no room for melatonin. Therefore, you stay awake all night. Insomnia is further exasperated by cortisol as you fidget in your sleep. The cortisol in your body draws extra attention to the fact you can’t sleep, making it even harder for you to get some rest.

As you know, your body needs rest. The waking hours don’t lend itself to your body repairing itself from the damage we cause daily. During our rest period, the body is not fighting off the germs of others, dealing with the stresses of co-workers, or using energy to function as it does during the day. Most of your hormones are created while you are asleep [*]. Therefore, no sleep? No hormones.

Dopamine, Serotonin, and GABA

The most effective way to fight off cortisol is by generating “reward” neurotransmitters and hormones such as dopamine, GABA, and serotonin. When your mind receives messages from these hormones, it feels sensations such as calmness or elation. As a result, your adrenal glands don’t get the signal to push out more cortisol. By having dopamine and serotonin on hand, all the other hormones can be created, restoring balance in the system.

Further proving the connection between the gut and brain, research has found that 90% of the serotonin in our system comes from our gut [*]. Therefore, if you have poor gut health, a majority of the serotonin that your body needs to fight off mental illness is destroyed before hitting the bloodstream.

Hormones and Gut Health

The best way to foster the growth of extra beneficial neurotransmitters and hormones is to alkalize the gut biome. You need to create an environment that isn’t conducive to the growth of harmful microbes.

Fix the ecosystem inside of your gut by:

Improve your gut health so that probiotic bacteria can flourish. These microorganisms will fight off inflammatory bacteria that may cause gastrointestinal distress and trigger bouts of mental health disorder.

Stomach Bacteria Associated with Mental Health and Mood

The microbes in our internal network are so unique that they can trigger a multitude of events throughout the body. When there are an abundance (or lack) or any bacteria in the system, it allows room for one strain to become dominant. That is a much nicer way to say “bullies.”

Candida and Mood

One of the biggest bullies of the bunch is Candida… especially when this yeast becomes infected. Studies indicate that too much Candida in the system can cause people to have trouble concentrating. That’s because Candida increases pro-inflammatory cytokines in the system. Prominently, they facilitate the growth of TNF-alpha, IL-1, IL-6. These three are a formidable combination against your body as they cause oxidative stress. A byproduct of this oxidative stress is the experience of brain fog [*].

Stomach Bacteria and GI Issues

Other than Candida, there is no clear-cut way to know which bacteria may be causing you mental health and mood concerns. That’s because there’s a myriad of other issues going on in the system that’s leading to the imbalance. It all depends on what other symptoms you may be showing. For instance, if you’re suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), the overabundance of  Coprococcus comes in your microbiome is throwing the scales off balance [*].

Speaking of scales, perhaps it’s excess weight causing the problem? Build-ups of sticky plaques and adipose tissues cut off oxygenated blood cells from making the rounds efficiently. This allows bacteria such as Sarcina maxima to create the acidic environment necessary to set off your barometer.

Ways to Improve Mood/Mental Health

Before all else, you should seek the guidance of a mental health professional. Unnecessary stigmas surrounding mental health has slowly become lifted. There is nothing to be ashamed of. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 450 million people suffer from mental illness [*]. So, please reach out for help.

Gratitude and Mental Health

With that being said, there are many things you can do that can help your disposition. For one, you can keep a gratitude journal. By putting things into perspective, it can help you not feel so lost in the everyday hustle and bustle.

Keep the journal next to your bed. That way you can get in the habit of writing in the journal first thing every morning. Starting the day off on a positive note can do wonders for setting the tone for the rest of your day.

Exercise and Mental Health

In addition, start exercising. We know, not the most ideal. However, as we learned from Legally Blonde, “exercising creates endorphins. Endorphins make people happy…and happy people don’t kill people.” Sure, her degree is in law, but Elle Woods makes a valid point.

Research shows that exercise can increase the amount of dopamine in the system [*]. However, it also shows that it can help diversify the microbes in your body as well [*].

