Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Our ‘Second Brain’ – And Stress, Anxiety, Depression, Mood

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Our 'Second Brain' - And Stress, Anxiety, Depression, Mood

Hidden in the walls of our digestive system is something extraordinary. Scientists have known about it for a while, but new technology is taking the research to the cutting edge. What is being discovered there will revolutionise the way we think about mental and physical health. 

What happens in our head has a lot to do with what’s happening further south, in what scientists affectionately call ‘the brain in our gut’. It has a strong connection to the brain in our head and together, they are key players in mood, and mental health.

The brain in our gut, or the second brain as it is also called, is made up of more 200-600 million neurons, arranged in the intricately folded tissue that lines the gastrointestinal tract. With firepower like that, it’s not surprising that the gut does so much more than deal with food and the messier parts of being human.

It plays a critical role in mental and emotional functioning by sending information to the brain and directly influencing things like feelings of stress, anxiety and sadness, as well as memory, decision-making and learning. The brain in our gut is not capable of thought as we know it, but it communicates back and forth with our main brain, playing a critical role in our mental and emotional well-being.

Unhappy mind. Unhappy belly. Which comes first?

It’s no secret that anxiety, stress and depression often bring unhappy bellies with them, by way of irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhea, bloating and pain. For decades, doctors thought that stress, anxiety and depression were the cause, but now it seems that it’s actually the other way around. Irritation in the gastrointestinal system seems to send signals to the brain that trigger mood changes. We know that probiotics seem to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and depression and this might be why.

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Anxiety, Depression and the Surprising Role of Gut Bacteria

The gut is not only important for physical health, it’s also critical for mental health. What’s fascinating is the direction of influence. The longest nerve exiting the brain is called the vagus (actually they are one pair of 12 pairs of nerves that run from the brain). It runs from the brainstem to the belly and touches the heart and most major organs along the way. Here’s the fascinating part. About 90% of the fibres in the vagus, carry information from the internal organs in the chest (such as the heart) and the abdomen to the brain, not the other way around. 

Our language holds evidence of this – we were talking about it well before we knew it. If you’ve ever been directed by ‘gut instinct’, ‘gone with your gut’ to make a decision, or ‘listened to your heart’, you’re likely getting signals from this second brain in your belly. 

Messages also travel the other way, from the brain to the heart and the gut, also via the vagus nerve but without a doubt, the main direction of information flow is from the gut to the brain. 

The Role of Gut Bacteria.

As well as neurons, there is another major player in the gut-brain connection – the 100 trillion bacteria that set up home inside your gut. According to professor of physiology, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UCLA, Emeran Mayer, gut bacteria contains phenomenal wisdom that gets sent to the brain. They affect our behaviour every minute of every day from the day we are born, and possibly before.

A Fascinating Study: From Extroversion to Introversion via the Gut

Mayer’s research has shown how the specific combinations of bacteria in the gut might influence the wiring of the brain, and in turn affect such things as temperament, mood and learning. Other researchers have also explored a possible connection between gut bacteria and behaviour, and they’ve made some remarkable discoveries.

In one study, when the gut bacteria of timid mice was transferred into the gut of extroverted mice those extroverted mice became more anxious. It also worked the other way. When the timid mice received the gut bacteria of the bold mice, the timid mice because more bold and extroverted. Aggressive mice calmed down when scientists adjusted the their gut bacteria by giving them probiotics or antibiotics.

Another Study: The Connection Between Gut Bacteria and Temperament

Research has found correlations between temperament and the presence of specific intestinal bacteria in toddlers, particularly boys. The connection was independent of history of breastfeeding, diet and the method of childbirth. Here’s what they found:

  • The children with the most genetically diverse types of gut bacteria were more positive, curious, sociable and impulsive.
  • In boys, extroversion was associated with an abundance of particular types of bacteria (Rikenellaceae and Ruminococcaceae families and Dialister and Parabacteroides genera).
  • In girls, self-restraint, cuddliness and focussed attention were associated with a lower diversity of gut bacteria.
  • Girls with an abundance of a particular family of bacteria (Rikenellaceae) seemed to be more fearful than girls who had a more balanced diversity of microbes.

