“Butterflies in my stomach”
“Sick to my stomach”
“That turned my stomach”
“I can’t stomach it”
“I felt it in the pit of my stomach”
What do all of these phrases have in common?
You guessed it: the connection between what’s going on in our brains and our bowels. Is this connection real? Do you get a physical sensation in your actual belly when you’re nervous? (I know I do) Do you feel physically ill when you hear a gruesome story? Maybe you lose your appetite? Does your “gut feeling” that you’re going to get that promotion feel like something in your mind or something in your gut?
There is a very real connection between our brains and our digestive tract, specifically the intestines (or gut).
I’m not just talking about the obvious connections either. Yes, when our stomachs are empty, a hormone sends a signal to our brain and tells us to eat, and another one is sent to tell us we’re full. Yes, when we have eaten something contaminated, our intestines send a signal to the brain that we’ve been invaded, and maybe it’s time to send some white blood cells and a mild fever to fight off the bacteria. Those things make sense intuitively. But what if I told you that there was a lot more going on that that?
Mood Disorders and the Gut
Did you know that 95% of the serotonin floating around in our bodies at any given time is hanging out in the gut? It makes sense that medications aimed at addressing anxiety and depression through SRIs (serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) would disrupt bowel function, considering that so much of it resides in the bowel. It’s also true that the billions and billions of bacteria living in our guts right now (10 cells to every 1 human cell within us) greatly affect our moods and personalities. They also affect our cravings! (More on that in a minute.)
The population of bacteria in our bowels can change over time. We’re initially inoculated in the birth canal with our first crop of bacteria companions on our way into the world. We get what mom already has, and then as we grow and are exposed to more of the world, our internal “colony” grows and changes. Making calculated modifications of what types of bacteria reside in the intestines can work as well as, if not better than, prescription medications on mood disorders. There’s still more work to be done on this topic, but the scientific connection between the gut and the brain has been established for decades.
Cravings and the Gut
I mentioned that the population of the bacteria living inside our guts can affect our cravings. How does this work exactly?
It’s been shown that “bad” bacteria such as candida thrive on sugar and foods that quickly turn to sugar. When there’s an overgrowth of candida, the bacteria actually cause you to crave those foods that they like to eat! Likewise, when you have “good” bacteria at healthy levels in your gut, you’re more likely to crave a diet that the good bacteria want to eat – one rich in fiber.
“…the capacity of bacteria to adapt is such that if it is to their advantage to influence their host preferences for food, they will.” (source)
Studies have shown that when certain bacteria are placed into the intestines of mice, and the mice are fed the same exact diet, those implanted with “bad” bacteria gained weight and those implanted with “good” bacteria lost or stayed the same.
We’re learning so much about the communication between the bacteria in our gut and our brains, and while major conclusions haven’t yet been drawn as it relates to potential changes in common medical practice, this field of research could revolutionize the way we address obesity in medicine!
So What Next?
What can you do with the information that I’ve just shared with you? Do you sometimes struggle with depression? anxiety? emotional eating? uncontrollable cravings for sugary or high-starch foods?
Heal Your Gut
- Eliminate sugar from your diet for two weeks to a month (depending on the severity of your problem) and then slowly reincorporate natural sugars only and very sparingly.
- Take a probiotic and eat foods rich in live cultures (kim chee, kefir, sauer kraut, yogurt, kombucha).
- Heal the gut lining and reduce/eliminate permeability by drinking bone broth and/or supplementing with l-glutamine.
- Eat foods that support the propagation a healthy gut biome – fiber-rich foods that represent every color of the rainbow.
- Explore the possibility of food sensitivities through an elimination diet (start with the ones I listed above). By identifying trigger foods, you can help reduce inflammation and promote healing. Once your gut is healed, you can attempt to reintroduce the trigger foods watching closely to see if any old symptoms return.