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The Gut-Brain Axis: The Important Connection Between Your Gut Health And Your Mental Health

The Gut-Brain Axis: The Important Connection Between Your Gut Health And Your Mental Health

There’s no question that our gut is fundamental to our overall health – but did you know it has a profound effect on our mental and emotional wellbeing? One of the most fascinating discoveries in recent years is the gut-brain axis, specifically how our digestive system and nervous systems are deeply connected.

Here’s what you need to know in order to take advantage of this important link for better mental and digestive health.

What is the gut-brain axis?

The gut-brain axis refers to the vagus nerve, an integral part of our nervous system. It’s a bidirectional superhighway that carries information between the gut and the brain, regulating how our bodies feel and behave.

How does stress effect your digestion?

When you feel stressed, your body enters “fight or flight” mode, triggering the release of stress hormones like cortisol. During this state your body slows the release of digestive juices and shifts blood-flow away from the digestive tract, redirecting it to other areas of the body that help to keep you alive in dangerous situations. The result is that your digestive system doesn’t always work the way it should, causing food to move through the digestive tract too quickly or too slowly. This disruption can lead to symptoms like indigestion, bloating, cramps and altered bowel habits.

Have you ever experienced nervous diarrhoea? That is your body trying to get rid of food that it doesn’t want to spend precious energy trying to digest! Unfortunately for some people, this can evolve into a vicious cycle, where your digestive symptoms cause stress and then stress causes your digestive symptoms. While short bursts of stress are healthy and help to keep us alive, ongoing chronic stress isn’t healthy and can actually lead to dysbiosis, meaning an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the gut.

Next time your stomach is feeling a bit off, before immediately blaming the food you’ve just eaten, take a minute to think about your current mood and emotional state. Here might lie the answer.

How does digestion effect your mood?

Bacteria in your gut produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin (the happiness hormone), which plays a key role in regulating our mood and emotions. In fact, 95% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut. This means that if your gut is happy and healthy, it can focus on producing these vital mood-boosters to keep you feeling good.

On top of this, the strength of your gut barrier also plays a key role. When the lining of the gut is compromised (known as “leaky gut”), food particles travelling through the digestive system can slip through the cracks and enter the blood stream. This triggers an inflammatory response causing the gut to send a message to the brain that there is a problem. If this alarm is repeatably triggered, it can adversely impact the functioning of the nervous system and your mood, thus leading you to feel stressed and anxious.

Does this mean diet can affect your mood and the gut-brain axis?

Absolutely. Just like the communication between your brain and your gut works both ways, so do the potential benefits. The food you consume plays a leading role in supporting the function of the vagus nerve and shaping the composition of your gut microbiota, which in turn influences your mood. This means that eating a diverse range of fruits and vegetables and getting lots of fibre can not only support your gut but also your mental health.

Conversely, a diet high in processed foods, sugars, and unhealthy fats can disrupt the gut-brain axis, contributing to inflammation and altering neurotransmitter production. This imbalance may increase the risk of mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.

 

What else can support a healthy gut-brain axis?

While eating a balanced diet that focuses on real foods instead of processed foods is vital, lifestyle factors also play a critical role. Integrating these practices into your everyday routine can help keep your stress levels to a minimum.

  • Sleep: It might sound simple, but prioritising quality sleep can make a significant difference to your emotional wellbeing. It’s when our body rests and repairs (including your gut). We recommend having a wind-down routine that includes away time from screens at least an hour before bed. This will help you mentally switch off and enjoy a better, more rejuvenating sleep.
  • Exercise: Incorporating daily movement is great for the soul and great for digestion. If you experience bloating or constipation, movement can help to alleviate these painful symptoms by literally getting things moving. Activities like walking, jogging or yoga that feature gentle twists can be incredibly helpful.
  • Mindfulness Practices: It can be easy to fall into a cycle of digestive symptoms causing you stress and then the stress exacerbating digestive symptoms. Practices such as meditation or deep breathing can break this cycle, helping to calm, relax and reset your nervous system.
  • Healing Herbs: Herbs can play an important role in healing your gut and supporting its function, while also working to calm and settle your mental state. Herbs such as ginger and lemon balm can quickly reduce painful symptoms. Liquorice root is another powerful herb, it soothes inflammation and helps to repair the gut barrier. 

Key takeaways

It's clear that our physical health and our mental health are intimately connected and that taking care of your gut is crucial for feeling good. So, make sure you get enough sleep, eat well and find time for relaxation and exercise. These simple routines and rituals can go a long way in keeping your gut-brain connection strong and your overall wellbeing kicking goals!

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