Have you ever felt just “bleh” without being able to pinpoint exactly why? Perhaps it’s general fatigue and fogginess that persists even after you seem to have gotten a full night’s sleep. Or perhaps it’s feelings of stress and unease—even nausea—that you just can’t seem to shake.
If so, know that we’ve been there, too. (And just as it surprised us), it’ll likely surprise you to learn that poor gut health may be the root cause of these pesky symptoms. That’s because good gut health is so essential to not just digestive health, but also to sleep quality, mental well-being, and the strength of our immune systems. Poor gut health can even hinder the body’s ability to absorb micronutrients from food, no matter how well balanced the diet is. What’s one of the most effective ways to support a healthy gut? Probiotics.
The Gut-Brain Connection
Before we talk about probiotics, let’s dive into the gut (AKA the gastrointestinal tract).
Sometimes referred to as “the second brain,” the gut is home to as many as 500 million neurons! This system of neurons is so complex that it even has its own official name: The Enteric Nervous System (ENS). The ENS has the ability to operate gastrointestinal function independently of the central nervous system. It is responsible for muscle contractions that move food through the GI tract, the secretion of enzymes specific to the food being digested, and relaying information from the gut to the brain via the vagus nerve that runs up the spine.
Research into neural activity in the gut is relatively new. The discovery of neurons in GI tissue occurred in 2010 when a neuroscientist noticed microscopic protrusions on Enteroendocrine cells that resembled the synapses found in the brain. Upon further examination, that same scientist discovered that the cells from GI tract were able to “talk” to the brain via electrical signals in the same manner that brain neurons communicate with each other. This bilateral line of communication is known as the Gut-Brain Axis (GBA). You’ve probably experienced activation of the GBA when you felt nervous and experienced “butterflies in the stomach.” Yup, that’s directly related to GBA activation.
What’s the significance of all this? There’s a lot more to the connection between the gut and brain than simply signaling to stop eating when you feel full—they’re far more interconnected than previously thought. So, let’s parse out how this relationship impacts our overall well-being.
The Microbiome >> Gut Health >> The Brain
To support gut health, the human digestive system relies on hundreds of diverse strains of beneficial bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms. In fact, there are 10 times more microorganism cells in the gut than there are human cells in your body. Crazy, right?
Combined, these microbiota compose what is referred to as the gut biome. A healthy and thriving gut biome has the power to influence both our physical well-being as well as our mental health through the gut-brain axis.
Many factors play a role in the health of the gut biome, including age and genetics, but lifestyle choices also dramatically impact gut health. Often, an unhealthy gut biome can result from:
- A diet high in sugar and processed foods
- Excessive use of antibiotics
- Poor hydration
- Excess alcohol consumption
- A diet lacking nutritional diversity including fiber rich foods
Foods that are high in refined sugar, trans fats (think fried foods), and processed foods can offset the balance in the gut with the number of good bacteria dropping. This loss of balance is called dysbiosis.
How do you know if your gut is out of balance? It’s not always easy. Gastrointestinal distress in the form of excess gas, irregular bowel movements, bloating, and acid reflux are all commonly experienced with a poor gut often paired with chronic fatigue. In addition, slower on-set inflammation can go undetected for a long time.
In summary, a healthy gut-brain axis relies on a healthy gut which relies on a healthy gut biome.
Now back to Probiotics
In order for the gut to function optimally, the microbiota that reside in the GI tract and comprise the gut microbiome need to be healthy. Probiotics are living microorganisms (yeasts and bacteria) that provide health benefits by bolstering the microbiota in your gut. They are commonly found in fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, miso, and kombucha.
These friendly bacteria help you digest, absorb, maintain a good pH and fight infection. Without them, disease-forming bacteria can take over and a variety of complications can arise such as bloating, ulcers, irregularity, achiness and fatigue. Even more so, without these bacteria, inflammation can worsen in the body and the brain, causing more mood problems and stress.
The Benefits of Probiotics on the Gut-Brain Axis
The benefits of supplementing your diet with probiotics expand beyond supporting your digestive health. Nutrient absorption, immune response, and even sleep and mental health can all benefit from supplementation with probiotics.
