Have you ever experienced butterflies in your stomach before a big presentation or felt nauseous from anxiety? Maybe you have lost your appetite when stressed or felt lethargic when you have a stomach ache. All of these phenomena occur because our brain and digestive system are, in fact, linked. Our brains are constantly sending signals to our gut based on our emotions and feelings, while a physical change in our GI tract may be feeding into emotions. Essentially, our brains impact our gut, and our guts impact our brain, meaning your stomach distress can be the cause or the product of your anxiety, stress, or depression (cite). With this in mind we can take steps to better understand the relationship between mental health and digestive health, and can try to use mindfulness and/or diet to harness the power of our brain-gut connection.
MENTAL + DIGESTIVE HEALTH//
Issues with the gut and imbalances in the gut bacteria (called dysbiosis) may accompany mental health issues such as anxiety and depressive disorders or issues with immune system functioning. Research indicates that dysbiosis may be associated with autoimmune disease, particularly autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and autoimmune liver disease. In fact, the mucosal sites in your intestines are heavily influenced by your surrounding environment, and the millions of microbes in your gut may constantly shape your immunity and metabolism. Healthy gut function is linked to normal central nervous system function and hormones, neurotransmitters, and immunological factors all originating in the gut are known to send signals to the brain (cite). Research also suggests that the brain gut axis can impact endocrine neural, and immune pathways.
Because of the influence that the brain can have on the gut and vice versa, stress and other negative emotions can affect the GI system. These negative emotional states can speed up or slow down the movements of the GI tract and the contents within it. These emotions can also make the digestive system sensitive, and cause bloating or other pain signals. When stressed or anxious, your digestive system may become more susceptible to bacteria crossing the gut lining which will activate the immune system, may increase inflammation in the gut, and these emotions may change gut microbiota. Stress and strong emotions can worsen or influence gastrointestinal conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and food allergies and sensitivities (cite).
Seeing that the research indicates that stress and other difficult emotions may negatively affect the functioning of your gut, taking steps to practice mindfulness may improve digestive function. In fact, according to Harvard Health, “mind-body tools such as meditation, mindfulness, breathing exercises, yoga, and gut-directed hypnotherapy all have been shown to help improve GI symptoms, improve mood, and decrease anxiety.” These activities are effective because they dampen the sympathetic nervous system, decreasing the body’s stress response, enhancing the parasympathetic response, and decreasing inflammation. Research shows that yogic breathing may have meaningful impacts on brain function and physiologic functioning. Sudarshan Kriya Yoga, a breath based meditative yoga technique, stimulates the vagus nerve which runs from the brain to your abdomen and is one pathway of brain/gut communication. By stimulating the vagus nerve, this kind of yogic breathing may result in positive outcomes such as a changed heart rate, improved cognition, and improved bowel functioning.
Mindfulness can also be used to help fight gastrointestinal diseases such as Irritable Bowel Disease (ulcerative colitis and crohn's disease). Research shows that relaxation training can decrease pain, anxiety levels, and improve quality of life. According to research published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, “mindfulness-based therapy, a comprehensive mind-body program, meditation, mind-body alternative approaches, yoga, and relaxation response-based mind-body interventions have shown to be beneficial for IBD patients. In addition, hypnotherapy, which increases vagal tone, has been effective in the treatment of IBD.”
Mindfulness can be a powerful tool in calming the brain which in turn calms the gut, but there are instances in which the gut is the root cause of your health issues. In the case that your issues are stemming from your gut, taking a dietary approach may yield powerful results. Diets can have huge impacts on gut microbiome, and changes to your microbiome may reduce intestinal inflammation and may help to alleviate or reduce symptoms such as fatigue, depression, and other mental issues. Since certain kinds of foods can trigger certain reactions in the gut in sensitive populations, diets such as the low-FODMAP diet, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, or AIP Paleo diet may be helpful in managing physical and emotional symptoms. These diets take different approaches to eliminating certain foods which are thought to be the root causes of inflammation and gut issues. By eliminating foods and reintroducing them slowly, you are better able to see if certain foods are causing you digestive distress and emotional discomfort. Perhaps in gutting out gluten for a month, you realize it was the root cause of your foggy head and bloating, or maybe you realize you tolerate gluten quite well! It is all about finding what works for you and your body.
Your brain and your gut are in constant communication with one another. An issue in one may cause an issue in the other, so ensuring that both your gut and your brain are happy and healthy is important to having good digestion and maximizing your mental health. You can take steps to ensure your brain is healthy by picking up some mindfulness practices such as meditation or deep breathing exercises which have been shown to reduce stress and improve digestive health. You can also take steps to ensure the food your eating is right for your body by following an anti inflammatory or elimination diet. Chocho can fit into many of these diets as it is low in FODMAPS, lectin free, and easy to digest. By combining aspects of a diet that is best for you with practices of mindfulness, you can begin to harness the power of your brain gut connection.