I think that, at some point, we have all experienced some level of stomach or digestive upset when we have been faced with a stressful situation—yes? What we may not know, though, is how significant the impact of ongoing stress can have on our gut flora or digestive microbiome, our immune function and general health. And, equally important as stress impacting my gut health is that my gut health can impact how I react to stress! The brain gut connection is real!
So, let’s dig into the “brain-gut connection” and what it all means.
Nerves extend from the brain to the major organs in the body. They control everything from heart function to breathing. This nervous system is divided into the Sympathetic Nervous System, which triggers our fight or flight response to perceived external threats, and the Parasympathetic Nervous System, which calms us down after the threat has passed. The Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems impact the Enteric Nervous System, which helps to regulate digestion.
Because the enteric nervous system relies on the same type of neurons and neurotransmitters that are found in the brain and the spinal cord, and 95% of the body’s serotonin is found in our bowels, some medical experts call it our “Second Brain.”
Stress can affect our second brain, and therefore our health, through its impact on digestion and gut bacteria. When we are under stress, immune cells can covey psychological stress to the gut. For example, when a person becomes stressed enough to trigger the fight-or-flight response, digestion slows or even stops so that the body can focus all of its energy on the perceived threat. The heightened inflammation that is often accompanies stress and depression triggers invasive bacteria that can lead to gut bacterial imbalances and uneven distribution of the kinds of bacterial species. These imbalances and uneven distribution of bacteria can cause food cravings, disrupted metabolism, and compromise our immune function and our health.
So, can the Second Brain also do the reverse—impact our “other” brain and our moods and mental well-being? Given that about 90 percent of the fibers in the primary visceral nerve, the vagus, carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around, Michael Gershon, chairman of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at New York–Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, author of the 1998 book The Second Brain (HarperCollins) says that "A big part of our emotions are probably influenced by the nerves in our gut.”
According to Jay Pasricha, Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, the Enteric Nervous System “communicates back and forth with our big brain—with profound results.” It has always been thought that anxiety and depression, which is often present in people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), contributed to IBS symptoms. According to Dr. Pasricha, studies “show that it may also be the other way around.” Studies show that irritation in our gut may send signals to the Central Nervous System that can impact our moods and mental wellbeing.
- So, what does all of this mean? It means that we need to pay close attention to the care of both our mental health and our gut health, because they cannot be disconnected from one another. We need to do what we already know that we need to do to try to manage external stressors. I hear you groaning! But here are just a few easy stress-reducers.
Breathe! Not only do we need to breathe to live, but breathing in deeply counting to 4, and then exhaling slowly to the count of 8 helps the Parasympathetic Nervous System reset after reacting to stress.
Exercise. Moving increases chemicals like Serotonin and Endorphins, which help our moods, sleep, feelings of wellbeing, and digestion. It doesn’t have to be a huge effort. It can be as simple as taking a walk for 20 minutes!
Laugh. “Laughter is the best medicine” is actually true! Laughter helps to release Endorphins, which help us to feel good. And the positive effects of laughter on the body and our mental state are actually sustained after we are finished laughing! So, watch a funny movie, read a funny book, spend time with friends who make you laugh. Just laugh!
Hug Your Pet. Yes! Your furry friends really do help with stress reduction. Not only do we love them, but interacting with our pets does double duty. It releases our wellbeing and happiness hormones and hugging our pets also decreases the “stress hormones” Adrenaline and Cortisol.
Sing. Yes—you read that right—sing! There is significant proof that that singing increases Endorphins and reduces levels of Adrenalin and Cortisol, both of which will reduce effects of stress on the body and increase feelings of wellbeing. In addition, we have tiny organ in our ear called the Sacculus. The Sacculus responds to the frequencies created by singing and creates a sense of pleasure. And no, you don’t have to have a great singing voice! Just sing!
What can we do about our gut health so that our “Second Brain” is happier and healthier?
Probiotics. Taking daily probiotics helps to balance the “good bacteria” in our gut. According to multiple research studies, taking probiotics may help to improve symptoms of mental health, including depression, anxiety, stress and memory loss. The results of a 2015 randomized, controlled study published in PubMed showed that taking probiotic supplements for 8 weeks decreased depression levels and reduced levels of C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation) and hormones such as insulin, compared to people who did not take a probiotic.
Eat Slowly. Eating more slowly helps the stomach acids to work more effectively so that they can better break down food and absorb nutrients.
Stay Hydrated. Staying hydrated has been shown to have a beneficial effect on the mucosal lining of the intestines, and helps to balance good bacteria in the gut.
Eat Gut-Friendly Foods. High fiber foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains, as well as fermented foods like Kimchee, sauerkraut, yogurt, tempeh and kefir all contribute to a healthy gut. And try to stay away from inflammatory foods like red meat, sugar, trans fats, processed meats, and alcohol.
No NSAID’s. Don’t take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NASAID’s) like Ibuprofen, Aleve, etc. Even though NSAIDs reduce inflammation, pain and fever by blocking fatty acids called prostaglandins, the prostaglandins that protect stomach lining cells and promote blood clotting are also reduced. So, NSAID’s can promote ulcers and bleeding in the stomach.
What do I do to reduce my own stress-reducing, and support my gut health? I regularly take my own medicine! I proactively take IN:PEACE to help me manage my physical and emotional reactions external stressors. IN:PEACE has multiple herbs and clinically proven stress-reducers like Rhodiola Rosea and Schisandra Berry.
I also take IN:MOTION, which contains Ginger and Turmeric which are powerful anti-inflammatories that can double as gut health supporters. Ginger can sooth an upset stomach and it is a digestive stimulant that helps to improve both digestion and appetite. Ginger also helps to rid the body of toxins and support our immunity and prevent any further inflammation from occurring.
Turmeric is a super herb for healing our gut. It helps with improving basic stomach functions of digestion, absorption and metabolism and it can regulate gut bacteria. Turmeric also soothes our protective mucus membrane in our stomach that helps to protect the gut when we are stressed and may be experiencing excessive acidity.
I know that this is a lot to digest! Pun intended! But if we can manage both of our brains, we will be healthier both emotionally and physically.
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