Connecting Your Brain and Gut
This week, I continue on my mission to end the stigma associated with “mental health.” In this post I provide you with more tools and proper education on this very tender topic. If you’d like a recap of previous posts, please click here.
In this article you will learn about:
- The Shame-Blame-Whack-A-Mole Mental Health Game
- The Gut-Microbiome-Brain Connection
- Using Essential Oils and Minding Your Microbiome for Psychological Health
- Combining the Power of Essential Oils, Probiotics, and Lifestyle Medicine
The Sick Cycle of the Shame-Blame-Whack-A-Mole Game
Unfortunately, current mental health treatment by “experts” is equivalent to trying to hammer people into approaches that just don’t “hang right.” Attempting to treat brain disorders with positive affirmations, improperly prescribed pills, and/or perceived psychological personality constructs has resulted in what I believe is substandard care. Hardly anyone is looking at the whole person and few are looking at the actual physical brain structure.
If someone has a brain condition, at best, they may be given a pill for addressing neurological biochemistry. Many patients will literally alternate between various categories of antipsychotics, antidepressants, tranquilizers, or any other psychiatric drug category in attempts to find the “right” script to wash away the emotional pain. Admittingly, this may help, but only up to a certain point.
Welcome to what I call the “whack-a-mole mental health rodeo.”
To create positive change in mental health outcomes, we need to look at the full person and consider all the different factors for brain health using an integrative medicine approach. (I discuss this in more detail here and here.)
One pioneer who is actually using the proper cognitive tools is Dr. Amen. He actually looks at the organ that is dysfunctional first. As any medical doctor knows, it is important to give a good physical exam when determining the cause of an illness. If someone has chest pain, a doctor assesses the heart, lungs, and/or even gut (indigestion). We need to do the same for psychological symptoms, we need to look at the brain. Once we know what is off balance, we can then stop reaching only for a hammer and open up the whole medical tool chest.
Whole-Person, Therapeutic Modalities for Mental Health
I believe that essential oils are a key tool that is being overlooked for emotional, mental, and brain health. Essential oils have been shown clinically to have beneficial effects on mood and cognition. Furthermore, studies using EEGs have also demonstrated that various essential oils and aromatics can differentially modulate brain physiology and functioning through altering brain wave patterns. (source, source, source)
I have devoted a whole series on how essential oils influence specific neurotransmitters (source, source, source, source, source). Now, I want to focus a little more on another complementary intervention that can further enhance the brain balancing properties of other modalities, including essential oils.
Before I get to probiotics, a little background on the microbiome is in order.
Minding Your Microbiome
The trillions of tiny little friends, microbiota, that inhabit the body cavities and skin have a profound impact on one’s overall physical, emotional, and mental health. (source, source, source, source, source, source, source) Ever since the Human Microbiome Project, where researchers sought to discover the impact of the sum of these microorganisms that live in, on, and around our body, scientists and doctors have become practically obsessed with them. Below is a quick overview of all the things these little buggies can do.
The One Paragraph Summary of the Miraculous Feats of Our Microbes
These little critters are famous for good reason! The explosion of research in the world of bugs is validating their invaluable role in modulating our bodies in a variety of ways.1-21 Here’s a quick summary of what hosting a “happy microbiota population” in our inner tubes will provide us with: the manufacturing of vitamins3, modulating the risk for cancer4, pathogen inhibition5, decreasing cardiovascular disease risk,6 positively influencing mood7 and behavior8, assisting with detoxification,9 digestive support 10, estrogen metabolism,11 regulating weight,12-15 modulating diabetes markers,16supporting skin health,17 decreasing food sensitivities,18 impacting autism symptoms,10 decreasing the risk for fatty liver disease,20 modulating autoimmunity 21, and more. Amazing, right!? (Excerpt from my previous blog, “Microbiome Insights For (the Not So) Dummies: A Simple Blog To Make You Sound Really Smart About Belly Bugs.”)
Though most agree the impact of the microbiome on health is substantial, to the full extent is still yet to be revealed. New discoveries and methods for analyzing them are still evolving daily. Furthermore, the complexities of our own unique biochemical makeup and its intricate interactions with our microbes’ metabolites is still being investigated. (source, source, source, source, source)
The Gut-Brain Connection… in Brief
Not to make you paranoid, but scientifically speaking, your “gut-feelings” are legit and are literally in your head.
Many preclinical and clinical trials have demonstrated an association between certain bacterial and microbe populations and correlations between neuropsychiatric disorders. (source, source, source, source) This can be explained by the brain-gut-microbiome axis.
