THE BRAIN, BELLY CONNECTION

May is Mental Health Awareness Month

“I’m a pretty capable person,” the man said, as we sipped our coffee early one morning. “I have a master’s degree and work in a field that I love; I have a great family, healthy children, and an excellent marriage. I have tons of things to be grateful for. My spiritual disciplines are in place and I exercise regularly. Yet there are days, more of them than I would like to admit, when sadness, even hopelessness overwhelms me. I feel I’m walking on the edge of the looney bin, wondering when it’s going to crumble and take me down with it. I’ve read all the self-help books. I know the stuff about minding your mind and choosing joy and trusting God and all that. But I’m telling ya, sometimes whole weeks go by when it takes all the emotional energy I have just to do the basics of my life. I spend the days wanting nothing more than to go home, crawl in bed and cover my head with a sheet. Then there are other days, normal ones without crisis, when I’m so anxious I’m almost frantic. So, am I nuts, or what? And where does God come into this?”

If you can identify with that imaginary conversation then read on, I have good news for you.

The first thing to know is that if you struggle with depression and anxiety, you are not alone and you are not crazy. May is mental health awareness month (credit to President Obama for that designation). The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that at any given time there are roughly sixty million Americans, adults and teens, sharing your experience.

Second, God is not absent in your distress. He is an “ever present help in time of trouble,” Psalm 46:1. But we are complex beings made up of body, soul, and spirit which cannot be separated from one another. The Psalmist also said, “… you knit me together in my mother’s womb,” Palm 139:13. We are woven like fabric. Pulling on one thread affects all the others. Your spirit might be fine but if your body is malfunctioning your soul may experience distress.

This brings me to the good news. Researchers are discovering links between the microbiome, the trillions of bacteria that live on and in our bodies, and disease, auto-immune disorders, and obesity. But the most fascinating finding may be the connection between our brains and bellies.

Researchers are finding that a significant link exists between the bacteria that live in our digestive system and our brains. We’ve known for centuries that the mind can affect the belly, but we’ve never considered that it could work in reverse. World Magazine reports that feeding mice a particular bacterium found in milk and yogurts produced a measurable increase in the receptors in lab mice’s brains for GABA, a chemical targeted by anti-anxiety medications like Valium and Xanax. These in turn reduced behaviors associated with depression and anxiety in the mice. Severing the nerves that transmit information from the mice’s gut to the brain cut off the effects of the bacterium on behavior and brain chemicals.

The article continued:
In another study, researchers at UCLA found that women who regularly consumed beneficial bacteria through yogurt showed changes in their brains when they were imaged using a special MRI scanner. Commenting on the study published in Gastroenterology, lead author Dr. Kirsten Tillisch noted “our findings indicate that some of the contents of yogurt may actually change the way our brain responds to the environment.

Interestingly, recent research has also shown that the majority of our serotonin, the critical neurotransmitter that is regulated by common anti-depression and anti-anxiety medications like Zoloft and Paxil, is produced in the gut. In other words, the antibiotics we have used and overused for decades may be contributing to our mental problems, as they destroy the healthy as well as the bad bacteria. Either way, it’s clear from the research, that we truly are what we eat.

So if you are experiencing the symptoms of depression and anxiety I urge you to do three things that honor the way God has woven you together. First, pay attention to your spiritual life, as there may be issues between you and God that need to be settled in order to find peace. Second, mind your mind. Read Paul’s instructions in Philippians 4:4-9 and put it into practice and if you need it, go see a counselor. If you find that you are still struggling, then it may be time to check the connection between your belly and your brain.

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