#1: Helps Balance the Gut Biome and Supports Digestive Health
Let’s start with the most well-known benefit: digestive health. Adding probiotics into your diet can essentially reinforce the microorganisms that reside in your gut. You can literally think of it as manually increasing the amount of beneficial bacteria residing in the body, thus boosting the amount of bacteria available to break down food and extract crucial nutrients.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is one of the most common digestive disorders and it has been linked to disturbances in the microbiota of the gut. In the review of 35 different studies, treatment with multistrain probiotics showed a significant improvement in treating IBS.
#2: Improved Nutrient Absorption
A healthy diet can only get you so far if your body is unable to absorb the micronutrients of your food. Micronutrient deficiencies are a well documented phenomenon that occurs around the world. One systematic review on probiotic research showed that supplementation with certain probiotic strains actually boosted levels of vitamin B12, calcium, folate, iron and zinc in human subjects. In one particular study, this boost in nutrient absorption even resulted in improved bone development!
Probiotics and a thriving gut biome also increase the bioavailability of micronutrients. Bacterial metabolic processes in the gut involving the breakdown of consumed fibers increase the pH of the gut . This leads to increased mineral solubility and a larger absorption surface along the walls of the intestines.
#3: Boosted Immune System
While the exact mechanisms for understanding how probiotics affect the immune system and its response are not yet well understood, many studies have revealed a correlation between probiotic supplementation and stimulation of immune response. Gut associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) accounts for 70% of the body’s immune system. With this in mind, boosting the immune system by supporting gut health makes a lot of sense. And we have a few studies to support this hypothesis—for example, a long-term study on children who consumed probiotic milk resulted in less respiratory infections than children who did not regularly consume probiotic milk.
When we consume something potentially pathogenic, the microbes that make up our microbiome create a barrier on the walls of the intestine that prevent the potentially harmful microbe from entering the bloodstream. In one study, treatment with a specific strain of probiotic bacteria prevented infection from E. Coli and Salmonella in the intestines, most likely by creating an extra line of defense. They’re like our own little watchmen guarding the gates!
#4: Supports Mental Health, Mood Regulation, and Sleep.
95% of serotonin is produced in the gut through the metabolism of tryptophan. As you may recall, serotonin is the neurotransmitter associated with supporting mood and mental well-being. That’s why many antidepressants focus on increasing serotonin levels. Knowing that almost all of this vital neurotransmitter is produced in the gut, it’s reasonable to deduce that good gut health is pretty essential to supporting mental well-being. On top of that, serotonin also plays a role in sleep quality, so a boost in serotonin can result in higher quality sleep, which can, in turn, further promote mental well-being. It’s a virtuous cycle!
If you’ve read our blog on L-theanine, you might already be familiar with gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA for short. GABA is a neurotransmitter with the ability to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety by preventing reception of the stress-inducing brain chemical glutamate. Guess what? GABA is also produced in the gut by beneficial bacteria. Even better? In one study, probiotics were shown to increase production of GABA in lab mice.
With the addition of probiotics, subjects in one study actually reported an improvement in depression, stress, and anxiety. Another paper that analyzed the results of multiple studies came to a similar conclusion when analyzing the effects of probiotics on mental health.
Need more proof that gut health is impactful on mental health? An additional number of studies provided strong evidence that a diet high in sugar impaired both long term and short term memory showing the significance of how gut health is in many ways, brain health.
Other Ways to Support a Healthy Gut
As research develops to ascertain the full scope of the gut brain axis, one thing is for certain: a healthy gut is paramount in supporting your overall health. In addition to probiotics, prebiotics are another great way to support the microbiota of the gut.
You can think of prebiotics as food set aside just for gut microorganisms. They are plant fibers that the body can’t actually digest so they go straight to the microbiota.
A diet high in wholefoods likely already incorporates prebiotics since they are in many fruits and veggies. Examples of foods high in prebiotics include:
- Fruits: Apples, berries, tomatoes
- Vegetables: Asparagus, spinach, artichokes
- Other: Flaxseed, lentils, oats
If you need another reason to try a wholefood diet, prebiotics have also been linked to a reduction in cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone.
While most of the research is relatively new, there is no question about it—Gut health is brain health. We had that fact in mind when we chose to include probiotics as a key ingredient in the formulation of Patch. The connection between the brain and the gut can’t be understated and it is our ambition that with Patch, we can help nourish that connection for you.