Mood related disorders are at an all time high today. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study (published by the Government of India) carried out across Indian states from 1990 to 2017, mental disorders were among the leading causes of chronic non fatal disease in India. In a recent smaller online survey carried out by Nielsen in collaboration with ITC Fiama for 700 men and women (in the age group of 18-45 years) it was found that more than 80% felt that the lockdown/COVID19 had negatively impacted their mental wellbeing; nearly 1 in 4 felt that mental health issues start as early as the teens and 75% of young Indians below the age of 25 have had issues with mental wellbeing. It does not come as a surprise to any of us, that what was already an issue worldwide before the COVID pandemic started has become more entrenched and rampant.
Where does this leave us?
Even if you are not suffering or struggling with any mental health issue today, it would certainly be beneficial to you and your family to become more aware of this issue. Also, there is no one way of dealing with this issue and the good thing is that by increasing awareness levels, there are various initiatives that are being undertaken to deal with this at a community/societal level.
In the first post in this series, I take you through the intricate connection between your gut and your brain and why you will need to focus on your gut health in order to improve or sustain your emotional and mental wellbeing.
Gut- Brain Axis
The relation between mental health and nutrition is mediated by the gut-brain axis. The gut is intricately connected to our brain and the single most important aspect of this is the impact of the trillions of microbes that reside in our gut, especially the bacteria.
Historically we have been taught to think of bacteria as agents of death. However, this is only a part of the story. Scientists have so far discovered some 10,000 species of microbes and most of them live in your gut, the majority of which seem to be bacteria (virus and fungi form the rest).
The other thing to note here is that we humans are composed of closely interconnected human and microbial components which are dependant on each other for survival. In turn, our collection of microbes (or microbiome as the ecosystem is called) is closely connected to all the other microbiomes in the soil, the air, the oceans and thus the microbes living in symbiosis with all other living creatures. This makes us our health intricately connected with that of our entire planet.
Mind body connection
Our gut communicates with our brain and vice versa. The gut microbes and the cells of our intestinal lining create signalling molecules that send messages to the brain along the gut brain axis which influences our mental and emotional states. Also, signals travel in the reverse direction as our mental and emotional states in turn affect our gut health. This entire communication network is more important for your overall health and wellbeing than you could ever have imagined.
Specifically, our gut has a large number of sensory neurons (called the enteric nervous system)and has as many neurons our spinal cord and is often referred to as our “second brain”.
Also, there are more immune cells living in the walls of our gut or the one cell thick lining of our intestine than there is in the blood or bone marrow. This is because your gut is your first line of defense against the outside world.
Coming back to the gut microbes, the microbes in our gut influence our brain function in various ways by producing
-neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) like serotonin, GABA, dopamine
-short chain fatty acids
-vitamins including vitamin B12 and biotin
The many sensors in our gut inform the enteric nervous system about everything that it needs to know to function smoothly including the size and consistency of the food we swallow, how much bile and acid to produce for digestion and the presence and activity of the gut microbes.
Given this connection between the gut and the brain, it must be clearer to you now that the food that you eat ultimately impacts your mental and emotional health.
The role of food
Your brain and your body function optimally on a certain set of nutrients which it must obtain externally. Unfortunately, too many people in the modern world today are unable to obtain this daily requirement of nutrients due to a combination of factors like poor diet, chronic stress and nutrient depleted soil. The result: you feel sluggish, irritable, exhausted and depleted.
Unlike what most of tend to think, food is not just calories.
Food contains information that talks to your genes and either turn them on or off affecting their function at any moment of time. So the foods that eat are what determines whether you what you put in your mouth will ultimately move you towards health or towards disease.
Food plays a crucial role in shaping the close relationship between our gut and our brain and starts the moment we are born. However, some of the factors which contribute to poor gut health and an imbalanced microbiome are antibiotic overuse, C section, shronic stress, inflammatory and nutrient poor diet, high alcohol consumption, toxins, inadequate fibre.
At the end of the day, your gut microbes play a crucial role in your health and wellbeing and you need to take good care of them.
The brain-gut-microbiome axis is one that has evolved over millions of years to remain flexible and adapt to (to a large extent) to internal and external changes in our world. This in turn has a huge bearing on our immune function, metabolism, nervous system and every other system in our body.
In the next post, I will be focusing on the role of food on our mood via the gut brain pathway and the foods that can help boost your mood.