“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
Take a moment to pause and reflect on something you’re grateful for. (Your health, your spouse, your children, your pets, your friends, etc.). You just sparked a bunch of mental and physical health benefits! The act of “feeling grateful” can have a profound effect on your well-being. In fact, hundreds of studies have found that gratitude connects to:
- Better sleep
- Reduced depression and anxiety
- Improved heart health
- Lower blood pressure
- Fewer aches and pains
- Clearer skin
- Reduced stress levels
- Increased positivity and happiness
And it can also have a positive effect on your gut microbiome – the trillions of bacteria that live in your gut, and play a starring role in your overall health.
Getting Healthier with Gratitude
Gratitude is more than a “thank you.” According to this Berkeley article, it’s a complex emotion that involves:
- Recognizing that something good has happened to you
- Showing appreciation for the gifts you’ve received
- Connecting with something outside yourself
- Strengthening bonds between people
Gratitude affects our brains – and our health – more powerfully than other types of positive emotions. And positive emotions send strong signals to our gut microbiome, allowing the most beneficial bacteria to thrive. (It’s not too big a leap to imagine how the opposite is true as well —namely that negative emotions can cause extra stress on the body and mind, weaken our body’s immune system and adversely affect our well-being.) No matter what shape your health is in, regularly practicing gratitude can make it better. And we have the scientific studies to back that up:
- Keeping a daily online gratitude journal for two weeks was shown to help participants achieve fewer headaches, less congestion, and decreased stomach pain (read more).
- Heart failure patients (with no active symptoms) who kept gratitude journals had lower levels of inflammation and better heart function than patients who didn’t (read more).
- College students who kept gratitude journals for 10 weeks experienced fewer symptoms (like sore muscles or nausea) than students writing about hassles or keeping daily event logs (read more).
- A study of 607 adults found that practicing gratitude was linked to lower levels of loneliness and stress, and better overall health (read more).
Psychology Today reported on 7 scientifically-proven benefits of feeling and expressing gratitude:
- Gratitude opens the door to more relationships. Not only does saying “thank you” constitute good manners, but showing appreciation can help you make new friends, according to a 2014 study published in Emotion. The study found that thanking a new acquaintance makes them more likely to seek an ongoing relationship. Whether you thank a stranger for holding the door or send a thank-you note to that colleague who helped you with a project, acknowledging other people’s contributions can lead to new opportunities and feeling connected.
- Gratitude improves physical health. Grateful people experience fewer “aches and pains” and report feeling healthier than other people, according to a 2012 study. Not surprisingly, grateful people are also more likely to take better care of their health.
- Gratitude improves psychological health. Gratitude reduces a multitude of toxic emotions, from envy and resentment to frustration and regret. Robert Emmons, a leading gratitude researcher, has conducted multiple studies on the link between gratitude and well-being. His research confirms that gratitude effectively increases happiness and reduces depression.
- Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression. Grateful people are more likely to behave in a pro-social manner, even when others act less kindly, according to a 2012 study by the University of Kentucky. Study participants who ranked higher on gratitude scales were less likely to retaliate against others, even when given negative feedback. They experienced more sensitivity and empathy toward other people and a decreased desire to seek revenge.
- Grateful people sleep better. Writing in a gratitude journal improves sleep, according to a 2011 study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. Spend just 15 minutes jotting down a few grateful sentiments before bed, (or even just reviewing in your head a few moments from the day which made you feel grateful), and you may sleep deeper, better, and longer.
- Gratitude improves self-esteem. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology found that gratitude increased athletes’ self-esteem, an essential component to optimal performance. Other studies have shown that gratitude reduces social comparisons. Rather than becoming resentful toward people who have more money or better jobs—a significant factor in reduced self-esteem—grateful people are more likely to appreciate other people’s accomplishments.
- Gratitude increases mental strength. For years, research has shown gratitude not only reduces stress, but it may also play a major role in overcoming trauma. A 2006 study published in Behavior Research and Therapy found that Vietnam War veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. Recognizing all that you have to be thankful for —even during the worst times—fosters resilience.
Developing an “attitude of gratitude” is a simple change you can make to improve your personal satisfaction with life. And one of the most important ways gratitude can improve your health is in the positive effects to your gut microbiome.
The Gut-Brain Connection
We’ve talked about how improving gut health with probiotics can support mental health. You may have heard about dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins as being contributing factors to feeling happy. Similar to these neurotransmitters, serotonin plays many important roles in the brain’s biochemistry and is intimately involved in facilitating sustained and deep sleep, maintaining healthy mood and self-confidence, even supporting a healthy appetite and social engagement. Additionally, it helps decrease our worries and concerns and is associated with learning and memory.
Researchers estimate that 90% of the body’s production of serotonin is in the digestive tract, not the brain. The lack of support from “friendly bacteria” could be what’s bringing you down. Many studies show that rebalancing your gut microbiome leads to positive changes in your brain chemistry. And that affects how you think and feel.
