The Gut-Brain Connect And Mental Health

A documentary that looks at how everything is closely connected has an episode on poop, tracing its journey from the human body to its place of final disposal. Interestingly, the narrator-reporter, talking to the person in-charge of the sewage disposal unit in London, remarks excitedly that this unit with its myriad pipes and canals was actually an extension of the human alimentary canal! From here, it journeys on in more canals and pipes to its final destination. And in the process, all poops become free of identities, merging as one. Including those of queen and commoner. That’s a metaphysical view, so to speak.

Amazingly, between the alimentary canal and the brain, a lot of stuff goes on. Sometimes our emotions and behaviour may be orchestrated by trillions of bacteria that reside in those winding tracts, propelling us to be what we are. The term ‘gut feeling’ comes from here, perhaps, and our intuition is likely collective messages bombarded by these little fellas who make up our intricate microbiome web. That gut bacteria impact the brain and influence the mind is no longer fringe theory.

Experts are testing psychobiotics as mental health remedies, reports Elizabeth Svoboda in Discover magazine, as gut bacteria may cause or aggravate anxiety.

You also have ‘mood probiotics’, gut bacterial strains engineered to help you deal with anxiety and depression.

The converse is also true; good bacteria improves our overall health, and make possible mind-body balance. Scientists are trying to create “new bacteria-based therapies that could expand a mental health treatment landscape,” that is sorely in need of fresh breakthroughs.

That queasy feeling in the tummy before an interview or examination, the butterflies in your stomach when you are on stage, emotions that impede bowel movement and more such indications reveal the intimate gut-brain-mind connection.

Traditional healing systems including India’s Ayurveda, Tibetan Medicine, ancient Chinese medicine and tribal remedies, all give great importance to what we put into our stomachs and what we feed our minds. Hippocrates is believed to have said, “All disease begins in the gut.” A Chinese proverb says, “There is no difference between food and medicine.” Buddhism promotes compassion and altruism plus mindful eating.

Writes Svoboda, “Bacterial cells outnumber human cells in the body by a factor of at least 1.3 to 1. The human gut plays host to more than 100 trillion of these bacteria — a complex, interdependent microbial universe wedged between your ribcage and spine.”

Ninety percent of the serotonin in the body — hormone that contributes to happy moods and wellbeing — is produced by gut-bacteria. Hence it is vital to eat and drink whatever will help gut bacteria keep the serotonin rolling.

Those with digestive problems and diseases like irritable bowel syndrome may benefit from microbiome-related remedies, say experts. Anil Rajvanshi, director, Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute, Phaltan, Maharashtra, says that there is information flow from gut to brain via the Vagus nerve that interfaces with neurons in the brain and this flow is mostly one-sided. Reverse communication happens in times of distress like stomach ailments, pain and hunger.

According to Rajvanshi, the colon cleansing process of Ayurveda like enema or ‘gut wrenching’ exercises of nauli in Hatha Yoga help in cleaning the gut and increasing the feeling of wellness. In Mayur Asana, the body is balanced on the navel. The pressure stimulates the Vagus nerve, helping improve the brain-gut connection.

 

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