The effects of gut health, dictated by the microbes present in the gastrointestinal tract, on one’s mental and physical well-being is the subject of ongoing research. Interestingly, recent research and studies have been able to establish the links between a person’s digestive tract and his or her mood, including thoughts. The above revelation has completely revolutionized the understanding of mental disorders.
It is said that the enteric nervous system (ENS), hidden within the walls of the digestive system, is the second human brain or the ‘brain in the gut’ that is located in two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining the gastrointestinal tract from esophagus to rectum.
Unlike the human brain, the primary role of ENS is to control digestion, including swallowing food, releasing enzymes to breakdown food, absorbing nutrients and expunging waste. Due to the constant communication between the gut and the brain, people suffering from digestive problems witness dramatic shifts in their mood.
Evidences from new research point out that mood changes are triggered by the central nervous system (CNS) after signals are sent by the gastrointestinal system when in an irritated state. Therefore, it is essential to maintain the health of the digestive system to avoid emotional upheavals.
Previous researches have demonstrated that probiotics can reduce stress and improve mental health. Probiotics plays a pivotal role in keeping the gut healthy. Also known as ‘good microbes’ that exist in the gastrointestinal tract, one can enhance the level of probiotics by consuming certain foods and supplements. They are a dynamic part of the digestive system and the composition changes with the changes in the diet and health.
Abnormal levels of anxiety in gut-free mice highlight role of gut flora
A latest research found symptoms of anxiety in mice raised in a germ-free environment (and are therefore free from gut microbiota). Therefore, it establishes the fact that absence of gut microbiota (e.g. bacteria, fungi and viruses) impacts the brain development and behavior negatively. Microbiota or gut flora include a composition of bacteria, fungi and viruses that are beneficial for health.
The findings of the above research, published in the journal Microbiome, revealed that the gut microbiota may have an influence on microRNA in the prefrontal cortex and amygdala, which are associated with anxiety and depression. Thus, a healthy gut is imperative to ensure the proper functioning of these brain regions.
The researchers used a batch of regular mice and another batch of mice free of gut flora. They found that microRNAs were already present in the prefrontal cortex and amygdala regions of 10-12 control mice, as well as those free of gut flora and once free of gut flora but had them re-introduced. The researchers also used mice whose gut flora was depleted by giving them antibiotics.
The findings of the study highlighted that mice free of gut flora exhibited abnormal anxiety levels, depressive behavior, and reduction in sociability and cognition. Like the germ-free mice, even the mice who underwent the depletion of gut microbiota due to antibiotics witnessed similar damages to the micronRNAs. This shows that the presence of a healthy level of microbiota from an early age does not in any way safeguard one from being affected by the changes in later life. Such changes can still affect his or her brain and subsequently increase his or her anxiety levels.
Exploring therapeutic potential of micronRNAs
The research results are still preliminary and the exact impact on the human brain is not yet known. Despite all hurdles, the possibilities of exploring treatment and therapies for mental disorders by using the relationship between the gut and mental health are endless. An appealing prospect is targeting the gut microbiota by using psychobiotics to achieve the desired impact on microRNAs in the specific brain regions. Instead of targeting the brain directly, researchers should target the gut microbiome with equivalent results. Whatever the possibilities, the truth remains that diet is linked to one’s mental health.
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