The link between our gut health, mental health & our ‘gut feeling’

The main principle of yoga is based on unifying the body and the mind. The word „yoga“ actually even translates to “union“ from Sanskrit. Yoga aims at establishing a connection between our physical bodies and our thoughts and emotions. However, examining the mind-body-connection is not exclusively a yogic idea. 

Have you ever heard or said phrases like “My heart is broken“, “I have butterflies in the stomach“ or “I have a gut feeling“? Linking our physical sensations to our emotional state is part of our everyday language and suggests that our organs and our feelings are deeply intertwined.

In addition to that, recent research is as well concerned with the question of how our physical health impacts our emotional health. One particular interesting object of research is the link between our gut health and our mental health. Could our ‘gut feeling’, that innate intuitive reaction we immediately feel about a certain situation or person be in the end only related to a nasty bacterium that makes us bloat?

The gut: Our second brain

Researchers have discovered that there is a communication system between our brain and our gut, called the “gut-brain-axis“. The gut and the brain are connected and communicate with each other physically and biochemically through a number of different ways.

One way how the gut and the brain communicate with each other is through neuron pathways. Neurons are cells found in our brain, nervous system and also in the gut. The brain contains around 100 million neurons, while the gut contains over 500 million neurons. These neurons are connected with each other through our nervous system, which sends signals both ways. The vagus nerve is one of the biggest nerves connecting our gut and brain.

Have you ever experienced unusual bowel movements or stomach cramps when being in a very nervous or stressful situation? This is your brain communicating to your gut via the vagus nerve, telling your gut that something isn’t right. 

How the gut affects our mood

The gut and brain are also connected through chemicals called neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters control our feelings and emotions. It was long believed that these neurotransmitters are only found in the brain. However, more recently it was confirmed that they are also found and produced in the gut cells. A large proportion of the neurotransmitter serotonin, our happiness hormone, is produced in the gut. Next to that, our gut is also responsible for the production of other neurotransmitters and chemicals, which are responsible for controlling feelings of fear and anxiety, and affecting other brain functions.

This pioneering research on the gut-brain-axis confirms that our gut is directly linked to our brain health and hence also to our emotional state. Could what we eat therefore also have an influence on our mental health and our ability to adequately process our feelings? And what does gut health have to do with our instinctual gut feeling? 

How is all of that linked to our ‘gut feeling‘?

For a long time, our gut feeling, the innate and immediate response our bodies have to a specific circumstance, person or thing was thought to be solely an emotional response. However, the recent state of research proves that our gut is in fact correlated with our brain and our emotions. Our gut feeling is therefore not merely an impulsive emotional response, but one that is linked to the health of the bacteria in our intestinal organs.

A healthy gut thus also means a healthy gut feeling, trusting our instincts more.

What we eat can improve (or worsen) our mental health

Since what we eat is processed mainly in the gut and our gut is directly connected to our brain, could the quality of the food we consume also have an influence on our mental and emotional state? Could we modulate our gut microbiome by what we eat we to experience less stress, anxiety and depression?

Research suggests yes. The bacteria and flora prominent in the gut affects our brain and mental health, so changing our gut bacteria can improve brain health. 

Almost 2500 years ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates stated already that “all disease begins in the gut“. Bad bacteria like pathogens and a yeast overgrow resulting in candida can not only weaken our immune system but also lead to lower mood, anxiety and increased stress levels. Having a certain amount of pathogens in our bodies is normal, however, when they get out of control, for example through an intake of large amounts of unhealthy, sugary and processed foods, it can result in an imbalance in our gut flora. 

The consequences are smaller productions of the neurotransmitters creating serotonin and of the chemicals controlling anxiety and depression in the gut. Therefore, mental health issues can be linked to the food we consume. When there is an imbalance of the good and bad bacteria present in our gut, less hormones controlling our mood are produced. The gut sends signals to the brain that something isn’t right. This can result in feelings of depression, anxiety and stress.

To recover and strengthen our gut health, it is important to eat the right foods. Healthy whole foods and a diet consisting of a healthy amount of fruits, vegetables and fiber are as beneficial as fermented foods containing probiotics (bacteria beneficial for our gut) like kefir, sauerkraut and kombucha.

However, nutrition is not the only way to balance our gut health and with it our mental health. Yoga has also been shown to have tremendous benefits when it comes to mental health but also to organ health. 

How yoga and meditation can balance our brain and organs

Since a long time, yoga is known to balance our physical, mental and spiritual health, bringing us back to a state of optimal flow. 

A healthy asana practice can work as a massage for our internal organs. Moreover, pranayama, yogic breath, and meditation have been shown to activate our parasympathetic nervous system, which is known to reduce stress and anxiety and to lift our mood. Therefore yoga is able to restore our gut health by balancing the hormones and serotonin levels that are produced in our gut.

Regular exercise has also been correlated with higher levels of microbiome diversity as well as an increase in the amount of healthy strains of bacteria within our gut. Yoga has therefore the potential to support a healthy and diverse gut environment and is a great way to begin the journey of exploring our body-mind connection.

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