Over the last couple of years, a vast amount of research has demonstrated the importance of having a healthy gut. It influences not only our digestion, central nervous system, and immune system but also plays a huge role in how our brain functions and influences our emotions.
What’s even more interesting is that while our gut health can affect how our mind works, our brain can influence the makeup of our gut bacteria, collectively known as our gut microbiome. This bi-directional, two-way street is known as the mind-gut connection. When one organ is healthy, it can help the health of the other, and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look into how this happens.
Have you ever heard that your gut is your “second brain”? This “second brain” is also known as the enteric nervous system. It’s made up of millions of nerve cells that line the gut from the esophagus to the rectum. While this second brain can’t help you remember the lyrics to an old song, it can communicate with our “main brain” in amazing ways. It allows your gut to send messages to your brain and allows communication from the brain to the gut.
Your gut is actually responsible for synthesizing some of your neurotransmitters! In fact, over 90 percent of your serotonin is made in the gut, not the brain. When your gut isn’t able to function properly, it influences the amount of serotonin which can affect your overall feeling of wellness and happiness.
Another example of this connection in your body is if you are dealing with depression or anxiety. Your stress-related behaviors may be a consequence of an imbalanced or unhealthy gut microbiome. Your enteric nervous system, lining your gut can be affected by gut issues like IBS, constipation, or diarrhea. Your enteric nervous system can then send signals to your brain and influence your mind and emotional well-being.
While this might seem like a double-edged sword, we can look at this in a positive way. We can prioritize improving your gut health to not only aid in gut issues, but also to improve your mental health at the same time.
Are there times when you feel so stressed out trying to juggle work life, home life, unexpected situations, etc and on top of it all, you are experiencing constipation? Have you ever been nervous before an interview or speech and had a bout of diarrhea? It’s no surprise because your mental wellbeing can significantly influence your gut health. Our gastrointestinal system is actually very sensitive to our emotions and responses, such as stress.
When you are feeling stressed out or experiencing other negative emotions, your pituitary gland (located in the brain) releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This hormone then stimulates your adrenal gland to release cortisol. This increased cortisol, over a prolonged period of time, can travel to your enteric nervous system and gut, halting digestion, suppressing your immune system, and influencing your reproductive function.
Studies have even shown that stress in early life and adulthood can influence the makeup of the gut microbiome, increasing the potential for future diseases and health issues.
Negative emotions like stress, depression, anxiety, and anger have been correlated to:
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
The good news is that there are things you can put into practice today to help both your emotional well-being and your gut microbiome.
Whether it’s stress and/or anxiety causing you to have an unhealthy gut, your unhealthy gut causing you emotional distress, or both, there are ways to improve these areas so you can start feeling like your healthy self again.
One way to protect your gut microbiome is by fueling your body with nutrient-rich foods that have high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Also, incorporating soluble fiber to feed your gut bacteria can be beneficial. The cleaner we eat, the more likely that our gut will love us. Try eating more organic fruits and veggies. Avoid dairy and meats with antibiotics, as well as sugar and alcohol. The latter can kill off the good bacteria in your gut and/or promote the growth of harmful bacteria.
While mental health care includes counseling, therapies, and psychiatry, focusing on nutrition to improve the gut microbiome can play a vital part as a complementary therapeutic strategy. Even if you are already in therapy, you can still make healthy dietary improvements.
When we focus on the positives rather than the negatives, our mind can rewire itself to start looking on the bright side. For some of us, that’s easier said than done. Sometimes fear and worry overwhelm us. However, trying some of the following practices can help slowly reprogram your brain so that looking for the good in situations comes more naturally. When you feel optimistic and positive, your brain will release more feel-good hormones instead of stress hormones, improving both mental and gut health. It might take time to learn and feel the benefits of these practices, so be patient with yourself and remember that everyone starts somewhere!
Prayer and reading the bible
Surround Yourself with Uplifting & Positive People
Working out not only helps your gut by reducing inflammatory markers and improving your microbiome but also, when you exercise, your brain releases endorphins, which are the feel-good chemicals. With regular exercise, it might take up to 6 weeks to see the positive impacts of the reduction in inflammation in your gut. The endorphins that are released while exercising though, can be felt immediately in your mental wellbeing. Both of these benefits can help your mind and your gut, which can then help each other. **Be sure not to over-exercise however, because long-term intense workouts could actually increase inflammation in your body.
People underestimate the power of good sleep. When we prioritize our sleep, we are allowing our bodies to recover and restore vital cells. When our cells are happy and healthy, we are happy and healthy. While it enables our gut cells to reset, it also restores our energy. When you get a good night’s rest, don’t you feel more patient, lively, and positive compared to when you are running on fumes? Can any mamas out there relate to how you feel when you’ve gotten uninterrupted sleep vs. being woken up every hour?
To improve sleep, try:
Going to bed at a decent time
Staying off electronics before bed
Creating a relaxing bedtime routine
Bedtime yoga and stretching
Drinking calming herbal teas
Blue light-blocking glasses if screen time is needed at night
Learning to manage stress is one of the most important things you can do to not only improve your mind-gut health but your overall health as well. Increased stress levels can wreak havoc on a number of processes by causing imbalances all throughout the body. It affects your mental state, physical health, and the bacteria make up (more harmful bacteria than beneficial) in your gut.
To manage stress, try the positivity practices listed above as well as:
Focus on what you can control
Communicate your thoughts and feelings to someone you trust
Do things that bring you joy
Implement time for self-care
Don’t bottle up your emotions
Meditate on scripture
Get out into nature
Take time to focus on you
Learn how to say “no” to events that don’t bring you joy
Instead of giving you a prescription for a medication that covers up your symptoms of emotional distress or physical health issues, functional medicine providers look at this as an opportunity to dive deeper and actually fix the root cause.
The functional medicine approach acknowledges that our organs and systems are connected to each other in some way or another. When we fix the root cause of an illness, we alleviate multiple symptoms that you may have been experiencing. Looking at diet, environmental factors, lifestyle choices and behaviors, and genetics can all play a role in treating your health issues and getting your body back into balance.
If you need access to a stool test, a gut health expert, and personalized protocols, the Get Your Gut Right program might be the right fit for you. This is a comprehensive health reset program that also focuses on nutrition, detox pathways, the nervous system, clean environment, and more. Click HERE to learn more.
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