Have you ever heard of the gut being called the “second brain”? Did you know that the nervous system of the gut and the brain both start out from the same tissue in the developing fetus? The brain (the CNS, central nervous system) and the gut (the ENS, the enteric nervous system) communicate constantly with each other along the vagus nerve. The gut nervous system lies in the lining of the digestive track starting in the esophagus, and ending in the colon, and it is here that approximately 80 percent of your neurotransmitters are produced.
Our gut microbiota, that colony of bacteria in our gut, is now considered another organ. The balance of our bacteria affects every aspect of our health, including our brain health. If we have a healthy balance of good bacteria, our brain receives positive messages. If we have dysbiosis, or an overgrowth of unhealthy bacteria, then our brain receives messages that can lead to change in mood, depression and anxiety. The bacteria in our gut affect the production of our neurotransmitters because they can produce toxins that can interrupt the metabolic pathways that produce neurotransmitters.
On the other hand, feelings of fear, anxiety, anger, sadness can increase the stress response, affect gut bacteria balance, result in dysbiosis and trigger the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS is comprised of over a hundred million nerves and is behind the phrase “gut feeling”, or “nervous stomach”. Early traumas, depression and a tendency for anxiety have been shown to be a trigger for “gut issues” like IBS in later life, and chronically negative emotions and anger setup an increased risk for GI infections. Positive emotions and extreme happiness can all be felt through the stomach just as well, as our two brains work minute by minute in a dance to optimize our function.
Therefore, your emotions can be felt in your gut, and your gut may cause an emotional response.
What are a few things we can do to optimize our gut – brain interaction?
Lower Stress Levels
Lowering the amount of stress in your life has a direct impact on the communication between your brain and your gut. Stress puts us in a fight or flight response where stress chemicals such as cortisol and norepinephrine are released. Elevated cortisol is inflammatory. Inflammation directly affects gut bacteria and is the precursor for chronic disease, including Alzheimers and dementias.
Your emotional response to your surroundings can directly impact your body by driving you into a chronic state of fight or flight. While helpful in times of real danger, chronically elevated levels of these stress hormones lower immunity and wreak havoc on the digestive system. Finding something which helps you to manage your stress levels such as a new hobby, daily meditation, a new mind-body yoga class or participating in some moderate exercise will help modify your mood, lower inflammation, and enhance your gut health all at once!
Get good sleep!
Serotonin, which is a calming, happy neurotransmitter is the precursor to melatonin, which is the sleep hormone. Encouraging good gut health will increase production of serotonin and indirectly help with your sleep while lowering your total body stress load!
Consume Prebiotics AND Probiotics
Eating an anti-inflammatory diet will directly affect the body’s overall health and wellness – but there are some gut healthy powerhouses many people don’t know about that are critical to keeping the gut microbiota healthy. Pre- and Probiotics help to stop inflammation in the digestive tract and support of healthy balance of good and bad bacteria. Chronic low-grade inflammation in the intestines can damage the one-cell thick protective intestinal wall, affecting its permeability and leading to something called “leaky gut”. More on this in another post on healing the gut, but when the tight junctions between the cells of the lining of the intestinal tract get weakened, larger than normal particles get through to the bloodstream, triggering an immune response, and systemic inflammation throughout the body.
A key to keeping the gut bacteria healthy is eating a variety of “prebiotic” foods like garlic, leeks, onions, and bananas, which are the “food” for the good bugs, the probiotics. Add in some probiotic foods like the fermented kimchi, yogurt, and kombucha, and your gut, and your brain will be happy!
Reframe Your Thoughts
Being aware of your inner thoughts and voice is an important part of both mental and physical health. If your inner voice is overly critical of others or yourself, or constantly negative, your body responds negatively. Break this pattern by intentionally thinking happy thoughts. In other words, “fake it till you make it”! Try adding morning affirmations or meditation to your morning routine, write in a gratitude journal, or spend more time doing something you love. Happiness is key to maintaining a healthy body. Find new activities to try – the brain’s reward system responds to doing new and stimulating things with a boost of dopamine, another one of our pleasure, feel good, neurotransmitters! Smiling for 10 seconds, even when you are not happy, will change your mood and make you feel happier instantly! Try it and see! PLAY! Creating a new synapse in the brain when “playing” decreases the number of times you need to repeat something to trigger the brain growth from 400 repetitions to around 15! MOVE! Moderate exercise/movement of only 10 minutes elevates mood as well as a medication! Happiness is the highest form of health, so let’s get moving!