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The Connection Between Gut Health & Mental Health

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Many adages reference the puzzling connection between our stomach and our brain. Friends advise it’s best to follow our gut instinct. Some say that bad news can feel like a punch to the stomach. Others will even swear by listening to your gut – and they don’t mean when it’s rumbling!

Have you ever stopped to wonder where these sayings come from?

The Gut-Brain Axis

The gut-brain axis references the physiological connection between not just our stomach and our head, but two of our major nervous systems. These are the central nervous system, which is lead by our brain, and the enteric nervous system, which is contained in our gastrointestinal tract.

These two systems communicate through a process called biochemical signaling, which is essentially the act of different cells communicating within our body. In terms of the gut-brain-axis, this occurrence begins when we’re stimulated by something external such as the sight or smell of food. Ever heard of Pavlov’s dog? Well, that was the first documented demonstration of the gut-brain-axis in action. 

Maybe it seems obvious that you might start to feel hungry when you know your favorite meal is on the way… But how does this relate to our mind and our memory?

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Stress, Anxiety, & Depression

Think of it this way. Have you ever been so nervous or excited that you felt the sensation of “having butterflies in your stomach”? Well, that’s the gut-brain axis at work again. The connection between our stomach and our brain is so strong that we experience emotional responses in our stomachs. While an “anxious stomach” is a common example, stress and anxiety can cause much more harm to our gastrointestinal system than temporary discomfort.

So, if our stomach is affected by our thoughts and feelings, how are our thoughts and feelings affected by our stomachs? Though this subject is currently being explored, many studies have shown that it’s likely an unhappy stomach could be the cause of an unhappy person.

Humans host an extensive collection of microorganisms that are key to our health. These include everything from bacteria to viruses and fungi – yes, fungi! We call this group of inhabitants our microbiome. When the microbiome of our gut is disturbed or impacted negatively, the signals our enteric nervous system sends to our brain may become skewed. Many individuals have begun to invest in the use of probiotics to test this theory for themselves.

The Cost of Caring

Family caregivers experience an incredible amount of stress. When you consider how upsetting it is to see a loved one’s health failing, this isn’t a surprise. But the trials of providing personal care reach so much farther.

Family caregivers are extremely likely to experience challenges such as:

  • Time constraints
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Financial strain
  • Lack of privacy
  • Social isolation

And these are only a handful of common issues. The role of being a caregiver creates a perfect storm of physical, mental, and emotional burdens. What’s worse, many caregivers – men in particular – rarely ask for help when it comes to managing these problems. 

This reality is cause for concern, as the stress and strain of being a caregiver can easily cause lasting consequences for personal health. Because the challenges of caregiving are so diverse, caregivers need to have options when it comes to taking care of themselves.

A Healthy Gut for a Healthy Life

To quote an article published by Body Ecology;

“The health of your brain is directly related to the health of your gut. If you have a compromised digestive system that triggers inflammation, this could weaken the immune system and cause severe side effects throughout your whole body. This will lead to a weakening of the blood-brain barrier so that it becomes permeable and leaves you at risk for dementia.”

This article illustrates just how far-reaching the effects of an unhealthy digestive system can be. Alzheimers and dementia are likely one of the last things we consider when it comes to our stomachs. So, how can you protect your gut’s health to protect the rest of your health? Here are a few simple ways that we recommend. 

traditional slovakian sauerkraut soup with ribs and sausage in castiron pan

You Are What You Eat

As we spoke about earlier in this post, humans rely upon the microorganisms of our microbiome when it comes to our health. So when planning your next trip to the grocery store, think about feeding your microbiome rather than your tastebuds!

Eat foods that contain natural probiotics, such as fermented vegetables (sauerkraut, pickles), or probiotic yogurt. Foods containing fatty acids and polyphenols, such as almonds and olive oil, are also a treat for your gut microbes. 

As well, it’s important to cut down on sugar and sweeteners, as eating too much of these substances can easily cause an imbalance in your guts microbiome.

Don’t Use Antibiotics and Disinfectants Unnecessarily

While antibiotics are very necessary for dealing with certain infections, using them too often can seriously disrupt your gut health. Not only will your body begin to develop a resistance to them – antibiotics can create a lack in certain gut flora for as long as 6 months after their use.

Further, research has shown that an increased use of household disinfectants can also harm your gut health. Infants living in households that used disinfectants more frequently demonstrated a lack of gut flora as well as an increased risk of obesity. Using cleaners that are less chemically harsh may not only boost your immunity but also your gut health.

Take Care of Your Teeth

Not only will your dentist thank you – your stomach will, too. By taking care of your oral health, you can prevent “bad” bacteria and organisms from taking over and affecting your guts microbiome. 

When you think about it, your mouth is the gatekeeper to your gut. Food, drinks, medicine, and most other things we ingest are introduced to our bodies through the mouth. So, by taking care of the microbiome in your mouth, you are taking care of the microbiome in your gut. 

Trust Your Gut

When it comes down to it, there are many different ways to take care of ourselves. So why not capitalize on the connection between your gut and your mind? Taking care of one is taking care of the other.  Not to mention, these benefits are sure to extend throughout the rest of your body and life, too.

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  • Written by Janet Haynes

    As the Vice President of Clinical Services, Janet oversees the organization’s professional development of the nursing team and clinical systems to optimize the quality of care delivered to our residents. She was critical is establishing Hearth Management as a leader in nursing care in the Senior Living and Memory Care industry.

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