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Kuala Lumpur, April 3: The gut and the brain: two separate entities yet closely connected. This relationship serves an important function not only in managing emotions and stress but also aiding digestion. Everyone has a unique gut microbiome (environment) because of the microorganisms such as bacteria, fungus, and viruses that live inside the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. While these microbiomes differ depending on diet, lifestyle, and other factors, they can influence different aspects of one’s health such as appetite, weight, and even our moods.
According to Dr Ryan Tee Chun Keat, Consultant Psychiatrist from Sunway Medical Centre Velocity (SMCV), the gut-brain axis is the two-way connection between the gut and brain. The trillions of microorganisms in our gut provide important functions to our body, including benefits to our mental wellbeing.
“These microorganisms among others have a role in the body’s stress response, mood, and cognition. In other words, having a healthy gut and mind go hand in hand,” he said.
How can we better understand our gut?
Maintaining good gut health is essential for overall well being as it is the foundation of the body’s optimal functioning.
Dr Tan Yu Peng, Consultant Gastroenterologist and Hepatologist from SMCV states that if the harmony of our gut microbiome is breached, the body’s finest equilibrium will be tampered.
As a result, the stomach acidity, intestinal alkaline level, gut immunity and gut bacteria will all be disrupted.
This can lead to digestive problems such as bloating, indigestion, heartburn, and inflammation of bowel – which is why, along with genetic factors, our dietary choices and medications are the primary influences that can impact our gut health.
This is especially evident in people who suffer eating disorders such anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating, Dr Ryan elaborates.
Additionally, it is essential to be aware of and understand the signs of an unhealthy gut.
“Poor digestion can manifest in various ways, such as bloating, stomach aches, diarrhoea, constipation, weight fluctuations, skin disorders, and even emotional disturbances,” Dr Tan points out.
If left untreated, these symptoms can lead to more severe conditions such as autoimmune problems and diabetes in the long run.
Thus, being proactive about gut health and taking steps to improve it can have significant benefits for overall health and wellbeing.
What is the connection between our gut and our emotions?
Our gut, often referred to as our second brain, plays a vital role in promoting our overall mental wellbeing. This is because the enteric nervous system (ENS), which is responsible for controlling the gastrointestinal tract, communicates with our brain using the same neurons and neurotransmitters as the central nervous system. This means that our gut and brain are constantly communicating with one another, influencing each other’s function in real-time.
For instance, during the “fight or flight” response, the enteric nervous system responds by slowing down digestion, redirecting more energy towards the threat-causing situation.
This interconnectedness works both ways, as our current emotional state can have a significant impact on our GI system as well.
For example, people who are experiencing depression, anxiety, or stress may develop gastrointestinal symptoms such as abdominal discomfort, bloating, indigestion, stomach cramps, constipation, and diarrhoea, Dr Ryan said.
He reminds us that being human means experiencing a wide range of emotions, from joy and happiness to sadness, anger, envy, and disgust. It’s natural and important not to neglect or invalidate any of these feelings.
However, if any one emotion becomes overwhelming to the point of neglecting our health, Dr Ryan advises to seek help from a psychiatrist for an assessment, as it could be a sign of an underlying mental health disorder that requires attention.
Overall, the balance of microorganisms in our gut plays a crucial role in our emotions.
Therefore, it’s essential to maintain a well-balanced microbial community in our gut to promote optimal mental wellbeing.
How does your gut change over time?
As we age, our body has to adjust to various changes such as our bones shrinking in density and strength and our muscles losing their endurance and flexibility. Similarly in our gut, the gut microbiome will also have to adapt to accommodate the overall bodily changes. Some of these changes include the esophagus moving slower, the stomach walls becoming thinner and stomach juice secretion output decreasing over time. These specific factors will impact our ability to digest food and process it into energy, hence the need for the elderly to pay closer attention to their daily routines and dietary changes that best suit their needs.
Furthermore, the delicate balance of good and bad bacteria in our gut may shift, resulting in an increase in dangerous bacteria and a loss in diversity, which is why diseases such as reflux or peptic ulcer disease, inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer are common in the elderly.
The aging process can also affect muscle movement, potentially causing uncomfortable symptoms like constipation, fecal soiling, incontinence, and perineum itch.
However, according to Dr Tan, these issues can be mitigated as long as we prioritise their overall health.
“As the saying goes, you are what you eat, so it is always important for us to be mindful of our food regardless of our age.”
Practical ways to improve gut health and overall emotions.
The good news is that we have the power to positively impact our gut health through our food choices. It is essential to be mindful of what we eat, as the food we consume plays a vital role in our overall health. Maintaining a high-fibre diet, including both soluble and insoluble fibre, and limiting foods high in fat and sugar is crucial.
“Adopting a healthy lifestyle by exercising regularly, avoid smoking and alcohol, and limiting caffeine intake can contribute to a healthy gut,” Dr Tan said.
In addition to eating more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, fish, and olive oil, Dr Ryan suggests doing what you enjoy, such as going outside, spending time with loved ones, or getting enough rest can also be helpful for your gut and mental health.
When we engage in activities that we like, our brain releases dopamine, which gives us a sensation of pleasure.
Stimulating the reward pathway in the brain through enjoyable activities, further enhances our sense of pleasure.
In general, adopting a healthy lifestyle, managing stress well, and taking care of our mental well-being can help regulate gut health and improve our overall health.
In addition, by incorporating prebiotics and probiotics into our diet, we can promote a healthy gut microbiome.
These friendly bacteria play an important role in helping us digest complex food and convert it into simpler forms that our body can absorb easily.
Thus, prebiotics serve as a vital source of nourishment for our microbes, ensuring that our digestive system stays healthy.
Dr Tan added that probiotics can present in the form of natural food like yogurt, or in the form of supplement.
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