girl holding a glass of juice

Believe it or not, we all have an ecosystem in our guts. It’s called the gut microbiome, a collection of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. But wait! That’s a good thing! Our gut microbiomes have a huge impact on our overall mental and physical health. We’re still learning about the connections between gut health and mental health but plenty of research has shown that the health of our guts is instrumental in our overall health. Food is more than just fuel. Nutrition also affects the gut microbiome and from there, our mental and physical health. Instead of thinking about “good” or “bad” foods and perpetuating a harmful cycle of disordered eating, think of foods that nourish your gut and foods that disrupt your gut.

While there’s been an influx of research, gut health is still something that’s overlooked by doctors. By healing our guts, we can prevent further disease, and even make strides towards healing our mental health. We know that gut health is a significant piece of the puzzle. On an upcoming episode of A Wise Mind, Sam talked to Leanna Stetson about the importance of gut health and what we can do to heal our gut microbiomes. For their full conversation, make sure to listen to the podcast when it’s available!

Now more than ever, people go to the doctor reporting stomach issues. Part of this is due to stress and anxiety. We’ve talked before about some of the physical symptoms of anxiety and depression. These include muscle soreness, headaches, and stomach aches. Stress changes the environment of our microbiome and can lead to issues like IBS and leaky gut syndrome. This cycle of unbalanced bacteria leads to stomach issues which can affect our eating which can mean we take in fewer nutrients, which further disrupts our microbiome.

Research has shown that imbalances in certain gut bacteria can lead to cancer, IBS, obesity, liver disease, HIV, and cardiovascular disease like hypertension. While we still need more data to determine direct causation, there’s a correlation between our gut health and overall health.
Imagine your gut like a garden. The flowers, trees, and vegetables are carefully planted, thriving in their nutrient-rich soil. They clean the air and release oxygen. They create a carefully cultivated environment that needs tending but will grow well unless it’s disturbed. If you introduce an invasive species like buffalo grass or kudzu, allow rabbits to chew through the fence and eat the plants, or don’t correctly weed and water, the environment changes, and the plants don’t thrive.
Now imagine those invasive species of plants and wildlife as bad bacteria. Our guts are an intricate microbiome made up of viruses and fungi. Everything in our body is connected, so it shouldn’t be surprising that 50% of our heart health is affected by our gut microbiome and 90% of our serotonin is created in our guts. Less serotonin leads to depression and anxiety which puts stress on our gut. There is a brain-gut axis that exists and we need to pay attention to it.

Things like poor stress management, unprocessed trauma, lack of exercise, alcohol, drugs, and low-nutrient foods all lead to changes in gut health. There is also ample evidence that alcohol wreaks havoc on our guts. Chronic alcohol consumption can change the overall microbiome composition in our guts. It affects your body’s ability to detoxify itself and makes it more difficult to break down nutrients. This leads to gas, bloating, and discomfort. Alcohol makes our gut lining more permeable which allows undigested food particles to enter our bloodstream. Our blood cells attack unknown objects which leads to inflammation.
There’s ample research on the effects of alcohol on our gut lining. It exacerbates any existing issues and changes the environment of our guts, thus changing the bacteria. Some bacteria starve and die when they’re malnourished. There’s less data about the effects of drug use on the gut lining but there are certainly negative side effects.

A study conducted by the University of San Diego School of Medicine found that the gut microbiomes in rats affected how their brains reacted to opioids. After giving one group of rats antibiotics to deplete their gut bacteria, researchers noticed that these depleted rats showed very different neuron activations. A noticeable difference was that these rats showed less activation when they experienced withdrawal symptoms, which means they had a higher risk of drug abuse.

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As humans, we’ve moved away from nature and the earth. Much of the stress that causes gut health issues is from the struggles of the modern world. We’re not meant to encounter and process the amount of bad news and traumatic events that we do every day.
Another example of stepping away from nature is modern medicine. While it does a lot of good for a lot of people, we’ve also lost touch with our natural body processes. We have access to medication for everything which disrupts our internal balance. For example, antibiotics are useful for treating infections like strep throat and urinary tract infections. While antibiotics kill bad bacteria and stop the spread of infections, they also kill good gut bacteria. It’s not uncommon for people to take antibiotics for a UTI and then get a yeast infection.
Another example is antacids like Tums. They work wonders to reduce the acid in our stomachs. But the pendulum swings and the pH of the stomach is extremely high and some bacteria thrive in that environment. We go from an excess of acid to an excess of bacteria that thrives in an alkaline pH, further throwing off our microbiomes.

But is healing as simple as eating and sleeping well? Yes and no. The solutions really are simple but your gut takes time to heal and it’s important to give yourself the proper time and space to heal. Long-term lifestyle changes can seem daunting but it’s as easy as taking the first step.
How do we create a friendly environment for the good gut bacteria we need? Probiotics to the rescue! These are living organisms in food and drinks that we can introduce back into our diets. These are good bacteria that help break down food.

There are some supplements available but fermented foods are naturally rich in probiotics. You can introduce some fermented foods into your diet: yogurt, kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, and kefir. But this isn’t a quick fix. Probiotics can take around 10 to 12 weeks to really show results. Remember, we’re reintroducing living organisms into our microbiomes, it takes time for them to settle in and get to work. We’re introducing large colonies of good bacteria so they can push out bad bacteria.

This is just one of the small steps we can take to heal our guts. We can eat as much yogurt as we want and exercise to regulate our hormones and heal our microbiomes but that will only do so much until we heal our underlying trauma. If we still hold onto unresolved trauma, we’ll keep putting our guts through stress and anxiety which starts the bad bacteria cycle all over again.

It’s important to take a holistic approach to healing and take steps to live a healthy lifestyle, as opposed to looking for a quick fix. There’s no silver bullet for healing our guts. Probiotics, exercise, good nutrition, and healing trauma all work hand-in-hand to heal our guts. Make sure you’re part of a team that helps you make healthy decisions. You’re not alone in healing and you’ll be able to talk to like-minded people about your journey.