Our guts are home to trillions of bacteria and microbes that inhabit the intestines and form the gut microbiota. The gut microbiome is so enormous that there are 100,000 times more microbes in your gut than there are people on earth. The PLETHORA of microbiota is an extensive communication network that signals the body in millions of different ways. The higher the texture + variety, the higher the biological potential. This goes for everything, research shows that a variety of emotions = a wider emotional landscape = a higher potential for a ‘happier’ life (+ serotonin).
Many of these microbes live in the mucus layer that lines the intestines, placing them in direct contact with nerve and immune cells, which are the major information-gathering systems of our bodies. This location also primes microbes to listen in as the brain signals stress, anxiety, or even happiness along the vagus nerve.
In fact, 90% of the neurons in the vagus nerve are actually carrying information from the gut to the brain, not the other way around. Recent evidence indicates that not only is our brain “aware” of our gut microbes, but these bacteria are known to directly influence our perception of the world and alter our behavior in a MAJOR way.
THE ENTERIC NERVOUS SYSTEM (ENS)
Scientists call this the ‘little brain’. The ENS consists of two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining the entire gastrointestinal tract, from the esophagus to the rectum. It controls all digestive processes, secretion, absorption, GI blood flow, etc. The ENS is referred to as the digestive nervous system and there are hundreds of millions of neurons connecting the brain to the enteric nervous system. This vast web of connections is so extensive that it can operate as an independent entity without input from our central nervous system, although they are in regular communication.
For decades, researchers and doctors believed that depression, anxiety, and irregular moods triggered digestive function creating problems like constipation, diarrhea, bloating, pain, and stomach upset. Yet modern-day research is seeing that the ENS may trigger big emotional shifts experienced by people coping with IBS or functional bowel problems. Researchers are finding evidence that irritation in the GI may send signals to the CNS that trigger mood changes.
To reiterate this important point: the way we eat affects our emotions!
EMOTIONS, THE MIND, MICROBIOME, GUT + DIGESTION
DISRUPTED MICROBIOTA can cause emotional imbalances. Research shows that disruptions in the microbiome may ignite depression, anxiety, inflammation, an overactive immune response, potentially autoimmune disorders, and more. The gut microbiota influences the gut’s neurotransmitter production and secretion, and in fact, makes over 30 different kinds of neurotransmitters.
Serotonin, a.k.a. our “happy chemical” being 95% made in our gut, regulates feelings of happiness.
The network of neurons in the gut is as plentiful and complex as the network of neurons in our spinal cord, which may seem overly complex JUST to keep track of digestion, don’t you think?
In addition to emotional imbalances, disrupted microbiota can trigger an overactive immune response. Over 70% of the body’s immune cells are targeted to the digestive tract! The gut-immune response can create an over-or-underactive immune response, thereby causing immune disregulation, leading to autoimmune disorders, Alzheimer's, etc.
DIVERSITY IS KEY
One of the generally agreed-upon criteria for a healthy gut microbiome and gut-brain connection has been its diversity and the abundance of microbial species present in it. As in the natural ecosystems around us, a high diversity of the microbiome means resilience and low diversity means vulnerability to perturbations. Fewer microbial species means a diminished ability to withstand perturbations as well as infections (caused by poor diet, medications, pathogenic bacteria, viruses, or the pathobionts living in our gut).
HERBS FOR THE MICROBIOME
Ok, first off, prebiotics are key. What are prebiotics? They are compounds in food that induce the growth or activity of beneficial microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. The most common example is in the gastrointestinal tract, where prebiotics can alter the composition of organisms in the gut microbiome. A key compound to prebiotics is inulin.
Here are a few foods that contain important prebiotics:
DANDELION (Taraxacum officinale)
Dandelion greens are a fiber-rich substitute for greens in your salad. They increase the friendly bacteria in your gut, reduce constipation, and boost your immune system.
Contains 4 grams of fiber per 100-gram serving. A high portion of this fiber comes from inulin. The inulin fiber in dandelion greens reduces constipation, increases friendly bacteria in the gut, and boosts the immune system.
Dandelion greens are also known for their diuretic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-cancer, and cholesterol-lowering effects.
GARLIC, ONIONS, ALLIUMS (Allium family)
As for supporting a healthy microbiome, whole garlic is rich in inulin, a prebiotic fiber “food” for healthy bifidobacteria.
Besides inulin, garlic contains numerous compounds that support immune health.
It has shown to help promote good bacteria and prevent harmful bacteria from growing.
BURDOCK (Arctium lappa).
A vital and exquisite food, and medicine, Burdock is high in inulin making it one of the very best prebiotics out there.
Classically used to support healthy skin, and part of the reason lies in this herb's ability to build a healthy microbiome and provide gentle, bitters-based detoxification, too.
Burdock root can be mixed with grains or infused into tea and helps give flora the food it needs.
REISHI (Ganoderma lucidum, applanatum, + G.spp.)
Research shows reishi can modulate the gut microbiota, thereby exerting a prebiotic effect on the gut and microbiome.
It also has a plethora of healing abilities, such as being an immune modulator, adaptogen, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, adaptogenic, stress-protective, immune protective, brain, and heart-protective, reduces high cholesterol, increases NGF in the brain, and much more!
AGARICUS, White Button Mushrooms (Agaricus blazei, bisporus, similar spp)
Amazonian mushroom (A.blazei) used for their adaptogenic and immune protective nature. Research shows that white button mushrooms increased the presence of good bacteria in the gut called Prevotella. That shows the mushrooms act as prebiotics.
Superfood, detoxifier, lowers cholesterol, gastronomic, wound healer. Indigenous peoples in the Brazilian Amazon have used it for immune protection to prevent a wide range of diseases, including infection, allergy, and cancer.
Nutritive tonic, Stimulates NK Cells, Anti Cancerous, Anti-tumoral, Antihistamine, Immunostimulant Anti-infection, Anti-inflammatory, Bowel Cleanser (assists bowel diseases)
CACAO (Theobroma cacao)
Yes! Cacao is a prebiotic!
The breakdown of cocoa beans in the colon produces nitric oxide, which has beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system. Cocoa is also an excellent source of flavanols. Flavanol-containing cocoa has powerful prebiotic benefits associated with the growth of healthy gut bacteria. It also has benefits for the heart.
Medical Uses: High in magnesium, zinc, iron, calcium, beta-carotene, and omega 6 fatty acids. Studied to help lower blood pressure, improves heart and brain function. Cacao contains tryptophan, a building block of serotonin (happiness, mood boost, etc.). The other, phenylethylamine, a stimulant related to amphetamine, is released in the brain when people fall in love.
YACON ROOT (Smallanthus sonchifolius)
Yacon root is rich in inulin and FOS. It is great at promoting digestive health, improving mineral absorption, enhancing your immune system, and regulating blood fats.
Yacon root is very similar to sweet potatoes and is rich in fiber. It is particularly rich in prebiotic fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and inulin.
The inulin in yacon has been shown to improve gut bacteria, reduce constipation, enhance immune function, improve mineral absorption, and regulate blood fats. Yacon also contains phenolic compounds that give it antioxidant properties