Causes

How Does the Gut Regulate Emotions?

Emma Loker, BSc Psychology

Written by

Emma Loker, BSc Psychology

Last updated July 26, 2022

How Does the Gut Regulate Emotions?

Where in your body contains the largest population of microorganisms? Your intestine! Together, these microscopic organisms make up the gut microbiota, also known as the microbiome.

Your gut contains over 100 trillion different microorganisms. Each serves a purpose, from helping with digestion to defending the gastrointestinal tract. Evidence also suggests that the organisms in your gut are linked to emotion regulation.

Why Do We Have Microorganisms In Our Gut?

Gut microbiota has many functions. It helps to digest specific foods like dietary fiber that otherwise would be difficult to break down. During this process, gut microbiota produces different molecules beneficial for the rest of the body, like short-chain fatty acids.

These little microorganisms also help the body absorb essential minerals such as iron, magnesium, and calcium and synthesize vital vitamins, including amino acids, vitamin K, and folate.

Furthermore, the microbiome protects the body against harmful microorganisms, helps the immune system decipher between friendly and not-so-friendly organisms, and breaks down toxic compounds.

And there’s new evidence to suggest that gut microbiota plays a role in how the brain works and our ability to regulate our emotions. But what is emotion regulation? And what’s the importance of this process?

What is Emotion Regulation, and Why is it Important?

Emotion regulation refers to the ability to control your emotional state. Typically, people regulate their emotions in one of two ways: suppression or cognitive reappraisal.

Suppression involves shutting yourself off from your emotions by preventing yourself from engaging in emotion-related behaviors such as crying and laughing. In contrast, cognitive reappraisal is changing how you think about an event to avoid an unpleasant emotion.

Suppression is widely believed to be a maladaptive coping strategy that leads to more negative emotions and stress. Evidence highlights a relationship between emotion suppression and cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Cognitive reappraisal, on the other hand, is considered relatively beneficial, showing less of an impact than suppression on the nervous system and resulting in health benefits such as a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

As you can see, how we regulate our emotions is vitally important for our physical health. But that’s not all. Emotion regulation also plays a key role in our mental health.

Evidence shows that an inability to effectively regulate emotions can lead to psychological conditions like depression, eating disorders, and borderline personality disorder. Therefore, if our gut microbiota can help or hinder emotion regulation, we need to know about it.

How Gut Microbiota Regulates Emotions

The relationship between gut microorganisms and the brain is known as the gut-brain axis. Some researchers believe this connection provides a bidirectional communication route between the brain, hormones, and immune system.

Of course, this connection can be for better or worse - dysfunction of this axis may lead to pathophysiological difficulties, including a heightened risk of heart attack, stroke, and diabetes.

Due to the nature of the gut-brain axis, gut bacteria also play a role in your brain health. Evidence demonstrates a link between healthy gut microbiota and psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression, which are intrinsically linked to emotion regulation.

One study looking into the relationship between emotion regulation and the microbiome in 206 women found that the more positive emotions the participants experienced, the lower the levels of Firmicutes bacterium CAG 94 in their gut.

And high levels of negative emotions were associated with an increased prevalence of this microorganism. Interestingly, this microorganism is more common in unhealthy individuals, including those suffering from specific forms of cancer, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.

This study also looked at the two methods of emotion regulation: suppression and cognitive reappraisal. They found that positive emotions alongside cognitive appraisal were associated with lower levels of various microorganisms.

Whereas negative emotions alongside suppression were related to higher levels of these species, some of which are shown to share a link with human diseases relating to physical and mental health.

This suggests an intricate link between emotion regulation strategies and the microbiome, with an inability to healthily regulate your emotions potentially leading to health difficulties.

How to Improve Your Gut Bacteria

Luckily, there are many ways you can improve the health of your gut. So, you don’t have to be stuck with unhealthy gut bacteria forever! Below, you’ll find some of the best ways to improve your microbiome.

Healthy Diet

The more gut microorganism species, the better - aim for a rich diversity in your microbiome.

You can do this by eating a varied diet, including all of the different food groups. Foods of particular benefit to gut health include vegetables (broccoli and green peas), legumes (lentils and whole grains), beans, and fruit (raspberries, bananas, apples).

Fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, kombucha, and tempeh are also believed to improve microbiome diversity. Yogurt, for example, increases gut lactobacilli, a probiotic, and lessens Enterobacteriaceae, a microorganism linked to chronic conditions and inflammation.

A healthier diet can also reduce stomach problems associated with anxiety.

Exercise

Moderate exercise has proven effective at improving the microbiome's composition, reducing inflammation, and increasing protection against harmful toxins by tightening the intestinal walls.

Exercise also increases the diversity of the microorganisms within your gut and thus potentially reduces the adverse effects on emotion regulation.

What’s more, it helps to lessen the effects of stress and anxiety.

Stress Management

The stress hormone cortisol is released when we enter the fight-or-flight response, the process our body engages in when we are under threat. This activates processes essential for survival but inhibits other ‘non-essential’ functions. One of these is digestion.

When your stress response is active, your body transports blood away from your intestines and towards your arms and legs, ready to fight or run away. Stress can also reduce the acidity in your stomach, a component that helps break down foods, assisting digestion.

Chronic stress will continually suppress your digestion, which will have multiple effects on your gut health. What’s more, high stress levels can reduce gut microorganism diversity and lower the number of helpful Lactobacillus.

Stress is also associated with psychological difficulties such as depression, which can influence gut bacteria composition and thus diversity.

To find out how to manage your stress, click here.

Final Remarks

The microorganisms within our gut aren’t just crucial for digestion. They also play a role in emotion regulation, a process that heavily impacts our physical and mental wellbeing. Try sticking to a balanced diet, exercise regularly, and manage your stress to improve your gut health.

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