When it comes to your mental wellbeing, did you ever imagine that happiness could be found in your digestive tract?
As it turns out, many mental health disorders improve once the gut heals.
While this may seem farfetched, it is essential to understand that roughly 90% of the body’s total serotonin is produced in the digestive tract. (1) Only 5% of serotonin is produced in the brain. (2)
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter. It influences many aspects of your behavior, like:
- Sleep patterns
- Sensation of pain
Depression could be directly related to an imbalance of serotonin in the gut. Serotonin can influence mood, sleep, appetite, and even digestion.
The right amount of serotonin in the brain produces a relaxed and positive feeling.
Everything from depression and anxiety to obsessive-compulsive disorder and autism are related to an imbalance in serotonin signaling. (3)
Pharmaceutical drugs that treat mental disorders like depression and anxiety block serotonin receptor sites. These drugs are known as SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. They manipulate serotonin pathways and can sometimes very effectively treat mental disorders.
There is more to serotonin than mood regulation. And when you manipulate how serotonin functions in the body, you affect every system that serotonin influences.
What Does Serotonin Do in the Gut?
For starters, serotonin contributes to the wavelike motion within the intestines that keeps food (and bacteria) moving. In other words, you need serotonin to prevent your meal from putrefying in the digestive tract.
More importantly, researchers are finding that serotonin also interacts with the immune system. For example, researchers have found signs of inflammation in those with mood disorders and autism. (4) (5)
You can also find serotonin in lymphatic tissue. (6) Lymphatic tissue is an important part of the immune system. It is a reservoir for white blood cells—your body’s personal army of defense.
Here’s the interesting part: Your immune system can change serotonin signals in the central nervous system. Your central nervous system includes the brain, where only 5% of serotonin is produced. (7) Researchers believe this is why a leaky and inflamed gut can have such a profound effect on mood.
How the Bliss Hormone Can Balance Your Gut Health
Another brain chemical called oxytocin also affects the gut in surprising ways.
Oxytocin is widely known as the “love” molecule.
In other words, a surge of oxytocin can make you feel as if time has stopped, and you have forgotten yourself. Studies show that oxytocin naturally enhances trust, optimism, and self-esteem.
Your body releases oxytocin when you touch and bond with others, during the birthing process, and during lactation. In a 2010 study, researchers found that oxytocin has the ability to dampen inflammation in the intestinal tract. (8)
Other studies have shown that cells in the intestinal tract have a receptor site for oxytocin, which tells us that it belongs there. We also know that oxytocin encourages motility—or movement—in the gut. (9)(10)
While bloating and cramping pain may be more obvious signs of intestinal inflammation, less common symptoms like persistent acne, migraine headaches, and depression may also be tied to the issue.
When oxytocin levels are stable and elevated, the physical body benefits as much as the mind.
Your Inner Ecosystem Responds to Stress
When you experience mental, emotional, or physical stress, you release stress hormones like cortisol. Stress hormones take you out of a peaceful “rest-and-digest” state and into “fight-or flight” response.
Mental, emotional, or physical stress triggers an inflammatory cascade in your body. It can cause intestinal permeability or “leaky gut.” (11)(12)
The relationship between your gut and your happiness is a two-way street. In other words, leaky gut can also lead to depression and brain fog. (13)
Studies have found that the bacteria living in your gut play a role too. As it turns out, gut bacteria can detect stress. (14) The bacteria that make up your inner ecosystem can read stress in the body. They can also detect when you release stress hormones.
In response to stress signaling in the body, researchers have found that normally harmless bacteria will become pathogenic. (15)(16) When bacteria become pathogenic, they multiply rapidly or mutate. This often leads to infection. Once this happens, the inner ecology of your gut is thrown out of balance.
Gut Bacteria Manufacture Brain Chemicals
As it turns out, your intestinal cells are not the only ones making brain chemicals. One recent study published in BioEssays found that gut bacteria produce brain chemicals—which actively influence the brain! (17)
Still other studies show that beneficial gut bacteria reduce anxiety. (18) And another study published in Gut Pathogens in 2009 found that probiotics reduced anxiety in those with CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome). (19)
In 2011, researchers found that beneficial gut bacteria increase GABA receptors in the brain. (20)
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is another brain chemical that is responsible for a feeling of wellbeing and happiness. (21) An imbalance in GABA can make you feel anxious, panicked, and worried. Many people with a GABA imbalance feel guilt over their choices and have a tendency to be disorganized.
A Healthy Inner Ecosystem Could Be a Key to Happiness
When it comes to mental health, there is no silver bullet.
But if you struggle with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or even with the aftermath of addiction—nutrition and a healthy inner ecosystem are important factors to examine.