The little microbes that inhabit our body not only produce approximately half of the body’s serotonin and other metabolites and neurotransmitters for cognitive health, but they also interplay with our nervous system and minds in many other ways. A recent review article eloquently explained this dynamic bi-directional relationship between our bellies and brains, and what impacts it, as follows:
The microbiota and the brain communicate with each other via various routes including the immune system, tryptophan metabolism, the vagus nerve and the enteric nervous system, involving microbial metabolites such as short-chain fatty acids, branched chain amino acids, and peptidoglycans…
Many factors can influence microbiota composition in early life, including infection, mode of birth delivery, use of antibiotic medications, the nature of nutritional provision, environmental stressors, and host genetics…
At the other extreme of life, microbial diversity diminishes with aging. Stress, in particular, can significantly impact the microbiota-gut-brain axis at all stages of life…
In another article review, the authors also exquisitely outlined how communication from the gut microbes to the central nervous system occurs. They described in detail the various signaling mechanisms from interacting channels of the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. Furthermore, they stated how certain barriers between this brain-gut-microbiome (BGM) axis can occur in individuals:
There are 2 natural barriers to signaling within the BGM axis: the intestinal barrier and the blood brain barrier. Because gut microbes, stress, and inflammation are able to modulate the permeability of both structures, the amount of information reaching the brain from the gut is highly variable, depending on the state of the host.
Another more intriguing way microbes may interact with our brain is directly, by inhabiting it! It’s true, I wrote about the microbes in our mind here.
Can Swallowing Bugs Make You Happy?
Probiotics modulate our metabolism and impact are health in many ways. (Here’s more on that.) Their effects on psychological disorders have been controversial; however, many studies are promising. In fact, this link provides a review of 84 studies regarding neurological conditions and the effects of specific probiotic strains on clinical outcomes.
Showing Love to Your Microbiome – Combining the Power of Essential Oils with Probiotics and Lifestyle Medicine
The cool part is, they work together!
Essential oils have been shown in vitro and with animals to selectively inhibit the pathogens in our system, while not negatively altering our “little friends” that provide benefit to our mind-body. I discussed this more here.
One of my favorite essential oils’ review article states how they have an innate ability to balance the whole body:
Once the oils are in the system, they remodulate themselves and work in a friendly manner at the site of malfunction or at the affected area. This type of therapy utilizes various permutations and combinations to get relief from numerous ailments like depression, indigestion, headache, insomnia, muscular pain, respiratory problems, skin ailments, swollen joints, urine associated complications etc. The essential oils are found to be more beneficial when other aspects of life and diet are given due consideration.
It has been suggested that everyone is born with their own unique “bug blueprint,” but, as we age, it can be altered by lifestyle. Swallowing probiotics may actually fill in the “missing microbe” gaps. This means probiotics can be used to optimize health, though which bugs you need specifically may take a bit of experimentation and/or working with a physician.
The bottom line is that lifestyle, nourishing foods, proper rest, movement, relationships, essential oils and probiotic supplementation can all be used to promote healthier brains and happier lives with very few side effects and many side benefits.
If we start with these as a foundation, employ proper brain diagnostics, and consider all the underlying factors that can interfere with optimal cognitive functioning, we are headed in a good direction to truly revolutionize mental health care for the better.
Additional References on Specific Conditions
Zheng P, Zeng B, Zhou C et al. (2016) Gut microbiome remodeling induces depressive-like behaviors through a pathway mediated by the host’s metabolism. Molecular Psychiatry 21:786-796. PMID: 27067014
Srikantha P, Mohajeri M (2019) The possible role of the microbiota-gut-brain-axis in autism spectrum disorder. International Journal of Molecular Sciences 20. PMID: 31035684
Simkin D (2019) Microbiome and mental health, specifically as it relates to adolescents. Current Psychiatry Reports 21:93. PMID: 31478105
Gareau M (2016) Cognitive function and the microbiome. International Review of Neurobiology 131:227-246. PMID: 27793221
Quigley E (2017) Microbiota-brain-gut axis and neurodegenerative diseases. Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports 17:94. PMID: 29039142
For additional safety and medical information, visit my essential oils database. It includes a full category on how to use essential oils safely and potential drug interactions that can occur.
Please be extra cautious and be sure to check with your doctor if you have a seizure disorder. The Epilepsy Society of the UK lists certain essential oils implicated for their antiseizure effect as well as those that have stimulating properties.
If you and/or your physician are interested in consulting with me to assist with supporting the integration of essential oils safely into a therapeutic protocol, essential oils consultations are available.
This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)
Disclaimer: This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.