This research is still in its early days, so we still don’t know what a healthy tummy would look like in terms of the combination of gut bacteria, or what factors would influence this. It is possible that the perfect balance of microbiome will vary for all of us. For this reason, the researchers caution against trying to change a child’s gut microbiome just yet.

The Gut and Depression.

Depression is widely attributed to a drop in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is responsible for mood. What’s extraordinary is that only 5% of the body’s serotonin is stored in the brain. The other 95% of the body’s serotonin is stored in the gut. 

It’s not surprising then, that the most commonly used antidepressants that work on changing serotonin levels often come with a side of gastrointestinal issues. It’s also not surprising that the gut might play more of a role in depression than we yet realise. Research continues to look down this track for answers.

The Gut and Anxiety.

Researchers have found that young adults who eat more fermented foods (which contain probiotics) have fewer symptoms of social anxiety. As explained by Psychology Professor Matthew Milimire, ‘It is likely that the probiotics in the fermented foods are favourably changing the environment in the gut, and changes in the gut in turn influence social anxiety … the microorganisms in your gut can influence your mind.’

Food and the Comfort Factor.

The need for comfort rarely sees us diving for the celery. Pity. Instead, ‘comfort food’ tends to be high fat, high energy food. 

The relationship between food and mood isn’t all in our heads. Yes comfort food tastes delicious, smells delicious and might remind us of times we felt happy and secure, but there’s so much more to it than that, as a team of  Belgian researchers have shown.

The researchers delivered nutrients to the stomachs of participants via a nasogastric tube, with the intention of taking away the smells, tastes and memories that are typically associated with comfort food. The participants were given either ordinary saline solution or an infusion of fatty acids.  Without knowing what they were receiving through the tube, those who received the fatty acids reported half the levels of sadness and hunger compared to those who received the saline. This also showed up in brain scans. Very quickly after fatty acids hit the stomach, scans showed greater activity in the part of the brain that moderates emotions.

Stress and Food

Early research found that stressed-out mice would opt for a higher-fat food (peanut butter) over regular chow. Not surprisingly, they put on more weight than their less stressed friends. In times of stress, the gut amps up the production of ghrelin, a hormone that signals hunger to the brain. Research in humans has found similar results. In a recent study, couples were found to have significantly higher amounts of the appetite-triggering hormone following an argument. The researchers stop short of suggesting that unhealthy relationships cause poor food choices, but they acknowledge that the correlation is a strong one.

There seems to be little doubt that one of the ways stress influences behaviour is via the gut, specifically on the production of ghrelin, which sends messages to the brain around appetite and food choices.

Could gut bacteria be behind this?

Mayer points out that the last 50 years has seen a dramatic rise in autism, multiple sclerosis, Parkinsons and obesity. All of these have altered gut bacteria and brain-gut interactions. At the same time, throughout the last fifty years, we have dramatically changed the way our food is produced and processed, and the way we use antibiotics. Has the way we’re doing things lead to the dramatic increases? At this stage, it’s only speculation, but it’s an area of research that is gaining traction.

Where to now?

Mental health is not all in our head. Neither is mental illness. Finally, science is giving us real proof of this. There is little doubt that mental and emotional health is influenced by the state of our gut. The research is exciting and is promising to revolutionise treatments for a range of conditions and the way we take care of our mental health.  

The research is constantly evolving, but what we know for sure is the importance of  being attentive to the state of the gut and doing what we can to keep it healthy. It holds our second brain, and quite possibly, one of the vital keys to our mental and emotional well-being.

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52 Comments

Richard

As a therapist I find this fascinating and highly accurate when I think about the clients I see. This is a great piece of writing – Thank you

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Sharon Hutchinson

Everything written here makes a lot of sense. It is time that more doctors and other health professionals begin to realize that our body and mind is one integrated whole. Bad news for me, however, since the almost constant stress I have been under for the last 10 years has already done its job. But this will help me in my attempts to life the stigma attached to mental illness. A great article.

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks Sharon. I absolutely agree with you. Physical and mental health really do have to be considered more holistically. With every piece of research that comes out, evidence of the way the mind and body impact each other gets stronger and stronger.

I’m sorry to hear that you have had to deal with such high stress for so long. I understand what a brutal force that can be. I hope you’re doing okay – the world needs more voices like yours.

