All health begins in the gut. The gut-brain connection has a strong relationship, one that helps us identify when we’re full and when to turn off digestion if faced with danger. Chronic stress affects our health in many ways, including the gut-brain connection.
The Gut-Brain Connection
The scientific discoveries related to the gut-brain connection keep popping up. There is so much more to learn about this intricate relationship. By itself, the mind is a wondrous and complex organ, but when it’s connected with other body systems, it truly shows us just how amazing our bodies can be.
What we do know about the gut-brain connection is this:
- The vagus nerve runs directly from the gut to the brain (with 90% of communication happening in that direction)
- There are over 100 million nerve cells (neurons) lining the intestinal tract that produce neurotransmitters and send messages to the brain
- Our intestinal tract produces approximately 95% of our serotonin; this neurotransmitter influences our mood, appetite and sleep quality
- Digestion happens without any (or very little) involvement from the brain
All of these facts tell us that there is a strong connection between the gut and the brain. When something affects one, it’s very likely that the other will also be affected.
And, we know that chronic stress can affect a lot of other body systems and functions.
Effects of Stress on the Gut-Brain Connection
Stress acts as a depressant to your entire body. Chronic stress can impact the health of your gut microbiome. Stress affects the balance of good to bad bacteria in favor of bad, promoting toxicity and holes of the gut wall.
When we experience elevated cortisol, our brains initiate the fight or flight response. This then slows down the flow of blood to the gut, reducing signals and communication. Digestion slows down, nutrients are not absorbed and food sits undigested, leading to fermentation and putrefaction. We experience gas, bloating and constipation.
Long-term chronic stress erodes the intestinal wall. Inflammation within the gut irritates the intestinal lining. A condition called leaky gut occurs, which leads to allergies and inflammation throughout the body.
Leaky gut gets its name from the fact that inflammation causes the intestinal cells’ tight connections to loosen. This leaves small gaps between cells that should never have gaps between them.
Undigested food particles pass through these gaps and reach the blood. Proteins are often found in the blood of people with leaky gut syndrome. And we know that proteins in the blood kick off the inflammatory response.
Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety and depression arise when the health of your gut isn’t good. This is because, as I stated above, 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gut when your healthy gut bacteria is in control.
If your bad bacteria overrun your good bacteria, serotonin can’t be produced and you start to feel blue, sad and unmotivated. Serotonin is known as your ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter. People with depression often have low serotonin.
It’s obvious to us that anxiety and the gut are related because we feel butterflies or nausea when nervous. Have you ever felt a bit sick to your stomach right before doing a public talk to a group of strangers? Or had to run to the bathroom because suddenly your bowels have come alive before a big interview? That’s the gut-brain connection at work!
Health Problems and the Gut
One of the main components of a healthy gut is the good bacteria that live there. Those bacteria help to:
- Support immunity
- Digest food
- Fend against pathogens and microbes
- Support mental clarity
- Help absorb nutrients
- Balance hormones
- Balance blood sugar
- Regulate inflammation
- Prevent toxins and foreign particles from passing through the intestinal wall
Poor gut bacteria balance plays a major role in disease. As you can see, we lose a lot of our important health functions and protective mechanisms when our gut health is poor.
What to Eat to Nourish the Gut-Brain Connection
Fermented foods are the best foods to help nourish the good gut bacteria and promote a strong gut-brain connection. The fermentation process partially digests proteins to create fermented foods. This makes them easier to digest and absorb while also helping to build up the good bacteria.
Fermented foods typically contain lactic-acid producing bacteria. These bacteria are the ones that specifically help improve digestion by acidifying the digestive tract. An acidic digestive tract allows for healthy bacteria to grow and thrive.
But, you can’t stop there!
Fermented foods are also known as probiotic foods. They help replenish low levels of good bacteria in the gut and create that healthy environment. But, probiotics need help too.
That’s where prebiotics come in! Prebiotics are a special type of carbohydrate that is not broken down, or digested, in the gut. They provide food for probiotics to help keep them strong and ensure their numbers remain high.
Good sources of probiotic and prebiotic foods are:
- Wheat bran
- Ground flaxseed
- Jerusalem artichoke
Of course, you need to nourish your brain to keep that gut-brain connection happy.
The brain is very receptive to healthy fats, so make sure to eat lots of wild-caught salmon, ground flaxseeds, egg yolks, walnuts, hemp seeds, chia seeds, and algae.
These foods are high in omega-3 fatty acids and they help reduce inflammation in the brain and nervous system. This is something you definitely want!
Other Activities to Support the Gut-Brain Connection
Poor quality foods, or non-foods, affect the gut-brain connection.
So, avoid a highly processed diet with refined sugar and carbs, and skip the trans- and hydrogenated fats altogether.
Foods that may cause inflammation in some people are wheat or all gluten-containing grains, dairy, red meat, eggs, pork, nightshade vegetables (bell peppers, paprika, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants) and corn. If you still feel tired and sick after adding the healthy gut-brain connection foods in, try eliminating some pro-inflammatory foods to see if things change.
You need a healthy gut for better mood regulation and to prevent anxiety and depression. Your gut health also affects your immunity, digestion and absorption of nutrients. And, chronic stress interferes with the health of the gut and can break the gut-brain connection.
Practice your stress management activities every day to help keep that gut of your thriving! Exercise regularly and stick to healthy foods most of the time.