Have you ever had a “gut feeling”? Or decided you better “listen to your gut”? There’s a good reason we pay attention when we get that funny feeling….
In more recent years, we’ve gained more understanding of the impact our gut health can have on our overall wellness. But it may surprise you to know just how much our gut can affect our psychological health.
The Gut-Brain Connection
Most of us are probably somewhat familiar with the Central Nervous System. This is made up of the brain and spinal cord, and all the related nerves, neurons, and neurotransmitters. This network allows the brain to talk to the rest of the body.
Something we may not be quite as familiar with is the Enteric Nervous System. This network of nerves, neurons, and neurotransmitters extends along the entire digestive system, starting at the esophagus and ending at the anus. It has over a 100 million nerve endings. (1)
What’s so interesting about our Enteric Nervous System is that it’s intimately connected with our brain. In fact, it’s often called our “second brain.” The brain and gut ‘talk’ to each other through a network of nerve pathways and neurotransmitters. They also communicate through hormones and the immune system. This two-way system of communication is called the Gut-Brain Axis.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) (2) had this to say about the Gut-Brain Axis:
Insights into the gut-brain crosstalk have revealed a complex communication system that not only ensures the proper maintenance of gastrointestinal homeostasis, but is likely to have multiple effects on affect, motivation, and higher cognitive functions.National Institutes of Health
What’s even more interesting is that the microbiota (“the microorganisms that live in the human body”) (3) play an important role in this communication between our “big brain” and our “little brain.” According to the NIH,
Strong evidence suggests that gut microbiota has an important role in bidirectional interactions between the gut and the nervous system. It interacts with CNS by regulating brain chemistry and influencing neuro-endocrine systems associated with stress response, anxiety and memory function.National Institutes of Health
The Impact of Gut Health on Psychological Health
We all think of serotonin as a brain chemical, right? Would it surprise you to know that 95% of our serotonin is found in our gut? This has huge implications for our psychological as well as our physical health.
Researchers and doctors have thought for a long time that anxiety and depression contribute to bowel issues such as IBS, constipation, diarrhea, stomach upset, etc., but now they’re finding it might work the other way as well.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine (4),
Researchers are finding evidence that irritation in the gastrointestinal system may send signals to the central nervous system (CNS) that trigger mood changes. “These new findings may explain why a higher-than-normal percentage of people with IBS and functional bowel problems develop depression and anxiety.”Johns Hopkins Medicine
I can say from personal experience there seems to be (at least for me) some truth to this. At one point I started to notice that whenever my IBS was acting up, I also became a lot more anxious. I had always known that a lot of stress would cause my IBS to flare up or make my stomach hurt. But I started to notice that even when I wasn’t under any stress, if my ‘tummy troubles’ made an appearance, I would start to feel more anxious.
This two-way interaction between the Central Nervous System and the Enteric Nervous System may explain why Gastroenterologists sometimes prescribe certain anti-depressants for IBS.
Since our gut (and its microbiota) plays such an important role in our overall wellness, doesn’t it make sense to do everything we can to keep it as healthy as possible?
Ways to Support Gut Health
Here are a few ways we can support our gut health:
1. Eat foods that are good for gut health.
One of the first things we need to look at if we’re having gut issues is whether we’re eating enough fiber. Most Americans only eat about 40-50% of the fiber we need to be eating for good gut health. Here’s the thing — fiber is what feeds our microbiome. That means if we’re not eating enough fiber, we’re likely not feeding our all-important microbiome all that it needs for optimal function.
Fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, and nuts and seeds are great sources of fiber. One important note about increasing the amount of fiber we eat though — don’t increase your fiber intake too quickly. Increasing fiber intake quickly can cause digestive distress. It’s important to increase slowly to avoid problems like pain, gas, bloating, and constipation.
Other foods that support gut health are fermented or pickled foods – things such as kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and various types of pickles.
It’s also important to avoid or reduce the intake of foods that may cause or aggravate digestive problems. Avoiding fried foods and keeping consumption of caffeine and alcohol moderate can help control symptoms of acid reflux. It’s also a good idea to avoid charred foods to reduce the chances of stomach and colon cancer. (5)
2. Get adequate sleep.
Bet this one surprised you, didn’t it? Getting enough quality sleep is critical for gut health. People who don’t get enough sleep or have disturbed sleep are more likely to experience digestive problems. A lack of sleep is also associated with obesity, which increases our chances of digestive problems. (6)
Exercise not only helps us maintain a healthy weight, it also reduces stress. Both these things can have a positive impact on our gut health.
4. Manage stress.
As we talked about above, stress can cause or exacerbate digestive issues such as IBS, acid reflux, etc. For some tips to help manage stress, check out 10 Ways to Manage Stress.
5. Don’t hesitate to get help for any mental health issues you may be experiencing.
Too often, people are hesitant to ask for help for mental health issues. Our mental health and physical health go hand in hand and what affects one affects the other. As we discussed, our mental health can have a huge impact on our gut health, and vice versa.
6. Be careful how you use antibiotics.
We know there are times that it’s absolutely necessary to take antibiotics. Unfortunately, while they can be necessary to kill infection, they can also kill off our good bacteria. Always take antibiotics according to your doctor’s directions, and finish all of them so that the infection doesn’t recur, requiring more antibiotics. Doctors will often recommend taking some probiotics after a course of antibiotics to speed up the repopulation of gut flora.
Consult Your Doctor If….
We probably all experience some digestive issues from time to time, but if these problems persist, we need to seek medical attention. UC Davis (5) says some of the problems that may require more investigation are:
Weight loss without a good reason, blood in the stool, black stool (a sign of bleeding in the gut), severe vomiting, fever, severe stomachaches, trouble swallowing food, pain in the throat or chest when food is swallowed, or jaundice (a yellow discoloration of the skin or eyes) could potentially indicate an underlying gastrointestinal problem with serious consequences.UC Davis Health
Our gut health is absolutely vital to our overall wellness, and especially our psychological health. The more we learn about our Enteric Nervous System, the more we realize just how inter-connected our “big brain” and “little brain” are. Since they have such a profound effect on each other, don’t we owe it to ourselves to take care of both our brain health and our gut health?
Have you ever noticed how your gut and brain affect one another? What do you do to support a healthy gut? Please share!
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