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Sharon Hutchinson

Thank you for your kind words. In order to alleviate some of the stress, my therapist has told me to write everything down–another practice I highly recommend. I have already written an essay on Mental Illness and it is so therapeutic.

I am fortunate to have a doctor who besides being a DO, is also open to natural and alternative medicine as well. He helped me get through a period of colitis and totally believes in the integration of mind and body.

The true wonder is why it has taken people so long to understand that we are one integrated whole, not just a collection of organs. The importance of our “gut” and absorption of nutrients should be lesson number one!

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Jill

I have been reading about the extended use of the medicine Miralax leading to anxiety and depression in kids. The labeling states that it is not to be used in children and to only be used for a few days but pediatricians still prescribe it for kids to take for chronic constipation. Long term use will strip the gut of good flora. My daughter was on it for years as a young child and she has anxiety. It makes me so mad that I listened to her doctors. We use Calm Magnesium powder now for. I wish pediatricians would stop telling parents Miralax is safe for long term use.

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Hey Sigmund

It’ so disheartening to put your faith in people who are meant to know more about something than you do, and then they let you down. I hope the research is able to reach more and more people so this sort of thing happens less.

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Simone

I’ve been diagnosed with coeliac disease and have often wondered if it was an influence on my social anxiety.

Great article, thanks

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Sharon

Absolutely great article.

I have IBS because I can’t digest fructose – fructose malabsorption. Undigested fructose binds with tryptophan and carries it out of the body – result depression.
I eat a lot of sauerkraut – improves my digestion and my mood.
Before I figured out the diet (check out Sue Sheperd at Monash University), my heart would sometimes beat at 120-140 times a minute – was it because the vagus nerve was irritated? Now on the diet, it beats at about 80-90 bpm.
My gut doesn’t work right, my diet is very strict, but I feel a lot better than I used to – mood and digestive system.

Thanks!

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Sharon Hutchinson

Sauerkraut is a highly recommended food on the Paleo diet. I’m not surprised to hear that it helps you.

This may sound strange, but I am lactose intolerant–but mainly if I have dairy in the evening. Usually the rest of the time it doesn’t bother me.

Same with chocolate–I can eat it anytime during the day but once it gets to be about 7 pm and later, if I have any I am guaranteed to wake up with a migraine the next morning.

It seems that our bodies’ chemicals and the way it processes food, medication, etc. changes throughout the day. We never stay in a “steady state”, IMO.

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Roselie

Nuferm Fermplus and Nattrition fructo>less, have not only helped my daughter and I with fructose malabsorption, but I now do not have it at all and can eat anything I want to. My daughter has only just discovered her problem but these two products are already helping.

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Karen

Try this http://www.nuferm.com/shop/fructo-less/

It can’t hurt and…

I used to be fructose intolerant and had terrible anxiety. This literally solved all my issues.

I was put onto it by a colleague who is a therapist, who was also fructose intolerant and it solved her digestive issues. She now puts all her clients with depression and anxiety onto it at the start of therapy.

My husband was on antidepressants for depression and anxiety with no obvious intolerances or allergies. I put him on the Fermplus Wholefoods and he no longer takes antidepressants and has no mental health issues.

My son also suffered from anxiety, which was distressing to watch, being 9 years old. Popped him on the same probiotic as my husband and he now has no anxiety, same life issues, but no anxiety.

My youngest daughter was lactose intolerant and broke out with terrible eczema each time she consumed lactose. It took us ages to find out the cause and remove lactose from her diet. I started her on small amounts of the Wholefoods and she now eats products with lactose and has no eczema.

I am in no way affiliated with these products or company other than they have changed my life and that of everyone around me. I can’t tell you what a difference these products have made to our lives. They are not the same as your average probiotic from the chemist… I hope these can help you too.

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Nikki

This is something I will be happy to share with my clients. I work with the family and friends around an individual struggling with a severe mental illness. Many times family members forget to care for themselves while getting caught in the whirlwind of their loved one’s symptoms. This is a great reminder of why it’s important to care for our bodies so our minds can be at their best. Thank you!

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Vanessa

I suspect that the reduction of saturated fats over the past 40 years has had a huge impact on anxiety and depression. The increase of sugar and weird additives in our food has caused obesity. The two together have caused a lot of tangled body and mental problems. It’s going to take everyone moving away from processed foods back to whole foods and away from grains to clean it up.

