At a glance, your gut and brain don’t seem particularly connected in their function, even though the opposite is true.
According to a constantly increasing amount of research, health experts from all over the world agree that there’s a very strong connection between mental health and gut health.
The gut-brain axis shows that the information the brain gets from the gut’s microbiome directly affects our cognitive processes and every aspect of our physical and mental health.
The importance of a healthy gut can’t be overstated, so much so that it’s been named the “second brain” which constantly informs our central nervous system about the state of our body.
Add to that the fact that trillions of bacteria in our bowels are in charge of neurotransmitter production, and a bigger picture starts to emerge – the state of our gut mirrors our mental well-being.
How does the gut-brain connection work?
The connection between our central nervous system and gastrointestinal (GI) tract is complex and still actively researched, but there are certain conclusions that can be considered facts.
The gut-brain axis works both ways, like a walkie-talkie. This means that the brains are exchanging information and adjusting bodily functions accordingly.
Microorganisms in the gut are the ones in charge of relaying the info to the brain, and unless the gut microbiota is balanced, it will set off the alarms for the brain that something is off.
In turn, the brain affects our everyday mental functions to reflect the problematic situation, which could be one of the underlying factors for developing mood disorders.
While gut issues aren’t the biggest cause for them, the importance of a healthy GI tract is still vital for the optimal function of the whole body.
The Science Behind Fasting and Mental Health
Chemical and Hormonal Changes
During fasting, the body undergoes several chemical changes, including the reduction of insulin levels and the increase in ketone bodies. These changes can affect brain function and mood.
The increase in ketone bodies (produced when the body starts to burn fat for energy) has been linked to improved brain function and mood stabilization.
Impact on Brain Health
Fasting can stimulate a process called autophagy, where cells remove and recycle waste and dysfunctional components.
This cellular clean-up is crucial for maintaining healthy brain function. It may also enhance the growth of new neurons and protect the brain from neurodegenerative diseases.
Stress Response and Resilience
Fasting can increase the body’s resilience to stress. The mild stress that fasting puts on the body can strengthen its response to more significant stressors.
It’s similar to exercise; just as muscles grow stronger when stressed, fasting can fortify the brain against stress-related disorders.
Psychological and Emotional Effects
Mindfulness and Mental Clarity: Many people report a sense of increased mental clarity and heightened alertness during fasting. It can also promote mindfulness, making individuals more aware of their eating patterns and body signals.
Mood and Emotional Well-being:Some studies suggest that fasting can help regulate mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. The sense of achievement from successfully completing a fast can also boost self-esteem and mood.
Different Types of Fasting and Mental Health
Intermittent Fasting: Involves cycling between periods of eating and fasting, like the 16/8 method (16 hours of fasting followed by an 8-hour eating window). This form of fasting is often considered more sustainable and may offer mental health benefits without being overly restrictive.
Prolonged or Extended Fasting: Involves fasting for extended periods (more than 24 hours). This type of fasting should be approached with caution, ideally under medical supervision, as it can have more pronounced psychological effects.
The Importance of Gut Health for Mental Well-Being
While it’s easy to assume that our gut serves only to deal with food, the role it plays is multifaceted.
Yes, our bowels digest the food we eat, but they also use it as a map –everything we consume works for or against our metabolism and our gut will know it and sort the nutrients accordingly.
The microbiota in our gut is the epicenter of our immune response, and while the biome is healthy, our immune system is on point.
However, if the balance is compromised, the gut will share the info with our immune response which will react with inflammation to purge/fix the issue.
The problem is that we rarely catch the signs of gut problems in time, and it takes time for them to develop and affect our mental health.
When we notice that our bowels are not well, they might have been under chronic inflammation for a while. That inflammation can lead to various health conditions like leaky gut and IBS.
Gut issues also negatively affect the production of dopamine and serotonin, essential neurotransmitters which have a huge impact on every aspect of mental health.
Add to that the fact that an inflamed gut leaks toxins into the bloodstream, which can strongly impact cognitive function (brain fog, memory, learning) and mood regulation.
As you can see, an unbalanced gut microbiome brings a whole set of concerns, and it’s not limited to our mental health either.
Because of the imbalance in the bowels and toxins wreaking havoc in the bloodstream, the immune response can get out of whack and start attacking the body, causing autoimmune diseases, which in turn further influences our mental health and well-being.
How to Improve Gut Health
If you’ve been having problems with your gastrointestinal tract, getting it back on track should be your biggest priority. Here, it’s important to note that cultivating and nurturing a healthy gut microbiome takes time and dedication.
After all, it took a long time for it to get out of whack, so it will take time for it to get back on track. Stay determined and focused; it will pay off.
The first thing every gastroenterologist will tell you when they’ve established you’re having gut issues is that you need to take a good look at the way you eat. Cutting back on sugar and fats is the first order of business, as well as focusing on foods rich in fiber, nutrients, and natural probiotics.
This will look a bit different for everyone – some people will focus on having more of a Mediterranean diet, some will cut back on highly processed foods, and some will try autophagy and intermittent fasting to cleanse and get in tune with the body.
The food we eat determines our health to a staggering degree, and even if you change everything else, but not the way you eat, your gut will suffer because it’s not getting what it needs to thrive.
Diet adjustments can be difficult and uncomfortable in the beginning, but having a healthy gut will keep you healthy for many years to come, which is the top priority.
Fasting, the practice of abstaining from food and drinks for a specific period, has been a part of human culture and religious practices for millennia.
In recent years, it has gained popularity in the wellness community, not just for its physical benefits but also for its potential impact on mental well-being.
While fasting can positively impact mental well-being, it’s crucial to approach it with mindfulness and awareness of one’s own body and mental health.
It’s always recommended to consult with healthcare professionals before starting any fasting regimen, especially for individuals with pre-existing health conditions or mental health concerns.
Personalizing the fasting experience to fit one’s lifestyle, health status, and wellness goals is key to reaping its potential mental health benefits.
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