Focus on Mental Health: Fend Off Stress With the Gut-Brain Connection

June 18, 2021

What you can do for your own health

Around the globe, we are on edge due to the coronavirus crisis, which is taking a toll on our well-being. At the fourth installment of the Female Power Hour, neuroscientists and medical experts explored why mental health predominantly hinges on a certain style of working and a healthy gut. Read on to learn about the gut-brain connection and the types of actions you can do to stay healthy.

symbolic pic mental health
What does mental health depend on and how can it be specifically improved?

Priyanka Dutta-Passecker, one of the co-founders of the WU Executive Academy’s Female Leaders Network and a graduate of the Global Executive MBA program, warmed up the audience for the topic of mental health at the workplace. “In Europe, the economic costs of mental illness amount to 523.2 billion euro every year. Strategic investments to improve the mental health of the workforce can generate large-scale positive effects for both the economy and social life,” she explained, pointing to a recent study in which nine out of ten European employers reported negative effects of the pandemic with regard to the health and productivity of their staff.

Portrait Priyanka Dutta-Passecker

Priyanka Dutta-Passecker

  • Co-founder of the Female Leaders Network and Global Executive MBA alumna

Stress has a huge impact on health: 79% of European managers are worried about the stress levels at work, but only 30% of workplaces in Europe have taken anti-stress measures.

“What’s more, mental health at the workplace is about more than just getting adequate pay. Respect and appreciation are also a kind of reward that is important for the self-worth and well-being of staff members. A corporate culture based on the principle of fairness motivates employees and contributes to job satisfaction. And work-life balance is just as important as good relationships between staff members and within the teams,” said Dutta-Passecker, who is also a co-founder of Healiva SA and Corporate Sales Director at Bioseutica.

Colleagues having fun to reduce stress
Salary isn't the only thing that plays a role in mental health: good relationships between colleagues are also important. Photo © CC0 Licence

Working With Instead of Against the Brain

Andy Habermacher, a neuroleadership expert and founder of the consulting company leading brains, also emphasized the positive impact of a brain-friendly lifestyle and work habits. In his keynote, he cited the neuropsychiatrist Klaus Grawe, who said: “Well-being depends almost entirely on the degree to which individuals manage to attain their motivational goals.”

Portrait Andy Habermacher

Andy Habermacher

  • Neuroleadership expert

What is essential for mental health is that the brain forms new neural connections. There is such a thing as brain plasticity, which means that the brain can grow but also shrink. The brain also produces toxins, which it subsequently needs to get rid of.

Andy Habermacher pointed out that simple behaviors go a long way towards keeping the brain healthy and functioning smoothly. For instance, if you take a walk, your body produces a hormone called BDNF that stimulates brain growth. Taking a stroll stimulates the brain to form new cells in the hippocampus: “The hippocampus is in charge of spatial orientation, learning, and memory,” Habermacher explained, adding: “Taking a walk also helps your brain integrate brain waves, which boosts creativity.” Just taking several short, three-minute walks every day has a positive effect on brain health. So to improve brain health, consider walking to work, for instance.

Pic of someone on a walk to reduce stress
Walking to work, or short walks - a little physical activity already has a positive effect on our health. Photo © CC0 Licence

Good Sleep and Regular Breaks are of the Essence

Andy Habermacher pointed out that sleep remains a gravely underestimated factor in the world of work. “Our brain detoxifies while we sleep and also most brain growth – both physical and cognitive growth through new synaptic connections – happens while we are asleep,” the expert reminded the audience. Sleep is also crucial for the consolidation of the emotions we feel, “which is why we are often emotional when we don’t get enough sleep,” Habermacher explained. Sleep also re-establishes the balance between the various brain regions. The necessity of regular breaks is another factor that is often taken too lightly: “Breaks are extremely important to keep stress levels in check,” Habermacher said, explaining that a ten-minute break between two meetings lowers stress, while no break increases a person’s stress levels.

Why Our Emotional Needs are so Important

Taking emotional needs seriously is essential for mental health at the workplace. This is the case because “toxic stress destroys brain cells and wreaks havoc on synaptic connections,” Habermacher explained. Together with Argang Ghadhiri and Theo Peters, he developed the SCOAP model, which describes, and thus makes assessable, the basic needs every person is born with on a neurobiological level. These needs are:

  1. Self-esteem: maintaining a sense of self-worth or increasing it through appreciation

  2. Control: having control over one’s own life and surroundings as well as freedom and autonomy

  3. Orientation: understanding one’s surroundings and knowing what needs to be done in what way

  4. Attachment: maintaining healthy social relationships with those we are close with

  5. Pleasure: increasing the levels of joy and content experienced

“If all emotional needs at the workplace are met, commitment, motivation, and productivity will increase,” Andy Habermacher concluded.

The Gut-Brain Connection and the Microbiome

Next in the program was biochemist and Professional MBA Finance graduate Barbara Sladek, who founded the health-tech company Biome Diagnostics, which specializes in high-quality microbiome analyses. In her keynote, she discussed the effects of the human microbiome on mental health: “The microbiome is composed of bacteria, fungi, and viruses in and on our bodies,” she explained. It is found on the skin, the mucus membranes, and the respiratory, digestive, and uro-genital tracts. “There are a thousand different kinds of bacteria, fungi, and viruses in our digestive system – some scientists estimate, it contains more than 30 billion microorganisms weighing one to two kilograms overall,” Sladek said.

Portrait Barbara Sladek

Barbara Sladek

  • Biochemist
  • founder of Biome Diagnostics and MBA Finance alumna

99% of the microbiome in our gastrointestinal system is made up of bacteria: they produce vitamins, absorb minerals, protect us against infections, and boost our immune system.

The expert emphasized that the interplay between external factors, the microbiome, and a person’s health plays a huge role: “Social factors, how a person handles stress, healthy or unhealthy behaviors, and environmental impacts all have a bearing on the microbiome, which in turn affects mental and physical health as well as life expectancy and the quality of life.”

Especially mental health is closely linked to the digestive system’s microbiome: there is a direct connection between the brain and the gut, the so-called gut-brain axis. “The microbiome has an effect on the neurotransmitters in the brain and thus also on stress levels, mood, and behavior. Brain processes, in turn, impact the microbiome in the gastrointestinal tract,” Barbara Sladek specified.

This explains why diet greatly influences a person’s mood, for instance in people suffering from depression, which can be linked to a serotonin deficiency. “Serotonin is a hormone that regulates mood, and ninety-five percent of it is produced in the lining of our gastrointestinal tract,” Sladek explained. For this reason, it is important to know your microbiome and adapt your diet accordingly if you want to maintain your mental health. “After making dietary changes, it will take three months for the new microbiome to replace the old one,” Barbara Sladek said.

The Evening’s Learnings

In the end, it’s quite simple: mental health also starts at the workplace, with getting enough hours of shut-eye, taking breaks during the workday, plenty of outdoor exercise – and eating right.

Other interesting and important topics related to success, business and careers are subject of our regular panel discussions, webinars and other events. For more information, please click here.

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