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Sylvia Britton

I have panic disorder/anxiety. This article mentions the vagus nerve(s) affecting the gut and the heart. Absolutely true. This sounds strange, but I have been telling my doctor for a couple of years that every time my colon is full (semi-constipated), my heart rate increases and I feel as though I am having a panic attack until I have bowel movement – after which my heart rate drops to normal and the “panic” goes away. It is important to keep the gut working well. (Good probiotics every day, and plain old-fashioned unsweetened applesauce work wonders.) My doctor still doesn’t believe it is the vagus that does this, but I do. This article is right on the mark and is extremely helpful. I’ve been thinking there was something else horribly wrong with me in addition to the anxiety and heart disease. THANK YOU for this information. You have succeeded at putting my mind at ease while I will keep working at keeping my gut happy!

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ann

As a mental health nurse I am required to follow orders of psychiatrists and physician alike. I feel at times I am in an ethical dilema because I agree with your articles that there is more to the symptoms of mental health than what we are currently treating. I have my own research project at home….I hope my son isn’t offended by that, but that is what I am experiencing. I have visited many doctors to address behaviors, however I am coming to the realization that diet and a healthy gut provides more symptom relief than any pill ever could. Sometimes I feel I work in a atmosphere where I don’t belong because I don’t agree with the current treatments which I provide.

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Hey Sigmund

I completely understand what a difficult position this must feel like for you. Change takes place little bit by little bit. The research is starting to filter through, but we still have a way to go before it lands heavily enough in the laps of medical practitioners that it can’t be ignored any more. The more people there are, like you, working in the field, who are willing to embrace new treatments and new ways of looking at things, the stronger the momentum towards that change will be. I, and so many others, are so grateful to hear that there are people like you in our mental health system. We need more like you, not less.

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Janine Wright-Smith

The thoughts come first, then the dis-ease.Our bodies are vibrational and thoughts are vibration.Change your vibration and the dis-ease changes to match it.Positive thoughts are the key.

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Hey Sigmund

The mind and body are so closely connected that when one is compromised, it can cause trouble for the other. The good news though, is that a change in one will lead to a change in the other. Sometimes it is easier and more effective when change comes at the physiological level first. Sometimes this is important – if your physiology isn’t right, particularly the gut, mental health can also be compromised. Changing the environment in the gut will help to ensure that the brain is able to function at its best, and part of this function is nurturing a positive mental state.

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Bev

My son suffers from panic and anxiety disorder, PHys. have prescribed every pill under the sun, all work for a short while.
None of them have ever looked at the connection between gut and brain. I live in SouthAfrica is there an equivalent of Fermplus Wholefoods which I could purchase. My son has now turned to smoking weed to calm himself and I know that is not the answer.

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Hey Sigmund

Yes, it can be frustrating how the research takes a while to filter through to treatment and the wider medical profession. Fermplus Wholefoods was recommended by someone who commented, so I’m not at all familiar with the product or able to comment on it one way or another. Are you able to speak to a pharmacist or a naturopath? They often seem to have more of an understanding and might be able to recommend something. I wish your son the very best.

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Karen

Try a Chinese Medicine Doctor. The herbs they prescribe are based on the same principles of gut health as the primary source of holistic wellbeing.

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John Baines

Re: Serotonin levels in the gut affecting the mind: how do you expect it to cross the blood-brain barrier?

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Hey Sigmund

Serotonin doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier. The discussion around serotonin, the gut and depression is referring to the effect of SSRI antidepressants on the gut. The theory is that if they manipulate serotonin in the brain, they may also interfere in some way with serotonin in the gut and cause gastrointestinal issues. This is because as well as influencing mood, serotonin also plays an important role in appetite and the functioning of the gut, namely by controlling digestive muscles during digestion and working with the gut nerves to signal gut problems such as pain and nausea.
There is also evidence that the gut environment during early life is important for serotonin levels in the brain during adulthood http://www.nature.com/mp/journal/v18/n6/full/mp201277a.html.
It’s relatively early days for research around the gut-brain connection so I expect there will be a lot more fascinating work to come.