Donna recommends taking steps to eliminate triggers of infection and inflammation. The best place to start is with your diet and the 7 Universal Body Ecology Principles. In addition to eliminating triggers, you can support your inner ecosystem with fermented foods and specific strains of beneficial bacteria and yeast as found in coconut water kefir.
What To Remember Most About This Article:
Happiness and mental wellbeing may be directly related to the health of your digestive tract. The truth is that 90% of the body's serotonin is produced in the gut, while only 5% is produced in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that influences mood, sleep, appetite, and pain sensations.
On top of that, serotonin in the gut keeps food and bacteria moving smoothly; serotonin also interacts with the immune system. Researchers have directly linked signs of inflammation in the body with cases of autism and mood disorders. Oxytocin is another brain chemical that can affect gut health by calming inflammation.
It should come as no surprise that your inner ecosystem responds directly to mental, emotional, and physical stress to create an inflammatory cascade in the body. This can result in leaky gut, which can lead to brain fog and depression.
Yes, gut bacteria can produce brain chemicals that influence the brain and overall health. If you struggle with a mental health disorder, one important part of the recovery process is to eliminate inflammation and infection in the body. You can support your gut and mental health with beneficial bacteria found in fermented foods and coconut water kefir.
- MD Gershon, et al. The serotonin signaling system: from basic understanding to drug development for functional GI disorders. Gastroenterology. 2007; 132: 97-414.
- MD Gershon, et al. Serotonin: Synthesis and Release from the Myenteric Plexus of the Mouse Intestine. Science. 1965; 149: 197-199.
- I Lucki. The spectrum of behaviors influenced by serotonin. Biol. Psychiatry. 1998; 44: 151-162.
- MR Irwin, et al. Depressive disorders and immunity: 20 years of progress and discovery. Brain, Behav., Immun. 2007; 21: 374-383.
- P Ashwood, et al. The role of immune dysfunction in the pathophysiology of autism. Brain, Behav., Immun. 2012; 26: 383-392.
- GP Ahern. 5-HT and the immune system. Curr Opin Pharmacol. 2011; 11: 29-33.
- WA Hewlett, et al. Interleukin-1 receptor activation by systemic lipopolysaccharide induces behavioral despair linked to MAPK regulation of CNS serotonin transporters. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2010; 35: 2510-2520.
- MD Gershon, et al. Combined administration of secretin and oxytocin inhibits chronic colitis and associated activation of forebrain neurons. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2010 Jun;22(6):654-e202.
- MD Gershon, et al. Expression and developmental regulation of oxytocin (OT) and oxytocin receptors (OTR) in the enteric nervous system (ENS) and intestinal epithelium. J Comp Neurol. 2009 Jan 10;512(2):256-70.
- B Ohlsson, et al. Oxytocin is expressed throughout the human gastrointestinal tract. Regulatory Peptides. 2006 Jul; 135 (1-2): 7-11.
- PC Konturek, et al. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol. 2011 Dec;62(6):591-9.
- A Nazli, et al. Epithelia under metabolic stress perceive commensal bacteria as a threat. Am J Pathol. 2004 Mar;164(3):947-57.
- T Surdea-Blaga, et al. Psychosocial determinants of irritable bowel syndrome. World J Gastroenterol. 2012 Feb 21;18(7):616-26.
- MT Bailey, et al. Exposure to a social stressor alters the structure of the intestinal microbiota: Implications for stressor-induced immunomodulation. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. March 2011; 25(3): 397-407.
- L Li, et al. Global effects of catecholamines on Actinobacillus pleuropneumoniae gene expression. PLoS One. 2012;7(2):e31121. Epub 2012 Feb 8.
- TA Cogan, et al. Norepinephrine increases the pathogenic potential of Campylobacter jejuni. Gut. 2007 Aug;56(8):1060-5. Epub 2006 Dec 21.
- Lyte, M. Probiotics function mechanistically as delivery vehicles for neuroactive compounds: Microbial endocrinology in the design and use of probiotics. Bioessays. 2011; 33(8): 574-581.
- Sartor, R. Balfour. Probiotic therapy of intestinal inflammation and infections. Current Opinion in Gastroenterology: Gastrointestinal Infections. Jan 2005; 21(1): 44-50.
- AC Logan, et al. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study of a probiotic in emotional symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. Gut Pathogens. 2009; 1(1): 1-6.
- Javier A. Bravo, et al. Ingestion of Lactobacillus strain regulates emotional behavior and central GABA receptor expression in a mouse via the vagus nerve. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2011; 108(38): 16050-16055.
- Cryan JF, Kaupmann K (2005) Don’t worry ‘B’ happy!: A role for GABA(B) receptors in anxiety and depression. Trends Pharmacol Sci 26:36e43.