Your digestive system plays a far more critical role than merely digesting food. The gut bacteria that form the bulk of your gut microbiota have numerous health-related benefits that can positively affect various aspects of your life. Many studies have shown that probiotics offer various benefits, which not only contribute to your digestive wellness, but also boost your immunity, lower your risk of obesity, and even bring positive effects to the state of your mental health.
In fact, the gut is pretty amazing – it is often referred to as the 'second brain' as it contains a large network of millions of neurons. Scientists refer to this second set of neurons as the enteric nervous system (ENS), which consists of your gastrointestinal tract, starting from your oesophagus all the way to your rectum.
"What is even more interesting is that the gut microbiota is responsible for producing hundreds of neurochemicals used to regulate numerous basic physiological processes by the brain – these include various mental activities such as learning, memory and mood. Even Hippocrates made the statement of 'all disease begins in the gut' over two thousand years ago and its truer today than ever!" Reveals Associate Professor Dr Raja Affendi Bin Raja Ali, Head of the Gastroenterology and Hepatology Unit at Hospital Canselor Tuanku Muhriz, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Medical Centre (UKMMC).
Did you Know?
Your gut microbiota manufactures roughly 95% of the serotonin your body/brain requires. This neurochemical influences both mood and gastrointestinal activity.
Your emotional state can cause actual physical discomfort, such as when you experience feelings of anxiety and stress, can lead to that churning sensation in your stomach commonly referred to as 'butterflies in the stomach'. The opposite is also true, i.e. an upset stomach can lead to feelings of anxiety and stress.
The gut-brain axis
Both mental and digestive health are inextricably linked, thus what affects one can and does affect the other. In today's challenging economic climate, stress is part and parcel of everyday life. If it is not managed properly, it can lead to far more serious mental health problems such as chronic stress or depression.
The National Health and Morbidity Survey 2015 revealed some worrying figures with regard to the mental health of Malaysians – the incidence of mental health problems has increased dramatically from 10.7% in 1996 to 29.2% in 2015.
"All living things thrive on a little stress. However, the problems start when there is too much stress or if it is unmanageable. There are numerous causes of stress in our daily lives, such as an unstable job market, work pressures, traffic jams, family, finances, having chronic diseases and so on," adds Associate Prof Dr Raja Affendi, who is also a Consultant Physician and Gastroenterologist.
"It is important that one learns how to deal with their stress and thus alleviate it. It may be something as simple as listening to music, gardening or even hanging out with buddies for socialising. Exercise is also a great stress-reliever so you may want to find something that suits you such as cycling, jogging, or playing futsal or badminton or whatever activity that you enjoy most."
Stress is a definite kill-joy
Associate Prof Dr Raja Affendi pointed out that living with stress can have a negative impact on mood and even interaction with your loved ones. This could reduce your quality of life and quality time with your family which could then lead to further stress.
Anxiety or depression may lurk just around the corner for those who suffer from chronic stress as it could significantly alter your cognitive process and thoughts, mental clarity, and ability to perform to your best level. Learning how to properly cope with stress is becoming critical in order to prevent this vicious cycle from perpetuating itself. Researchers have found that stress and anxiety can be triggered by the imbalance composition between the good and the bad gut microbiota in our gut.
"There are many studies that show how eating a healthy balanced diet is linked to a lower risk of mental illness. Unfortunately, there are few studies that show the link between probiotics and its effects on mood, stress or mental health in general," divulges Associate Prof Dr Raja Affendi.
Although numerous studies have shown great promise for probiotics in terms of its benefits to both physical and mental health, Associate Prof Dr Raja Affendi was quick to caution that it is not a quick-fix and should not be regarded as such.
"While probiotics do play an important role in good digestive health and overall wellness, leading a healthy lifestyle is far more important for maintaining good overall health," explains Associate Prof Dr Raja Affendi. "That means taking care of your digestive health, getting enough sleep and exercise, eating a moderate portion consisting of a variety of balanced foods that are nutritious, and finding a method of dealing with stress that works for you."