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Sharon Hutchinson

I just had an experience which may give this article even more credence. Having a tooth infection, I was put on Amoxicillin. It didn’t seem to effect my digestion that much–I drank kefir to try and prevent problems.

But on day 7 I suddenly got horrible burning pains throughout my body and awful neuropathic tingling, enough to almost make me scream. Worst of all, anxiety, depression and even thoughts of suicide suddenly appeared out of nowhere. I kept thinking it had to be the amoxicillin, but everyone said that’s not a side effect.

Not true, at least for a sizable amount of patients. A search of the internet found many people complaining of not only the physical pain, but experiencing the worst anxiety, nightmares and deep depression (one even tried to commit suicide) that they traced to amoxicillin. Even after stopping the drug, effects took sometimes months to go away.

This was especially bad for me since, unlike most of these people, I already have bipolar depression. I stopped the drug and these slowly settled down to their usual state but one episode in particular was so bad I had to be sedated.

Had could this be? There is the theory that some antibiotics can effect the gut flora to the extent that a person can no longer absorb the B vitamins etc. necessary for proper nerve functioning. Very rarely this seems also to effect a person’s mental state.

I will never take amoxicillin again, and wonder if anyone suffering from a mental illness might want to consider whether or not to take something else. I just thought I would report this as it goes along with the theme of this article.

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Olubukola Falade

It’s amazing and interesting to know the relationship between the gut and temperament, now I understand why i sometimes get “butterflies in my stomach”. It has become easier to understand the need to maintain good diet habits in order to improve psychological and physical factors since the proper functioning of the gut can relieve emotional troubles. It is also interesting that the studies show that variety of gut bacteria in people produces a wide array of emotions. The relationship could also explain why psychological anomalies like panic or anxiety attack exhibit GI disturbances like nausea. Thank you for throwing more light on the issue.

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Liz Crawford

Hi. I recently bought a probiotic powder, simply hoping to improve my general physical health. But what an amazing difference it also made to my mood. I’ve had problems with depression and anxiety since I was a child. I’ve also had problems with my weight, constant tiredness and mood swings from extreme anger to feeling meek and mild. Within a week I was more energised, more philosophical about problems and had fewer physical aches and pains. There is nothing else I can put this down to other than the benefits of the probiotics. I’m so happy. I am a counsellor and a health and wellbeing practitioner. This information needs to get out there to people! Thank you for these wonderful articles.

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Alice Towery

I don’t know much about probiotics~ what is the name of a probiotic powder I could try?

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Hey Sigmund

The brands available would likely depend on where you live. The best thing to do would be to speak to a pharmacist or a naturopath. They’ll be able to set you on the right track.

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John Baker

Great article. The internet is littered with people desperately searching for help with problems after removing their entire gallbladder for the treatment of gallstones. They soon realise everything the good DR Surgeon told (or not told them) them about side effects and no risks to heath long term were lies and the opinion received (that they can live a normal life) is NOT true and cannot be back by ANY medical study. No informed consent is ever received , but rather consent fraud. Post gallbladder removal anxiety, stress and depression come ups frequently is support groups, but no answers are shared. After removing the gallbladder , many are never the same again health wise, emotionally and physically. Probably because of the effect of continual running bile (with no gallbladder function) and flow on affect of bile into the stomach , i.e. bile reflux, bile gastritis, IBS, Acid reflux, mobility issues , Gastroparesis and even cancer risk. This damage to the stomach is reduces the quality of life for many. The Second Brain and effect on the Enteric Nervous System is a clue for many post gallbladder complication suffers looking for answers , when the good Doctors who had all the answers for removal , have none when problems start.

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Lisa F.

