As we become more aware of the detrimental impact that stress and poor health can have on mental wellness, we’re prioritizing the health of our brains now more than ever.
We’re meditating, spending time in nature, getting more sleep, and trying not to look at our phones so much. And while mindfulness and the power of your thoughts can impact your health and your life, there’s another aspect of keeping your brain healthy that actually doesn’t start in your head at all.1
Say hello to your gut brain.
Researchers have found that the “brain” in your head isn't the only one you've got––there's a whole system of neurons in your gastrointestinal tract that's so powerful and influential that it's often called the "second brain" or "gut brain".
Made up of hundreds of thousands of neurons, it plays a role in everything from mood to memory––and it's deeply connected to the ecosystem of bacteria in your gastrointestinal system, called your gut microbiome. Everyone's gut microbiome is unique, but generally speaking, it's healthiest when there's a balance of about 85% good bacteria to 15% inhospitable bacteria.
The good bacteria work together with your gut brain (and, via your vagus nerve, your head brain) in a couple of really important ways.
For instance, strains like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria signal the brain to regulate the level of cytokines in your body. Cytokines are substances that are involved in your immune reactions, but too many of them can actually damage your brain cells, leading to up and down moods, high levels of stress, and unwanted changes in cognitive functioning.2 It’s all about balance.
Similarly, when your gut microbiome is in balance it makes up to thirty of the neurotransmitters that affect your mood, including serotonin (the "happy" hormone), dopamine (the "reward" hormone), GABA (the “calming” chemical), and oxytocin (the "connection" hormone). What's more, the good bacteria in your gut also lower your levels of cortisol, a hormone that is associated with stress, low moods, and holding onto excess body weight.3,4,5 Simply put: when your bacteria are in balance, your brain is functioning in optimal condition.
But when your gut microbiome is out of balance and the bad guys take over, your body and your brain suffer for it. Not only do you not get all of the benefits of having enough of the good guys, you also get the nasty effects of the less hospitable bacteria, one of which is an increase in brain-busting lipopolysaccharides. These are types of molecules that have all kinds of unwanted effects on the brain, including lowering the levels of dopamine and serotonin, impacting the area of the brain most associated with memory, increasing the levels of cortisol in the body, and upping the damage that free radicals can cause to brain cells.6
The hard truth: it's really easy for your gut microbiome to get out of balance.
While your bacterial flora are incredibly powerful, they're also delicate. Things like stress, not getting enough sleep, being exposed to antibiotics in food or medication, eating sugar or gluten, or even environmental factors like working in an old building can deplete and unbalance your microbiome. Even if you're doing a lot of things to keep yourself healthy––like eating well, exercising, and spending time outside––our modern way of life could be undermining you.
The really great news: you can take your brain power into your own hands!
While it's easy to unbalance your gut microbiome, there's also a lot you can do to reclaim a healthy balance. The gut and the brain are in constant communication, so if you make choices that support your gut health, like getting enough sleep, prioritizing a whole food diet high in vegetables, and lowering your stress levels, it's going to have a positive effect on the health and longevity of your brain, too.
That said, it's nearly impossible to get all of the nutrients and exposure to friendly flora that you need for an optimal microbiome in our modern society, so you may want to look to other sources for additional support.
One of the best things you can do for your gut health, and by extension your brain health, is to directly replenish your system with probiotics, both by adding fermented foods to your diet, and by supplementing with a diverse, time-released probiotic like PRO-15. Adding an organic prebiotic powder to your daily regimen will further ensure your good bacteria have the right nourishment so they can really thrive and support your health from its core.
While brain research is ongoing, these findings that connect the brain and gut microbiome have opened up a whole new world of possibilities when it comes to optimizing the health of our brain. Now that we have a more complete picture, we can take practical steps to protect and support our brain by prioritizing and nurturing our friendly microbes.
1. Sonnenburg, J. and Sonnenburg, E. (2015). The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood and Your Long-Term Health. Penguin Press: London.
2. Khairova, R. A., Machado-Vieira, R., Du, J., Manji, H.K. (2009). A Potential Role for Pro-inflammatory Cytokines in Regulating Synaptic Plasticity in Major Depressive Disorder. The International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology 12(4). doi: 10.1017/S1461145709009924
3. Kato-Kataoka, A., Nishida, K., Takada, M., Kawai, M., Kikuchi-Hayakawa, H., Suda, K., . . . Rokutan, K. (2016). Fermented milk containing Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota preserves the diversity of the gut microbiota and relieves abdominal dysfunction in healthy medical students exposed to academic stress. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 82(12), 3649-3658. doi:10.1128/aem.04134-15
4. Bravo, J. A., Forsythe, P., Chew, M. V., Escaravage, E., Savignac, H. M., Dinan, T. G., . . . Cryan, J. F. (2011). Ingestion of Lactobacillus strain regulates emotional behavior and central GABA receptor expression in a mouse via the vagus nerve. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(38), 16050-16055.
5. Poutahidis, T., Kearney, S. M., Levkovich, T., Qi, P., Varian, B. J., Lakritz, J. R., . . . Erdman, S. E. (2013). Microbial Symbionts Accelerate Wound Healing via the Neuropeptide Hormone Oxytocin. PLoS ONE, 8(10).
6. Bercik P., Denou E., Collins J., Jackson W., Lu J., Jury J. . . . Collins, S.M. (2011). The Intestinal Microbiota Affect Central Levels of Brain-derived Neurotropic Factor and Behavior in Mice. Gastroenterology 141(2). doi: 10.1053/j.gastro.2011.04.052
Rachel Allen is a writer at Hyperbiotics who's absolutely obsessed with learning about how our bodies work. She's fascinated by the latest research on bacteria and the role they play in health, and loves to help others learn about how probiotics can help the body get back in balance. For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.