Have you ever had that feeling in your stomach right before you are about to give a big presentation? Or have you ever found that when you are nervous you lose your appetite? The gut-brain connection is very real, and while we all seem to innately understand and talk about it (I'm looking at your nervous stomach) from a young age, we still underestimate the true effect the gut-brain connection can have on our health, and how we feel on a daily basis.
How The Gut-Brain Connection (axis) Works
The gut-brain axis is a bidirectional (meaning it functions both ways) connection between the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and the enteric nervous system (the nerve system that makes up the gastrointestinal tract) of the body, which links cognitive functions and emotions in the brain with intestinal functions.
This is why your gut is commonly referred to as your second brain.
Overall, your gut and brain communicate through the vagus nerve, which you can think of as the highway connecting your gut and your brain, and allowing them to easily communicate with one another.
How does stress affect your gut-brain access?
Your brain and gut are closely connected, and communicate with one another through both the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system.
Your parasympathetic nervous system is your body's "rest and digest" response which allows the body to relax and digestion to optimally occur. The parasympathetic system is activated when your body shifts into a place of relaxation, and controls your heart rate and body temperature so you can truly relax, and digest with very little effort.
Your sympathetic nervous system on the other hand is your body's "fight or flight" response which prepares the body for an immediate threat and inhibits your bodies digestion.
Unfortunately, today because so many people are living in a chronically stressed state, our bodies are constantly running in that "fight or flight" mode which as you can imagine leads to poor digestion, inflammation, and a disruption in the way your brain and gut communicate with one another.
This is because when your body is in crisis mode, your sympathetic nervous system is activated, which pulled blood away from the digestive track and towards the other vital organs, and muscles needed to quite literally "flee" a situation. All digestion is pretty much shut down, and the body is not capable of doing what it is meant to do when it comes to properly digesting food, and cleaning up leftover undigested material with the help of the migrating motor complex.
Simply put, if we are constantly living in a state of high-stress our bodies digestive system is going to take a back seat to other functions, which overtime can lead to an overgrowth of bacteria, gut dysbiosis (an imbalance of bacteria), and a compromised gut lining.
How does your gut microbiome affect your mental health?
Your gut microbiome is a network of organisms and bacteria that live within your gut. While we have only touched the surface of what we know about the gut microbiome, it is becoming clear that the gut microbiome affects every single other system in our body.
Studies have begun to find that the gut microbiome differs in people with mental health disorders   and supplementation with probiotics and fermented foods can positively influence feelings of anxiety, however this research is still very limited, and has mostly been conducted on animals .
With that said, anecdotally I have clients in my private practice who notably report a difference in their mood when they are not taking their probiotics or consuming fermented foods. Obviously these are anecdotal reports and not well researched studies, but with so much to learn about the gut microbiome and probiotics, I commonly will use them in my practice when I feel there is the potential for them to have some benefit.
is my gut health influencing my happiness?
The short answer is, yes. Absolutely. Because 90 percent of serotonin (which is one of four main neurotransmitters that have been shown to influence our mood) is produced in the gut, research has shown that microbes in the gut play a critical role in the production of this important neurotransmitter, and therefore play a role in our mood and overall happiness.
Meaning that if your gut isn't working optimally, it may not be producing serotonin as well as it should be either. This is a big deal since serotonin is connected to our sleep, appetite, happiness, and overall mood.
How you can support the gut-brain axis
- Start by consuming whole foods filled with prebiotics that will help feed the good bacteria in your gut to naturally support your gut microbiome, and therefore the gut-brain axis.
- Some common prebiotic rich foods include: garlic, onions, leeks, seaweed, and asparagus.
- Support your mental health by practicing daily stress management techniques that will help your body move from the sympathetic (fight or flight) to the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system.
- One of my favorite recommendations to clients is to take three deep belly breathes before each meal, this alone can relax your body and allow you to move into that parasympathetic mode, which will support better digestion.
- Practice mindful movement by taking daily walks, doing yoga, and generally moving in a way that makes you feel good.
- Note that high intensity exercise when you are already feeling quite stressed may be doing more harm than good. This is because high-intensity exercise will be perceived by your body as a form of stress (even if it has other positive benefits). High intensity exercise can be great if you do a good job of managing your stress levels throughout the rest of the day, but all to often I see clients who are chronically fatigued and doing too much high intensity exercise.
- Consume Gut Healing Foods like omega-3 fatty acids, collagen, bone broth, and anti-inflammatory foods such as berries, dark leafy greens, turmeric, and ginger.
- Consider A Magnesium Supplement unfortunately our food supply is deficient in magnesium and while choosing local and organic foods will most likely have higher magnesium levels (due to healthier soil) a magnesium supplement still may be helpful for those with anxiety and chronic gut issues.
- I typically will recommend 300 mg of Magnesium Glycinate at night for those with a regular digestive system, or 300mg of Magnesium Citrate at night for folks who have issues with constipation.
I hope you now have a better understanding of how your gut and brain communicate with one another, and how important it is to support both the brain and gut for a healthy, happy body and mind.
While there is still so much more we have to learn on this topic, one thing is clear, the gut-brain axis is a crucial communication pathway that can significantly affect our overall health and should be supported everyday to maintain a healthy body and mind.
Disclaimer: This information is not meant to treat, diagnose, or prescribe personalized medical advice. Before making any changes to your supplements, or diet it is always recommended that you speak to your personal doctor or dietitian.