It’s fairly conclusive that exercise makes us feel great whatever our age, sex, state of mind or hormonal situation. Why this happens is quite fascinating, but a lot less conclusive. And it could have a lot to do with our heroic gut bacteria.
Recent scientific studies have revealed that gut health has huge implications on mental health, in particular depression and anxiety.
The friendly bacteria that live in our guts process what we eat and the bi-products from this processing protect the intestinal wall. Signals from the bacteria travel up the vagus nerve directly to the brain, sometimes causing inflammation and a stress response. Not enough of the right bacteria in the gut and the wrong signals can be a good reason for a bad mood.
The gut bacteria are a veritable army of different strains, collectively known as the microbiome. They are now being described as the forgotten organ and they outnumber all the cells in our bodies by 10 to 1. A healthy, diverse and varied community is crucial to our physical and mental health.
Microbiome can be enhanced in a number of ways: prebiotics (commonly nondigestible dietary fibres, often from plants, which help the body’s healthy bacteria flourish) and probiotics, fermented and organic foods. Sleep and stress are also key influencers. Antibiotics and the contraceptive pill are to be avoided for gut health.
A very exciting new found hero for our microbiome is also exercise.
Studies have only recently begun in this area, but already it is evident that regular exercise is beneficial to our bacterial friends, although exercise prior to adulthood has been shown to provide the greatest benefits. Women have also been shown to have a more pronounced response to exercise than men (University of Colorado, Boulder).
Researchers at the University College of Cork (part of the National University of Ireland) compared bacteria in the stools of the National Rugby Team of Ireland with sedentary adults and found that the elite athletes had far healthier guts. Makes me wonder who might have the superior stools – the All Blacks or the Wallabies?
Further studies in mice found that those that exercised had raised levels of several helpful bacteria by as much as 40 per cent including those that protect against colon cancer (butyrate). Other human studies included a four-fold increase in bifidobacterium, which boosts the immune system.
In conclusion, it seems that when we combine our exercise induced endorphins and monoamine hormones with good gut health, we may have discovered the secret for eternal happiness!