For the longest time, we tended to think of the body pretty much as a collection of parts that didn't have a whole lot to do with each other. While we did have a basic understanding of how some parts of the body worked together, it's really only been in recent years that we've started to understand just how interconnected every part of our body really is.
One of the most fascinating areas of recent research has been the gastrointestinal system. What we once thought of as a system used almost exclusively for breaking down food and preparing it for absorption has been shown to have far-reaching effects throughout our body. Indeed, everything from your brain to your skin can be closely linked to what's going on in your gut!
Why Is Gut Health So Important?
It has everything to do with bacteria—specifically, the ecosystem of bacteria that live in your gut (called your gut microbiome.) When this system is in balance, it's mostly made up of bacteria that do beneficial things for the body.
If it gets out of balance (which can happen when you eat a lot of processed food, are stressed, are exposed to antibiotics in food or medications, or for many other reasons) other types of bacteria can take over, leading to some serious unpleasantness.
Your bacterial balance can affect all kinds of things you wouldn't expect, including:
1. A bad mood.
It's natural to feel down every now and again, but if you're regularly feeling blue, or if your moods are all over the place, you might want to take a look at your gut. You see, your gut and your brain are closely connected, and communicate constantly with each other through your vagus nerve, which runs from your brainstem to your abdomen. When something's off in your gut, the messages it sends to your brain can make you feel unhappy or upset.1
Plus, your gut microbiome is also a key player in regulating your hormones, which have a lot to do with how you're feeling. In fact, the bacteria in your gut are responsible for producing many of the substances that make you feel good, including GABA and serotonin, which make you feel calm and happy. They can also dial down your levels of cortisol (a hormone that really ramps up when you're stressed), and dial up your oxytocin, a hormone that makes you feel loved and connected to those around you.2
2. Unhappy skin.
Just as is the case with your brain, your gut and your skin are also closely connected. (In fact, these three systems often work together in what's called the gut-brain-skin axis.)3 You can probably already guess one of the ways that your gut affects your skin after reading the first point: it has to do with your hormones. You already know that your hormones have a lot to do with how your skin is looking (remember puberty?), so when your gut bacteria are out of balance, this can throw your hormones out of whack, which in turn can affect your skin.4
On top of that, your gut microbiome is responsible for your nutrient absorption, which is key for radiant, glowing skin. It’s also incredibly influential on your immune system, about 80% of which is located in the gut. If your bacteria are depleted or there's an imbalance of bad to beneficial bacteria, your immune system can't function as well as it should, which can lead to immune-related redness and a state called "oxidative stress," in which your body has more free radicals in it than it can deal with.5 Both of these things can show up as changes in your skin.
3. Poor sleep.
Feel like you're always tossing and turning? Have a hard time shutting off? Wake up feeling like you're in a fog? Chances are that the balance of your gut microbiome has shifted. Besides impacting the hormones that affect your brain and skin, they also play a role in the hormones that regulate your circadian rhythm, which in turn dictates how well you're sleeping.6
In addition to its effects on GABA, serotonin, and cortisol (all of which are closely connected with your sleep quality), your gut microbiome also has an effect on the levels of tryptophan in your blood. Tryptophan is a substance that's broken down into serotonin and then into melatonin, which is your body's regulator for how sleepy you feel.
4. Seasonal sniffles.
OK, so far so good. It makes sense that your gut bacteria would affect your brain through the vagus nerve, and your skin and your sleep through their effect on your hormones, but the sniffles? How can that happen?
It actually has to do with your immune system. When you find yourself with something like seasonal sniffles, it's a case of your immune system overreacting to a stimulus. Instead of seeing pollen or other substances as being harmless, your immune system takes them to be a threat, and rallies your body to fight them. Since they are in fact harmless, your body doesn't have anything to actually fight, but you get the effects anyway in the form of sneezes and sniffles.
Here's the thing though: your immune system can be "trained" to react appropriately to harmless things. The more microorganisms you're exposed to and the broader the population of your gut microbiome, the less likely it is that your immune system will go overboard.7
5. Extra weight.
While weight is a complex topic, and research is still ongoing, it is clear that the health of your gut microbiome is very closely linked to how likely your body is to hold excess weight.8 In fact, scientists have been able to predict whether a person is at optimal or excess weight far more accurately based on the composition of their gut microbiome than their genes. (90% accuracy compared to 58%!)
There are a few reasons for this, too. Your gut microbiome impacts your hormones, which play a big role in your weight. One particularly important connection is how your microbiome affects leptin, which is the hormone that signals to your body that you're full. If your gut microbiome is out of balance, it will affect your sensitivity to leptin, leaving your brain thinking that you constantly need to eat.
Your bacteria also affect how you digest and absorb nutrients, which impacts how much you eat and how your body holds weight, as well as your blood sugar levels, which is one of the keys to maintaining a healthy weight.
