Those of us who suffer from Complex-PTSD know that ‘sick in the stomach feeling‘ – the lethargy, the listlessness, the lack of drive. We are unable to feel any enthusiasm and have to drag ourselves every day. We feel zombie-like, literally the living dead.
Recent studies have shown that trauma and stress not just affect our brain but also our gut microbiota. This is a vital piece of information to consider when we try to heal PTSD or any mental illness. Since our gut bacteria play a critical role in maintaining our mental health.
Moreover, we can change our minds by changing our gut. Eating good healthy food can change how we feel.
The Gut – Our Second Brain
Our gut, the enteric nervous system is also called the ‘second brain.‘ It is here that nearly 90% of the body’s supply of serotonin and 50% of dopamine, – the “feel-good” chemicals are produced. The vagus nerve connects the gut to the brain through a two-way feedback loop.
The gut-brain axis, a communication system, is important for maintaining the homeostasis of our mind and body.
However, stress disrupts the smooth functioning of this bidirectional neurohormonal system. Not surprisingly, our stomach is the first place that is affected by stress.
Stress Response and HPA Axis
In response to any danger, the threat-detector amygdala signals the. command center hypothalamus, which triggers the automatic nervous system (ANS) into activating the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to get ready for flight or fight. This amazing communication network is called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). It is responsible for signaling the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol, priming the body to tackle the problem.
And so your heart starts beating faster and breathing becomes rapid. Blood and glucose flow is diverted from the other organs to your skeletal muscles. You become hyperalert ready to either fight the bear or run away from the bear.
Normally, when the threat passes, cortisol levels fall. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) responsible for rest and digestion takes over and dampens the stress response.
However, what happens if the stressor is as Nadine Burke Harris so accurately posits ‘the bear lives at home – it is family. As in childhood abuse. The complex HPA wiring goes out of whack.
Check her amazing Ted Talk below.
How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime | Nadine Burke Harris
Cortisol Not The Bad Guy
Now, cortisol is a good hormone, despite many articles making out it to be the bad guy. It is required not just for prepping the body’s stress response system but also for maintaining many important body processes, like circadian rhythm, inflammation response, and metabolism, among other things. Furthermore, when cortisol levels are off, it skews your estrogen and your thyroid production too.
However, if the red alert system is always on, as in chronic stress, particularly childhood trauma, the adrenals give out, The body can’t produce enough cortisol to keep up with the demand. Not surprisingly, a low cortisol level is one of the main symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).
Without adequate cortisol to keep the system running smoothly one’s mind and body get affected.
We simply don’t have the mental or physical energy to even get out of bed.
Cortisol and Gut-Brain Axis – Vagus Nerve
In a state of stress, blood flows to your lungs and muscles while the other organs including your stomach are shortchanged. This could lead to cramping, inflammation, or an imbalance of gut bacteria. Our gut microbiome needs a proper climate to thrive and grow.
Moreover, when one is in a state continuous state of stress, cortisol which is needed for normal digestive functions becomes unavailable.
According to studies, cortisol is the middle-man in the gut-brain connection. It is the hormone that lets gut bacteria talk to the brain. The gut microbes communicate via the vagus nerve communication network. Well, you guessed cortisol is the grease that keeps the gut-brain networking system working smoothly.
So, technically one has to get our cortisol level on an even keel if we want to restore our health.
Havard physician, Sara Gottfried, author of The Hormone Reset Diet, calls cortisol the ‘control system‘ for hormones. It raises your blood pressure and blood sugar when you need it and modulates your immune system.
The key to getting well is to improve our gut microbiome which in turn balances your cortisol level
Getting Our Gut-Brain Talking – Psychobiotic Cure
According to The Psychobiotic Revolution, ‘good’ bacteria can secrete neurotransmitters so powerful that they rival the effects of Prozac, while “bad” bacteria can make substances that increase anxiety and depression.
So what exactly are psychobiotics?
Psychobiotics include prebiotics(food, which feeds gut bacteria), probiotics (fermented stuff), and also foods that enhance the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.
Furthermore, they have mood-enhancing and antidepressant effects. Their benefits encompass our emotional, cognitive, systemic, and neural systems.
The best prebiotic food sources are apples, asparagus, artichokes, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, fennel, garlic, legumes, leeks, onions, and green leafy veggies, wheat, and oats.
The best probiotic food sources are fermented foods such as sauerkraut, fermented tempeh (a type of soya), miso, kefir, and yogurt.
Making Your Own Psychobiotics
You don’t need to go in for expensive preparations to get your psychobiotic fix. It is so simple to create your fermented alchemical creations.
Try making your own apple cider or ginger beer. In fact, most fruits and veggies can be transformed into psychobiotic wonder foods.
My faves include:
1) Pineapple cut mixed with a dash of cinnamon and left overnight in the fridge. Mix it with yogurt before eating for a yummy dessert.
2) Tumeric water plus crushed ginger with added sugar. The ginger and sugar ferments to give a nice turmeric fizz.
3 Daily servings of fermented cabbage and beets with homemade pineapple vinegar have helped decrease my scoliosis pain.
4) Caffeine-cocoa-red wine-cinnamon-nuts-cherries chocolate. Melt dark chocolate bar, add a little milk with coffee, and add powdered cinnamon, almonds or cashews or walnuts, and some dried cherries. This is my all-time mood-lifting formula. Never fails to uplift my spirits.
Nonetheless, if you are too busy to try your hand at making your own psychobiotic concoctions you can try the many commercial options. Or simply pop a pill or two of any of the many available psychobiotic choices available.
Final Words of Advice
Don’t go overboard and drastically change your diet. Avoid trying to overnight change your gut microbiome. You could go into anaphylactic shock due to an allergic reaction. Bad gut bacteria need to be eased out gently to make room for new good bacteria. Caution and moderation is the key to success in life. Slow and easy, one psychobiotic at a time.
Our body and brain are one super-complicated piece of creation. And we are all different. What works for me may not work for you. Find your own magic healing formula.
And most importantly, stay away from junk foods that are loaded with sugar, salt, and preservatives. Also, keep in mind commercial ice-creams and mayo products contain emulsifiers that can cause havoc to your gut flora.
Most importantly, keep a positive attitude, and believe that you will heal. Be mindful and relaxed when ingesting food. When I take in psychobiotic food I imagine the good bacteria fighting the bad bacteria. Healing is the good guys winning over the bad guys.
Remember, the gut-brain is connected – you are what you eat.
News Update: Taking care of your gut is the best way to boost your immune system during a coronavirus outbreak.
Ref: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Does the Gut Microbiome Hold the Key?
Dietary Curcumin Promotes Resilience to Chronic Social Defeat Stress in a Highly Susceptible Mouse Strain
The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-Term Health, – Justin Sonnenburg, Erica Sonnenburg
The Psychobiotic Revolution:: Mood, Food, and the New Science of the Gut-Brain Connection – Scott Anderson