I found this article very informatived in regards to my health. I am a 57 years old, white female, 110 pounds, 5′-3″. A native of FL which I have lived in my entire life. I have also eaten healthy, I thought, should have been eating organic. At the age of 44 I was diagosed with collagenson colitis, GERD and early menopause. If I ever took medication prior, it was an over the counter pain relief medication. At the age of 45 I experience a full nervous breakdown at home and was diagnosed “bipolar.” Well there went my $70K professional career job (30 years)…if it was a heart attack I would not have not been terminated and put on the 3 month max. co. disability pay. In 2009 I started receiving SSD. In 2011 I had an emergency appendectomy. In 2012 I had to become a 90% vegetarian due to my body not digesting an meats including chicken normally. I am seeing a new GI doctor in April for testing and plan on switching my primary doctor to a DO.
My life is in total shambles. I did work PT to pay for my used car and insurance but due to my health “GI” I have taken a medicial leave. My car is being repossessed on 3/8/2016 and I have filed for chapter 7 and purchased a bike. Using a bike along with the city bus system I should beable to go to my Drs. appointments and get out of the small condo I rent. I never correlated my digestive system with my mental health until I saw your article. I am keeping the faith that these new hurdles in my life can be overcomed. I do not share this information with anyone except the Doctors… you know the stigma that will always be attached to mental health conditions. Thank you for reading my reply and I welcome any suggestions you may have.

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Hey Sigmund

Gosh Lisa you’ve been through a tough time. Your resilience and your resourcefulness is extraordinary, but I hear how much this has all has cost you – financially and emotionally. I completely understand the stigma attached to mental illness but if everyone knew how many people struggle with some sort of mental illness at some point in their lives, there would be no stigma. It would be understood as another part of being human, which it is.

There is a lot of work happening around mental health and the gut, which is fascinating and makes a lot of sense. There are quite a few books around on the topic which might be interesting for you. If you look up ‘mental health and the gut’ on Amazon or Google they should come up. Keep faith – there is a lot of research happening and we’re finding out new information all the time.

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Catherine

Just finished reading “Missing Microbes” Excellent!! And so is your article!

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Lynde Ugoretz

I really liked your article. I would have like to have heard how you can begin to heal your gut. We’ve heard of pobiotics, however, is yogurt the answer?

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Hey Sigmund

Yogurt is one way – look for the ones that say active and life culture, but also reducing sugar, processed foods and alcohol. Fermented food is another way (miso, kefir – a drinkable yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi – the Korean version of fermented cabbage, tempeh). Also, a doctor or naturopath or pharmacist will be able to help you wish a probiotic supplement if you want to go that way.

When you start, go gently. Introducing massive amounts of probiotics too quickly can make make symptoms worse because when probiotics kill off pathogens, they release toxins. These toxins might already be contributing to any mental or physical symptoms there might be, so when the release of toxins is suddenly increased (by the increase of probiotics), the symptoms may also increase.

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Samantha Roderick

From experience, I have recently discovered an inability to absorb vitamin B12 into the red blood cells (Pernicious Anemia) can also have a devastating effect on anxiety level. This can also cause so many other symptoms one would never think to attribute to something so ‘simple’. Autoimmune issues galore.

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Hazel

After reading your article Karen, I’m interested in knowing how I can help someone I know develop the right kind of gut bacteria to alleviate depression and anxiety. You mention needing to ingest probiotics. I’m wondering what kind specifically? And the best source of this? I know you can get probiotics through eating sauerkraut and probiotic yoghurt. Is eating these two foods all one needs to do to develop the healthy gut flora for mind health? Or are there are other things suggested in research?

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Fermented foods and probiotics are a general way to improve gut health, but the specific things needed to improve someone’s gut health is very individual. Think of it like diet – there is a healthy way to eat that we all should generally be following, but within this, there will also be specific needs that people have. Some people might need to avoid dairy, others gluten, some will need to avoid specific foods, or have more of specific foods. The best thing to do is to speak to a naturopath, or perhaps a doctor. There are ways to investigate what you need specifically for your own individual needs.

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Mari

When my daughter was four she got rheumatic fever. Since then she has received a Bicillin shot every month. Since the age of seventeen she has been dealing with Anxiety and depression. She is now twenty and still dealing with it on and off. I am now wondering if this shot has something to do with it. I will definately print this article and the replies and take it to her Doctors. Thank you all for sharing.

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Dave

I was recently diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome by my doctor. I have also had anxiety my entire life. It is amazing that the two go together. I am discovering things about myself every day in this crazy journey called life. My doctor has wanted me to start taking probiotics, but I have been hesitant. If it could possibly relieve my anxiety even a little bit, it’s worth a try.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Dave I completely understand your hesitation, but there’s so much research coming through about the connection between the gut and the brain, and the important role of the gut in mental health. Probiotics are definitely worth a try. All the best – I hope if you give them a go they are able to bring some comfort to you.

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