What is the Gut-Brain Connection and Why Does it Matter?
Digestive health is central to the overall health of our bodies, and when we experience digestive health imbalance, it can throw off the homeostasis in our bodies. The connection between gut health and overall health is an emerging topic of conversation, and more is still to be uncovered. However, researchers have really started to dive deep into the topic of the gut-brain connection, and understand how gut health can impact our mental health as well.
Let’s take a look at what the gut-brain connection is, and find out why it seems like everyone and their mother is talking about this. Plus, we will look at how maintaining proper gut health can support mental health and radically change your health and your life.
So, What is the Gut-Brain Connection?
As it turns out, there really is a science behind why you get the butterflies before speaking in front of a group of people, or get an upset stomach when under stress, and it all has to do with the gut-brain connection. In the walls of the digestive system, there exists something called the enteric nervous system (also known as “the second brain”). This second brain has two layers, which are home to more than 100 million nerve cells.
The enteric nervous system is in charge of facilitating digestion, and supports nutrient absorption. What’s most unique about this second brain is the communication that takes place back and forth between it and our brains, which is what researchers are finding more and more fascinating information about.
How the Gut-Brain Connection Impacts Emotions
So, what does the communication between our two brains have to do with our emotions? As it turns out, the second brain (the one in our gut) can trigger different emotional shifts in those who experience regular digestive health issues such as IBS or constipation. Studies are now showing that these emotional shifts are big triggers for anxiety and depression and that these emotional health issues can often be traced back to the digestive issues.
Researchers used to think that stress and anxiety were the cause of many digestive symptoms, but it may actually be the reverse: it’s our gut that sends messages to our central nervous system that triggers emotional and mood changes. This makes a lot of sense since many people who experience chronic digestive health issues such as IBS also experience anxiety and depression. It’s becoming very clear that digestive health and mental health are inextricably linked.
Steps to Improve Gut Health
So now that we know that there’s a huge connection between the gut and the brain, what steps can you take to help improve gut health? Here are just a few things you can implement in both your diet and lifestyle for improved digestive function.
- Enjoy more plant-based foods to help improve your gut bacteria
- Avoid dairy and gluten, as they can lead to further inflammation and digestive upset
- Add more fiber to your diet by enjoying foods like oats, berries, chia, and flax seeds
- Enjoy probiotic-rich foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, full-fat unsweetened coconut milk yogurt, and kombucha
- Enjoy plenty of anti-inflammatory foods like dark, leafy greens, berries, turmeric, and ginger
- Supplement with a high-quality probiotic
- If you suffer from a sluggish digestive system, try digestive enzymes to help give your digestive system a boost
- Reduce stress
- Get into bed earlier
- Move your body by exercising a little bit each day. Fifteen to 20 minutes goes a long way!
- Stay away from antibiotics if possible
- Eliminate processed foods from your diet
- Reduce your sugar intake and choose natural sweeteners like raw honey and pure maple syrup instead
As more research is coming out about the gut-brain connection, it becomes very clear that poor digestive health can contribute to poor emotional and mental health as well. Understanding the connection between the two also opens up the door for greater therapeutic options, and allows practitioners to look at the issues holistically as the two brains really do talk to one another. Addressing each one is an important part of any treatment plan.
So, if you suffer from digestive health issues, supporting gut health can also support better mental health and vice versa. Therapies that were once thought to help only in one area now seem to help both the gut and the brain. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy was once only thought to help with anxiety, but now studies suggest it can play a significant role in helping with IBS.
The bottom line is that it is essential for us to look at our bodies holistically, since everything is truly connected to everything else. The gut-brain connection is evidence of this and gives us good reason to pay attention to our physical health as part of the process of improving our mental and emotional wellbeing.
If you suffer from frequent digestive health complaints paired with symptoms of anxiety, and depression, think about how improving your gut health may be a secret weapon to supporting your mental health. Try incorporating some of the gut-boosting foods we talked about to see how much better you may feel both mentally and physically. You may be pleasantly surprised at the profound impact proper gut health can have on your overall mood and mental health.