To Boost Your Happiness, Balance Your Gut

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

Have you noticed that on days when you feel more cranky, symptoms like stomach ache, headache, gassy belly, or muscle aches might occur simultaneously? Physical discomfort, like waking up with a mild headache, can set us up for a day of impatience, irritability and overall grumpiness. While it may seem obvious that physical pain sets us up to feel less happy, recent research reveals  a major connection between your brain chemistry and your gut. You can boost your mood by learning how to balance your gut chemistry.

Digestion begins in the mouth. As you chew that crispy mackintosh apple, saliva starts to break down the nutrients. The action of chewing sends a message to your stomach to start releasing digestive enzymes to further break down the nutrients. Muscles and mucosa continue the breaking down of the foods we eat as they move through our digestive tract.

ready to eat

The stomach needs the right acid and enzyme balance to function properly and not give us symptoms. The balance of healthy bacteria in your gut play a critical role in the absorption of carbohydrates (energy),  fats (energy reserves),  and proteins (immune system). Most (95%) of the feel-good chemical, serotonin, is produced in our gut. Serotonin helps regulate immune functioning, sleep, appetite, sex drive and the cardiovascular and renal systems. This chemical is critical to happiness and mood regulation.

Serotonin and bacterial imbalances have been linked to depression,  irritable bowel syndrome (IBS),  and even autism. In fact most people with chronic GI disorders like IBS, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, also suffer from anxiety or depression. The relationship between physical health and mental health finds it’s link in the gut.

Scientists were shocked to find that 90% of the fibers of the main visceral nerve, the vagus nerve, send messages from the gut to the brain and not the other way around. The gut, or enteric nervous system, comprising everything from the esophagus down to the anus, contains about 100 million neurons (more than the spinal cord and the peripheral nervous system). These neurons play an important role in the healthy functioning of the whole body.

Stomach Cake

If the gut is so critical to our mental and physical health, why do we put so much junk in it? Sometimes, in the middle of my work day, I’ll leave to run errands. I always notice the lunch time rows of cars waiting in line at drive through restaurants. I see people talking on their phones, sorting papers, busily writing, talking, working, as they wait for their chance to order some junk food. Crunched for time myself, I understand why they might need to use every spare minute to get work done. But if I had some future x-ray medical device and could look into their guts I imagine the picture would not be pretty.

When we race through the day, multitasking while shoving food into our mouths, we add stress to the work of digestion. Stress can cause the esophagus to spasm, and it can cause indigestion. Indigestion increases the environment for the growth of unhealthy bacteria in the gut. This can trigger a cascade of unpleasant symptoms and potential illnesses.

How To Balance Your Gut

You can optimize the healthy functioning of your gut and brain by following a few simple suggestions.

  • Lower stress: One simple way to lower stress is to do one thing at a time. If you eat, just eat. Don’t combine the meal with television, books, driving, etc. If you do one thing at a time at work, you’re less likely to make mistakes and your productivity will increase.
  • Eliminate sugar: Refined sugars, like that in a typical soda, give your unhealthy gut bacteria a thanksgiving feast. Substitute water, and notice pounds come off while your mood stabilizes.
  • Eat real food:  Foods rich in tryptophan, a key chemical in the formation of serotonin, include our favorite Thanksgiving turkey, bananas, beans, cheese, soy, chicken, eggs and fish. Other foods rich in serotonin include walnuts, plums, pineapples, kiwis, and tomatoes.

In addition to regular physicals, healthy diet, and exercise, pay close attention to your gut feelings. Those uncomfortable pangs from the gut can provide the warning signal to take better care of yourself. Early attention to minor symptoms just might prevent a deterioration of your mental and physical health. You might find yourself feeling happier too.

Photos courtesy of tauress and lunchbreath.