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The Mind-Body Connection and Mental Health

By Naveen Jain and Deepak Chopra™, MD

In very important ways mind and body are being connected as never before. The separate specialties that modern medicine is divided into are blurring around the edges. This is particularly true when it comes to mental health, which has long been outside the skill, or interest, of M.D.s who are not psychiatrists.

As mental health is increasingly connected to the body, it is becoming clear that a faraway region like the intestine, and its population of micro-organisms known as the microbiome, plays a major role in a person’s moods and general susceptibility to anxiety and depression, both of which rose alarmingly during the COVID crisis.

By now most people have learned at least the basics about the gut microbiome. Its teeming microbes are essential for digestion, and the proportions of thousands of species of bacteria are dynamically changing all the time. The advent of the microbiome is barely a decade old as a serious subject of study, but research has progressed rapidly.

You don’t really know your own body unless you have absorbed the following facts:

· Chronic inflammation is now connected to many if not most lifestyle disorders and chronic diseases. A major source of inflammation seems to be the microbiome. Bacteria can secrete chemicals that promote inflammation, and in some cases these pass through the intestinal wall, giving rise to “leaky gut,” which sends inflammatory markers through the body.

· The intestine has an independent nervous system known as the enteric nervous system, which responds to a person’s mental and physical health. The enteric nervous system sends constant messages to the brain via the vagus nerve.

· Adding another link to the expanded mind-body connection, the vagus nerve delivers most of the sensory information that the brain receives. The vagus nerve is connected to heart rate and breathing, which makes it extremely sensitive to a person’s level of anxiety or depression.

· Finally, the notion of separate systems in the body, each ruling over its own domain, is inaccurate. The intestines plays a major role in immunity, for example, and secrete more serotonin than the brain itself. Since level of serotonin are directly related to depression, this fact may be of utmost importance.

If people begin to realize that depression and anxiety have roots in the body as well as the mind, the stigma still associated with mental health challenges can start to lessen and hopefully disappear. Bringing the microbiome into play also makes these conditions a matter of general wellness, which gives a person more control over depression and anxiety beyond joining the tens of millions of prescriptions written for these disorders every year, for drugs that alleviate symptoms without leading to a cure.

It’s time that mental health became holistic, and the microbiome takes a positive step in that direction.

Not all of the findings we’ve summarized are settled science — research on the gut microbiome is proceeding quickly on many fronts — but enough is known to date that a major front has opened in self-care. Doctors are not trained to deal with the microbiome, and the whole system in medical school emphasizes specialization rather than holistic perspectives.

There is no pill or surgery to heal a disturbed or imbalanced microbiome, and because no two people have the same microbiome, or even the same from day to day, the whole field remains open-ended. But some indications are very clear. The microbiome is one of the key players in the bodymind as a whole. It needs to thrive, which will prevent the secretion of harmful inflammatory chemicals and boost the production of beneficial chemicals. This holds true not just for physical health but mental health as well.

Some studies suggest that leaky gut might be connected to depression, and everyone has experienced how anxiety is felt physically by a queasy stomach or more serious conditions like irritable bowel syndrome. Since low-level chronic inflammation, along with stress, has become a major culprit in depriving us of lifelong well-being, self-care requires that we pay attention to these findings.

How do you know if your microbiome is out of balance and causing inflammatory activities? Go to your favorite search engine and look for a gut intelligence test that can analyze your gut and provide you with insights about your intestinal health, biological age, immune health and other health scores. It will also suggest what foods or supplements to eat or avoid to maintain your microbiome.

In practical terms, the value of stress reduction and good sleep every night keeps increasing in importance. Joining these two measures as a top priority is diet, which probably is the crucial element in a healthy microbiome. Here some welcome simplicity enters the picture. The microbiome feeds off the fiber that the body doesn’t digest for nourishment. Fiber comes from vegetables, fruits, seeds, and nuts. It appears totally valid that each of these groups should be part of everyone’s diet, because among the thousands of species of bacteria in the microbiome, not all feed off the same fiber. Giving the microbiome many types of fiber is as important as giving it lots of fiber.

On the whole, Americans consume far too little fiber compared to indigenous peoples around the world and even past generations in the West. When meat was a luxury for the average person, a larger part of the meal was vegetables. Now that meat is historically inexpensive and available to everyone, consumption of fiber has diminished. This is severely affected by the rise of fast food, junk food, and the rise of white sugar and refined flour in processed food. None of these food sources are high in fiber, and some contain close to zero (hamburgers without lettuce and tomato, French fires, milk shakes, and pizza without vegetable toppings are basically fiber-free zones, as are packaged cookies, candy, chips, and a huge range of snack foods).

Lifelong wellness was a dream in the past that rarely came true. Now we know enough to see that it is within reach of everyone, short of the intervention of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension. The adoption of the measures we’ve presented here can go a long way to cutting into the rates of those disorders, which brings lifelong wellness much closer.

DEEPAK CHOPRA™ MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation, a non-profit entity for research on well-being and humanitarianism, and Chopra Global, a whole health company at the intersection of science and spirituality, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation. Chopra is a Clinical Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, San Diego and serves as a senior scientist with Gallup Organization. He is a is a co-founder of Viome. He is the author of over 90 books translated into over forty-three languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His 90th book and national bestseller, Metahuman: Unleashing Your Infinite Potential (Harmony Books), unlocks the secrets to moving beyond our present limitations to access a field of infinite possibilities. For the last thirty years, Chopra has been at the forefront of the meditation revolution and his latest book, Total Meditation (Harmony Books) will help to achieve new dimensions of stress-free living and joyful living. TIME magazine has described Dr. Chopra as “one of the top 100 heroes and icons of the century.” www.deepakchopra.com

Naveen Jain is the founder of Viome and many other successful companies. Viome’s Health Intelligence service assesses your gut microbiome health, cellular health, mitochondrial health, immune system health, and your stress response health. Viome can even reveal your biological age. Naveen is the author of the award-winning book Moonshots– Creating the World of Abundance, has been awarded E&Y “Entrepreneur of the Year”, and “Most Creative Person” by Fast Company.