Five Simple Things You Can Do to Support Your Gut
Now that you know just what a far-reaching effect your gut microbiome has on your life, chances are you'd like to know how to get it firing on all cylinders so you can avoid these issues. Bad news: you can't change your gut health overnight. Good news: you can change it, and it's easier to get started than you think. Try this:
1. Build relaxation into your schedule.
When you're already on the go, sometimes it feels like the last thing you need is one more thing to do...but setting aside time everyday to consciously relax (instead of just checking out in front of the TV or computer) is really important for your health overall, and it supports your gut microbiome. Just like you, your bacteria respond poorly to stress, so the more you can give them a break, the better they'll be able to do their work. One really big upside to this is that it's a self-perpetuating cycle. When you’re not stressed, your gut bacteria are able to flourish, which in turn helps improve your mood and keeps you feeling nice and calm.
2. Take it easy on the cleaning products and cleansers.
One really common way that gut bacteria get thrown off is by exposure to substances that kill both the bad and beneficial ones indiscriminately. Unfortunately, we're surrounded by products that do just that, including many cleaning products, soaps, and cleansers, especially those that are antibacterial. Do your best to stick to milder, more natural products––they're not only typically better for the environment, they also won't devastate your delicate flora.
For bonus points, read up on the Hygiene Hypothesis, and learn how the way we think about cleanliness in our modern Western culture is really pretty unusual, and might be causing some wide-reaching problems.
3. Turn off the technology (at least at night).
Don't make your bacteria fight an uphill battle to keep your circadian rhythm working properly: try to turn off your screens at least an hour before you go to bed. The blue light they emit has an opposite effect to that of healthy gut bacteria—instead of helping your circadian rhythm work properly, it tells your brain to stay awake. (Looking for ways to unplug? This is for you.) And one thing we’ve learned about gut bacteria is that they need their zzz’s to thrive...and since we need them to function at our best, a good night’s sleep is a must-have.
The interesting part? It’s a two-way street. The more friendly microbes you have, the more likely you are to get a good night’s rest. If you'd like to take a more proactive approach, then try taking a premium probiotic, like PRO-15. That way you'll know that your gut bacteria are thriving and able to do their best to support your sleep, even if you're not ready to go analog every night just yet.
4. Get some more dirt in your life.
Like any ecosystem, your microbiome thrives on diversity; the more types of bacteria you have in your system, the better it's typically going to function. This is particularly true for your gut's relationship with immunity. While much of the "training" that your immune system undergoes happens when you're a child, it's still a good idea to get as much exposure to different types of microorganisms as you can so that your body can continue to adapt. This means getting outdoors, playing with animals, gardening, and all-in-all, not being afraid of a little dirt. It’s pretty simple: having more bacteria in your life will help keep your immune system working well, so your chances of staying well will be higher.
5. Add more prebiotic and probiotic foods to your diet.
Your gut microbiome does best when you eat foods that also feed your good bacteria (prebiotics), and when you deliver more beneficial bacteria directly to your gut (probiotics). Try adding in both types of foods to your diet: not only will you feel much better, your gut bacteria will be happier and more effective, which means that your nutrient absorption, energy levels, blood sugar, and metabolism will have the support they need. And of course, if you really want to make sure you're covering your bases, you can supplement with an organic prebiotic powder or probiotic supplement.
Research is making it clearer and clearer that the body isn't just a biological machine––it's an intricately, intimately connected group of systems that have far-reaching effects on each other, and none more so than the gut. So if you’re experiencing sub-optimal health issues, whether it's in the form of a breakout or a bad night's sleep, take a second to check in with your gut. You might be surprised at just how much it's affecting you!
1. 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.
2. Schmidt, K., Cowen, P. J., Harmer, C. J., Tzortzis, G., Errington, S., & Burnet, P. W. (2014). Prebiotic intake reduces the waking cortisol response and alters emotional bias in healthy volunteers. Psychopharmacology, 232(10), 1793-1801.
3. Bowe, W.P., Logan, A.C. (2011). Acne Vulgaris, Probiotics and the Gut-Brain-Skin Axis - Back to the Future? Gut Pathogens, 3(1). doi:10.1186/1757-4749-3-1
4. Kober, M., & Bowe, W. P. (2015). The effect of probiotics on immune regulation, acne, and photoaging. International Journal of Women's Dermatology, 1(2), 85-89. doi:10.1016/j.ijwd.2015.02.001
5. Ejtahed, H. S., Mohtadi-Nia, J., Homayouni-Rad, A., Niafar, M., Asghari-Jafarabadi, M., & Mofid, V. (2012). Probiotic yogurt improves antioxidant status in type 2 diabetic patients. Nutrition,28(5), 539-543. doi:10.1016/j.nut.2011.08.013
6. Nakamaru-Ogiso, E., Miyamoto, H., Hamada, K., Tsukada, K., & Takai, K. (2012). Novel biochemical manipulation of brain serotonin reveals a role of serotonin in the circadian rhythm of sleep-wake cycles. European Journal of Neuroscience, 35(11), 1762-1770.
7. Hansen, C.H., Andersen, L.S., Krych L., Metzdorff, S.B. . . . Hansen, A.K. (2014). Mode of Delivery Shapes Gut Colonization Pattern and Modulates Regulatory Immunity in Mice. The Journal of Immunology 193(3). doi: 10.4049/jimmunol.1400085
8. Zhang, Q., Wu, Y., & Fei, X. (2016). Effect of probiotics on body weight and body-mass index: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 67(5), 571-580.
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.