Have you ever had a gut feeling or felt butterflies in your stomach? Have you ever felt nauseous after an argument, or does public speaking make you feel sick to your stomach? These experiences are a result of the gut-brain connection.
The enteric nervous system, also known as the second brain, is comprised of millions of neurons that connect your brain to your gut. Your whole intestinal tract is lined by an information highway that involves hormones, nerves, neurotransmitters, and micro-organisms. All of these work in synchronicity to keep your body and mind healthy.
At stressful times, like when dealing with a health pandemic, your brain sends messages to various systems in the body to ensure survival. And the stress response is activated via hormones like adrenaline, serotonin, and cortisol. This prioritizes the rapid production and distribution of energy required to fight or flight. When this happens, other bodily functions, like those involving the digestive system, become suppressed. When we experience fear, anxiety, or stress, there is a decrease in blood and oxygen flow to the stomach. This can lead to cramping, nausea, gut bacteria, imbalances, and inflammation.
Your intestinal tract is also covered by a plethora of microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi) known as the gut microbiome. This collection of organisms are responsible for many functions related to health. Metabolism, immunity, hormones, nutrient absorption, and brain function are all affected by the bacteria in your gut. A balanced intestinal flora promotes health, but unbalance fosters disease. Stress affects your gut health because it inhibits its normal functions and can destroy its microbial balance. If we remain in a state of constant stress, your gut becomes sick, and an ill gut equates to a diseased body.
Communication between the gut and the brain is not one-sided. Your brain sends messages to your stomach and vice-versa. Recent studies show that the gut microbiome influences your emotions. The health of your gut can regulate your mental health.
To protect your mental and physical health, you must protect your gut health because they are all linked. In order to support or heal your gut, there are two steps I believe to be critical:
1. Remove offenders
If you accidentally stapled your thumb, the first thing you would do (aside from letting out a pain cry) is to remove the staple. It is unlikely, and pointless, that you would place a bandaid over the staple and expect that to heal that wound. Healing the gut works in a similar way. Loading yourself up with probiotics without first removing the things that damaged your gut in the first place would be a futile exercise.
Food sensitivities. Not everyone benefits from the same diet or foods. It is important for individuals to identify the foods that cause distress in their bodies. The best way to identify food sensitivities is to try an elimination diet and keep a food journal. One way to try an elimination diet is eliminating suspicious food for two weeks. Take note of any changes in your body. After the two weeks have passed re-introduce the food in small amounts and take notes of how your body reacts. The most common symptoms, which can take hours to present after ingesting food, are diarrhea, rashes, headaches, nausea, bloating, runny nose, acid reflux, and abdominal pain. The topmost common food intolerances are dairy and gluten.
Food allergies. Allergies differ from food intolerances in the severity and speed as to which a reaction occurs. The most common allergens are milk, eggs, peanuts, soy, wheat, tree nuts, shellfish, fish and sesame. For more information on diagnosing food allergies visit FARE.
Added sugars. Sugars are very problematic, especially when it comes to gut health. They cause inflammation and feed harmful bacteria. A diet high in sugars is damaging to your gut flora and health.
Overly refined foods. Foods like cereals, pasta, pre-packaged snacks, pastries, and fried foods are examples of foods that are highly processed and have little nutritional value or fiber. These foods are usually high in damaged fats, sugars, preservatives, and chemicals. They have little to zero healthful nutrients. They can irritate the gut lining, feed harmful bacteria and promote allergies.
Chronic stress. The gut is lined with more than a100 million nerve cells that communicate with your brain. The nervous system and the gut are intimately connected so stress can wreck your gut. It is important to learn to recognize stressors and find ways to manage them. Tools like mindful breathing, tapping, meditation, and adjusting your mindset are fantastic ways to manage stress and protect your gut.
Prebiotic foods. Foods that contain soluble fiber and can be fermented by the "good" bacteria in your intestinal tract are considered prebiotic. They promote gut health and balance. Examples of prebiotic foods are apples, leafy greens, garlic, onion, bananas, and leeks.
Mineral-rich broths. Minerals and trace minerals, like zinc, selenium, iron and magnesium support gut health. Broths are beneficial because they provide many nutrients (including minerals) in a way that is very easy to absorb for your body. Bone broth also has the added benefit of containing the protein collagen, which supports the integrity of your intestinal walls. You can drink broths as tea, use them as the base for soup, or you can cook with them. Preparing bone broth at home is easy, follow this link for the recipe. For a vegetarian option, I always recommend Rebeca Katz Magic Mineral Broth.
Antioxidant-rich foods. Fruits, vegetables, and herbs provide a great deal of nutrition and health benefits. They protect our cells from damage and reduce inflammation. Some antioxidant-rich foods for gut health are berries, basil, spinach, bell peppers, olives, plums, and carrots.
Fermented foods. Probiotics found in fermented foods help populate your intestinal tract with "good" bacteria. They are also rich in minerals and are easy to digest, providing lots of nutrients to your body. Kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, tempeh, kefir, sourdough, and unsweetened yogurt are good sources of probiotics.
Exercise. It might seem unrelated but exercise is supportive of gut health. Why? Because exercise promotes the release of hormones, like endorphins which promote relaxation. Staying active also contributes to gastrointestinal motility which is crucial in bowel movements and detoxification.
Mindfulness. Mindfulness practices are at the core of health. Just chewing your food in a calm and mindful matter increases nutrient absorption and facilitates digestion. Being mindful will also have a powerful impact on stress. Tending to your min by promoting calm, balance and connection will heal your body because it foments habits that lead to health. Gratitude, meditation, breathwork, yoga, and making time for yourself are all going to have an impact on your gut via hormones, nerves and the promoting of balance.
The gut and brain connection is best supported in a holistic way. Our bodies work in the synchronicity of cells, organs, and systems. If you want to feel more relaxed, balanced and improve your overall health do not forget to take care of your gut.