That’s because your brain and gut are directly connected by the “gut-brain axis” —a special communication system that runs between the two. The vagus nerve is the main messaging pathway of the gut-brain axis. And while recent research has focused on the bottom-up impact (how your gut microbiome affects your brain), the gut-brain axis is a two-way street. All of that makes sense when you think about things like “emotional eating,” “gut feelings,” and “butterflies in your stomach.”
It’s also why we can find it difficult to sit down and eat a nourishing meal when we are stressed, and instead go for simple carbohydrates, such as bread, donuts, pastas, cereals, and so on, which typically increase insulin levels and allow more tryptophan (the natural amino acid building block for serotonin) to enter the brain, where the brain cells can then convert it to serotonin. (Healthier choices that help boost serotonin levels naturally might include salmon, poultry, eggs, spinach, nuts, and seeds.)
The truth is that how you think and feel can change the makeup of your microbiome! For example:
- Social stress can cause gut inflammation and affect gut bacteria and how they behave.
- Depression can decrease the bacteria population and diversity in the gut microbiome.
- Positive thinking can alter the symptoms of gut-related conditions like IBS.
So, your gut sends signals to your brain, and your brain sends messages to your gut. And when you’re feeling happy and content – which comes with practicing gratitude and being grateful – your brain lets you know that everything is going to be okay. It sends an “all is well” signal through the vagus nerve to your digestive tract, allowing the beneficial bacteria in your microbiome to thrive, leaving less room for bad (pathogenic) bacteria…all leading to better digestion, absorption, and an overall better-balanced gut landscape.
It’s pretty straightforward: Thankfulness decreases stress almost instantaneously. And your stress levels directly impact your digestive functions. Mental strain can affect digestion and even the speed at which food moves through your body. This is why many people with extreme, chronic stress—even if they eat plenty of fiber—find themselves suffering from diarrhea or constipation.
Stress can also affect the absorption of nutrients from food. You can eat all the kale and collards you want, but you won’t be reaping the maximum nutritional benefits if your body isn’t properly absorbing them.
On the other hand, feelings of gratitude activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is part of the involuntary nervous system that serves to slow the heart rate, increase intestinal and glandular activity, and is responsible for creating equilibrium in the body, (including the secretion of digestive enzymes that help you take advantage of the nutrients of your food).
Perhaps this is why most cultures have a traditional practice of taking a moment for gratitude before eating a meal, either as a prayer of thanks or a simple meditative acknowledgment. There are many psychological benefits of saying grace.
“What is the relationship between love and gratitude? For an answer to this question, we can use water as a model. A water molecule consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, represented by H2O. If love and gratitude, like oxygen and hydrogen, were linked together in a ratio of 1 to 2, gratitude would be twice as large as love.”
― Masaru Emoto, Hidden Messages in Water
As we’ve seen in the studies mentioned above, spending just a few minutes on gratitude every day can benefit your mood, your health, and your microbiome. (Check out more research on this fascinating subject here).
Then, as you strengthen your gratitude “muscle,” you may find that the feeling sneaks into your mind and heart throughout the course of your day, and this leads to the healthy practice of Mindfulness – a neutral state of active, open attention on the present. (Mindfulness can help relieve stress, lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep, and alleviate gastrointestinal difficulties.)
Want to get started on this gratitude thing? Choose a method that feels comfortable for you, so you can begin enjoying the benefits – and have even more to feel grateful for. It helps to have a special notebook to record your appreciation. Create a gratitude journal, and spend a few minutes each day writing down the things that bring you to a place of gratitude. Not quite the journaling type? Make a little note of the one thing you feel grateful for every day on your wall calendar, or on a Post-it.
- “It was sunny today.”
- “A friend made time for me.”
- “My children were so helpful.”
- “Ice cream!”
At the end of the month, you’ll have 30 (or more) days of gratitude to reflect upon!
“Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.”
― John Milton
Set a goal for yourself…say, start with writing every day for two weeks (tip: the most successful studies lasted for at least six weeks, with longer gratitude practice bringing stronger positive health results). In one study of keeping a weekly gratitude journal, participants showed an overall 5% increase in optimism. In another study, keeping a daily gratitude journal resulted in a 15% increase in optimism.
Take a good look around and allow yourself to feel the blessings surrounding you. How fortunate we all are, at this hour of the world. We can stay cool in the hot summer months and warm in the deep chill of winter. We have access to some of the healthiest, most delicious food in the world. Rainbows! Indoor Plumbing! (Sometimes, gratitude is really about acknowledging the little things that we take for granted.) We truly have so much to be grateful for when you think about it.
The next step is to share your appreciation and acknowledge that gratitude with someone. Tell someone how glad you are that they are in your life. Or just say, “Thank you!” Or just smile. And mean it. You will immediately feel a biological shift of positivity inside you. And don’t forget to eat your fermented foods and take your probiotics. Your gut bacteria will be grateful that you did!
– Written by Henry Long, Wellness Manager, and Billy Anderson, Co-Founder of Just Thrive Probiotics
NOTE: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Individual results may vary.