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The Gut Brain Connection

Have you ever been in a situation where you felt a little nervous or excited and those ‘butterflies’ appeared in your stomach or maybe you had to run to the loo? We often hear the phrases ‘trust your gut’ or ‘go with your gut instincts’. Some say it’s a little far fetched to trust your digestive system, however we now know that our gut plays a much bigger role in our psychology than we once thought.

This blog explores the gut brain connection, why it’s important and how we can influence its health:

  • The Gut Brain Connection

  • The Communication Highway

  • Why is the Gut Brain connection so important

  • The influence of our gut microbes

  • How can you support your Gut-Brain Connection

What is the Gut Brain Connection?

Our moods, digestive system, immune function and hormones are all connected and are in constant communication. This connection happens between our brain (part of the central nervous system) and the nerves in our gut known as the Enteric Nervous System.

Our emotions; anger, excitement, anxiety and sadness can prompt symptoms in our gut. Even thinking about food initiates a chemical reaction in our stomach to help us break down and digest. As this relationship works two ways, digestive issues can also lead to stress, depression and anxiety.

Our Gut-Brain Axis is responsible for the delicate balance between the central nervous system and digestive system, hormone communications and inflammatory response. This complex network means that your brain activity can influence your immune system and digestive system and vice versa. That is why you sometimes hear your gut being referred to as the second brain.

The Communication Highway

Tiny chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) enable your brain and gut talk to each other via the Vagus Nerve. This nerve enables the relationship, it’s essentially a communication highway that can be sensitive to internal and external stimulation such as slow deep breathing or stressful events.

Those who suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Inflammatory Bowel Disease may have a sluggish vagal activity. This can cause increased inflammation, altered bowel movements, slows down and impaires digestion which can then have other negative knock on effects. Stress also affects our vagus nerve activity, the more stressed we are, the less efficient the vagus nerve is. I’ll take you through a few ways to positively stimulate this important nerve shortly.

Researchers have known about the Gut-Brain Connection for a while, and in recent years researchers have discovered that our beneficial bacteria; fungi and viruses that live in our intestines (intestinal microbiota) play an incredibly influential role in our overall mental and physical health. The communication between our brain and gut microbes is also bidirectional and happens through several different pathways.

The influence of our gut microbes

Our gut microbiota is able to produce compounds that have a direct effect on our brain. Some of these are (GABA), a chemical messenger that can slow down activity in the nervous system, promoting calmness. Our happy hormone (serotonin) and our reward/pleasure hormone (dopamine).

All these compounds act differently in various parts of our body and it’s essential that we are creating these in sufficient amounts and that they are distributed to the right places. This might all sound tricky, but it’s not. Trust me!

Stress, as mentioned before, is a major disruptor within the Gut-Brain Axis. Stress can slow down the digestive system, disrupts our gut microbiota and can cause inflammation within the gut. There is a lot of research that also suggests that our gut microbes have a direct impact on how we perceive and respond to stress.

Stress directs how our body responds in a situation, activating our Flight or Fight response. If we are able to influence how we deal with stressful situations i.e deep breathing, exercise, eating nutritious foods, cultivating our gut microbiome and avoiding harmful stimulants, we have the potential to rewire how we react to stress.

Those who suffer from gastrointestinal disorders such as acid reflux, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Inflammatory Bowel Disease and microbial imbalance (dysbiosis) can also suffer from mood disorders like depression and anxiety. There is a lot of research working to figure out how digestive issues may influence mood disorders and vice versa. What we do know is that they are often very closely linked.

How can you support your Gut-Brain Connection

Stress management is key to regulating your Gut-Brain Connection. Finding methods and techniques to support you through a stressful situation can influence that way your body responds.

  • Abdominal breathing - Calming breathing technique

  • Regular movement - Promotes positive moods, do activities that you enjoy. Something simple as a daily walk can be helpful.

  • Spend time with friends and family - Connecting with others gives you the opportunity to talk, share, laugh and enjoy being in the company of others.

  • Practice mindfulness - Mindfulness is just being more present in the moment. Paying attention to thoughts, feelings your body and the world around you

  • Have some Me Time - Do something that you enjoy that doesn't bring added pressure. This is really personal so may be something like listening to a podcast or reading a book. For me it’s getting outside for a walk.

Research is limited in the way of knowing what exact nutrients to eat to support our Gut-Brain Connection. As we are all so unique, there can never be a one size fits all approach. We do however know what we can eat to promote a healthy gut microbiome and how to support production of your chemical messengers.

  • Tryptophan, found in high quantities in meat, especially turkey or in vegetarian sources such as leafy greens, sunflower seeds, watercress, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, mushrooms, broccoli, and peas. Tryptophan is an amino acid that comes from protein and is a precursor to serotonin, our happy hormone. Tryptophan competes with other amino acids when entering the brain, and it usually doesn't make it. Eating carbohydrates alongside protein will help Tryptophan to enter the brain. A good reason not to limit carbs.

  • Fermented foods contain live strains of bacteria and when we eat these, it’s possible to repopulate your gut with beneficial and diverse bacteria. Foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh and live yoghurt are all great options.

  • Fruits and vegetables contain fibre, which is the primary source of food for your gut microbes. Making sure to eat a diverse range on a daily basis will create a healthy environment for them to thrive. Aim for 7+ portions per day.

  • When we eat oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, herring and sardines, we get a great helping of Omega-3s. Omega-3’s are found in high levels in the brain, so very important to include in your diet and can increase levels of beneficial bacteria in the gut. If you aren't into fish, veggie sources of Omega 3 are flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, seaweed and walnuts.

Now you know about our physical and chemical communication between our brain and gut. Connection is made through millions of nerves and chemical messengers that run along the vagus nerve.

Stimulating the vagus nerve and influencing the numbers of beneficial bacteria in your gut may improve both brain and digestive health and improve the overall wellbeing of your Brain-Gut Connection.

If you would like to know more about supporting your gut brain connection, please get in touch!



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