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Next-Level Mental Health: The Gut-Brain Axis

Updated: Jun 24, 2020

By Linda Mullins - Originally appearing in PrimeWomen Magazine

Calling all you ‘clean’ eaters, exercise advocates & overall healthy people doing the right things for your body using practical wisdom and proven methods. Are you watching what you eat as a lifestyle and moving your body daily but still experience difficulties with lack of energy, brain fog, or depression? Welcome to much of the wellness-minded world (the normal/new normal for many) of us doing the right things we’ve known to do much of our lives. And, up until now,if we fall short of our ideal energy, mood and physical goals it likely hasn’t been a ‘knowing’ problem but a ‘doing’ problem. I’m often quick to admit that ‘I haven’t been doing what I know to do’, and owning up to it as the culprit for my lack of optimal health.

But what about the times when we are doing the things to keep our body tip-top and yet it now no longer has the same effects? What now - why the difference? Why the continued battle, with shield and sword, the extra weight, mood swings or forgetfulness. I don’t subscribe to the old adage we must accept it as part of aging. With all of the stressors hurled at us in life and more so over the last 90 days, many of us may find ourselves more than a little cranky with these mounting mental and physical struggles. I mean - how do you navigate such profound changes in the world and specifically in your own life?

With pivot and the new normal quickly becoming worn out catch phrases describing the transition we’re in, these times are bringing a roller coaster of emotions for many. No wonder anxiety and depression are on the rise.

Thank goodness this month is Mental Health Awareness Month, elevating the conversation surrounding all facets of mental health designed to reduce the stigma and shame of mental illness.

This highlighted topic couldn’t have come at a better time with mental health imbalances such as anxiety and depression plaguing an even greater percentage of the world at this very hour due to the global pandemic. After all, the statement ‘ we are all in this together’ couldn’t be more true!

Whether you or your loved ones are serving on the front lines of healthcare, an essential business or simply surviving the trauma of life turned upside down, this season begs us to slow down, take a pause, and take note of the condition of your mind and emotions as well as your physical health.

These conditions of anxiety and burnout due to work-related stress were on the rise even before March( as evidenced by The World Health Organization deeming Burnout a syndrome and assigned it a medical diagnosis code just a year ago). This pandemic is simply impacting the mental well-being of an even greater number of people around the world.

The physical manifestations of stress are clear in some areas such as weight gain, lack of energy, insomnia and so on. Less talked about until recent years, the gut, now referred to as the seStress drives the fight or flight response which is part of the autonomic or "automatic" nervous system. Fear and stress are meant to protect us but we are not meant to live there! According to Dr. Jennifer Kessmann MD, a Family Medicine and Functional Medicine physician, " Stress shifts your biochemistry and causes higher levels of cortisol. High levels of cortisol impacts the delicate hormonal balance and disrupts the immune systems regulation. Cortisol can lead to abdominal obesity and higher inflammatory cytokine levels. These processes can create inflammation in both the body and mind. Long term stress can allow cortisol to "burnout" leaving people feeling exhausted. Fear and stress also contribute to decreased blood flow to the gut impairing digestion and leading to potential overgrowth of bacteria. This disrupts nutrient absorption and enzyme production which are so important to optimal health and brain health.

To further support the gut-brain connection as it relates to mental wellness, recent studies have revealed even more supporting evidence of the relationship. This article from Meet the ‘psychobiome’: the gut bacteria that may alter how you think, feel, and act to a scientist chasing after new drugs in a lab at Holobiome, a Cambridge, MA-based company.

Essentially, our immune system, designed to be our greatest defender, can instead become the source of imbalances and ailments. As it attempts to abolish the bad bacteria, along with it goes the good and can wreak havoc on our system. Dr. Kessmann adds, "Stress can cause an increase in the permeability of your gut. It has been found that when the gut barrier is disrupted, the blood brain barrier can also be involved. When the gut is more permeable, microbial toxins (called LPS molecules) are sometimes carried through the gut barrier into the bloodstream causing intense inflammation.

Okay, enough of the research and data. Let’s talk about what you can do to manage the impact on your personal mental wellness from all of these stressors. As a friend recently said, ‘Shift happens’! Certainly there is no proven way to completely abolish bouts of anxiety or depression. However, you can minimize the impact to your overall mental health by turning your focus to your second brain - the gut. As we just shared, there is so much research and emerging data on the significance of the microbiome in your gut as it relates to your mood, emotions and mental energy, it’s worthy of investing your time to dig in a bit more.

The practices of Integrative Medicine,Lifestyle Medicine and Functional Medicine include an intentional, proactive approach to preventing physical and mental disease and ailments rather than simply relying on traditional medicine to treat disease. Yes, it absolutely has to do with proper nutrition. But it offers a deep dive into the root causes of disease with an emphasis on the mind-body connection. Your specific gut microbiome and imbalances within your body play a leading role in the state of your wellness - mental and physical. When your gut microbiome is dysbiotic (out of whack), it can result in gastrointestinal (GI) disorders as well as mental due in part to the secretion of the chemicals serotonin and dopamine. These hormones are known as the happiness hormones. But, when out of balance, can cause the opposite effect as they affect the whole thought process.

Going beyond the essentials of; eating a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods,increasing fiber, exercising regularly, getting adequate sleep and staying hydrated -approaches such as functional, integrative and lifestyle medicine look at a wider range of factors involved in your overall health..

Factors such as air quality, pesticides, hormones and toxins in our food supply as well as the specific chemistry of your blood work tell a more complete story of the whole you. There is no doubt that including the components listed above will be recommended by a Functional Medicine doctor as playing a key role in correcting the imbalances.

Additionally, to achieve true next-level health he or she will take a closer look at a wider range of factors to get to the root of the problem and formulate a plan of action to alleviate or prevent onset of disease of the mind and the body. I’m all for that! There is no better time to focus on optimum mental and physical health. What do ya say - time for a gut check into your gut?

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