The idea of ingesting someone else’s poop might seem like a challenge gone wrong, but fecal matter transplants are a promising new mental health treatment. That’s because poop transplants deliver good bacteria to the colon and restore a healthy balance to the gut microbiome.
Scientists are realizing the importance of taking care of your gut. Think of all the times you’ve felt butterflies in your stomach or felt nauseous minutes before a first date. Your gut has its own private line with the brain and the two organs communicate so much that it has a say in our bodily processes.
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Our gut and brain were formed from the same fetal tissue in the womb, so they’re forever linked through the gut-brain axis connection, says Gemma Stuart, the founding owner of Gutsy Health. The trillions of microbes in our gut can affect our body weight, our response to infection, our immunity, and our mood. It’s no wonder doctors refer to the gut as our second brain.
So when the trillions of microorganisms calling the gut home aren’t doing so well, they alert the brain for help. These distress signals manifest themselves in many ways, including as signs of depression and loneliness.
Gut microbiome imbalance
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To maintain a healthy gut, there must be more good microbes than bad. Shifting the balance towards more harmful bacteria makes it more difficult for good microbes to grow and thrive. There is some research linking some bacterial families to depressive symptoms. Authors of a 2022 study in Nature communications examined over a thousand poop samples from people with depression and narrowed down the culprits to thirteen bacterial strains. These bacterial species are involved in creating brain chemicals that promote depression.
Low production of serotonin in the intestine
Serotonin is the key brain chemical involved in regulating our moods and emotions. At normal levels, this happiness hormone keeps you calm and emotionally stable. About 95 percent of serotonin is produced in the intestines.
One school of thought underlying depression is that it is associated with low serotonin levels, although this theory has sparked debate in recent years. Some research suggests that a gut imbalance can impair the production and delivery of serotonin to the brain if there aren’t enough bacterial species to produce the chemical.
Inflammation in the gut is strongly linked to an increased risk of depression. One explanation is that when the brain receives news of an immune response in the gut, the brain deploys its defenses. Increased neuroinflammation is considered a pathway to depression as it activates a response to intense and chronic stress. Research suggests that inflammatory proteins deplete the existing supply of serotonin and affect the production of more. Immune cells also slow down the process of creating new brain cells. The inability to produce new neurons is associated with depression because it makes it more difficult to separate negative thoughts and memories.
The relationship between the gut and the brain is two-way
Courage’s special relationship to the brain goes both ways. A gut imbalance can make depression worse, but the brain can send stress signals and cause an upset stomach. Examining the bowels of people with chronic inflammatory diseases supported this theory. A 2022 study found that people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) were nine times more likely to develop depression than those without IBD. People with depression were also twice as likely to be diagnosed with IBD.
Of course, the gut microbiome is only one piece of the puzzle to understanding this complex disease. And while some factors, like genes, are out of a person’s control, maintaining your gut microbiome is something you can do today to improve your mental well-being.
Stuart recommends eating a well-balanced diet consisting of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Following the Mediterranean diet is another option and is linked to a reduction in depressive symptoms. Processed foods and those with a high sugar content can increase inflammation and further upset your stomach. The more natural, the better. You can also take prebiotics to boost gut health. These provide food for your good bacteria and help them grow. Probiotics found in fermented foods like yogurt and kimchi can tip the balance in the microbial community by providing good bacteria for health.
Reducing stress and moving actively are other ways to keep your gut in top shape. Mediation or a 10-minute nature walk can do wonders for your mental health. A healthy gut can lead to a healthier brain and vice versa, Stuart notes. If you’re looking to improve your mental well-being, it’s important to make good daily choices to look after your gut health.
Before you go, check out these inspirational quotes that reshape the way you think about food.
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