By exercising, you mix up the gut biome. Intestinal flora have chemical reactions with other bacteria in stomach. This causes the gut biome to diversify.

TYPES OF EXERCISE FOR GUT BIOME AND MOOD

Exercise doesn’t mean running on a treadmill or pumping iron and getting swole. Try yoga. Not only will you firm your body but yoga is a great way to clear your mind. As you practice yoga, you are marrying your movement with breath. This type of concentration will help calm overexcited electrons in your brain.

If yoga isn’t your thing, join a sports league. Do a cardio YouTube video. Go for a run outside. Just get up and be active more than you currently are. You’ll notice a massive improvement in your disposition!

Nature and Mental Health

Take walks in nature. We are so invested in our phones, jobs, social media, family, what to get at brunch…we sometimes just need to reset. A study compared people on a 90-minute walk in nature versus those in an urban setting. Results found that people who walked in nature had less internal rumination. In addition, their brain showed signs of neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC). This is an area of the brain with a deep-rooted relationship to depression [*].

VITAMIN D AND MENTAL HEALTH

Plus, nature is where the sun is. Sun is our number one source of Vitamin D. Vitamin D is an essential vitamin that our body needs to act as a catalyst for many important mental functions. Studies have found that almost 50% of mental health cases are also deficient in Vitamin D [*].

Unfortunately, humans don’t produce enough Vitamin D on their own. Therefore, we must rely on the sun for 50% to 90% of our Vitamin D consumption. Being stuck inside all day at work, no wonder one billion suffer from a Vitamin D deficiency [*]!

Lastly, nature exposes us to bacteria that is outside of our bubble. Therefore, getting a little dirty will diversify our microbiome. This is ideal for boosting your immune system, losing weight, and altering your mindset.

Diversify the Microbiome

Studies indicate that children with autism are born with a lack of diversity in their microbiome [*]. While autism is one form of mental health disorder, this principle holds true across the board for these conditions.

The significant difference is which bacteria in your system is lacking and which is flourishing. For instance, the key to a better night’s rest may lie in higher levels of Verrucomicrobia and Lentisphaerae. Research indicates when these microbes are at increased levels, it will result in better sleep quality as well as improved cognitive flexibility [*].

MICROBIOME TESTING FOR MENTAL HEALTH

This is just one example. Not to mention, everyone’s microbiome is unique. Therefore, you should get your gut tested with a discreet at-home testing kit. Based on the lab results of your sample, we can formulate a personalized probiotic unique to your microbiome.

Seeing as the bacteria in your supplement is a living being, we will also help you find the right prebiotic-rich foods to implement into your diet. That way you have foods in your menu that are indigestible for our system, but beneficial for the health microbes in your gut.

Getting your gut tested to see which bacteria you are lacking, as well as which ones are reining supreme is a great way to get a hold on your mental health. From there, Thryve can formulate a personalized probiotic supplement that should help bring balance to your system….and give you peace of mind.  

Case Studies

I’ve been battling depression and insomnia for god knows how long. It’s taken a huge toll on my career and my relationships. I heard about how our gut is like our second brain and that by taking care of it, you’ll take care of your mind as well. I wanted to try something that was personalized for my needs so Thryve was my first choice after researching many other alternatives. Happy to say I feel much better. The first thing that made me notice a difference was the fact that I could watch a movie (for those wondering, the movie was “a beautiful mind”) and feel the emotions from sadness to joy, which was a first. I also have been able to fall asleep much quicker and wake up only once during the night vs. 4-5 times. I wake up feeling much more refreshed and have this sense of “I’m ready to tackle my day”. I love the fact that how I feel correlates to how my microbiome has been shifting. Originally, my Bifidobacterium was extremely low compared to the healthy population (which science has shown to be helpful in making us happy). But after going into the program and following the recommendations I was able to increase it! Love the positive reinforcement.


– Amanda S.

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