Where are you storing your emotions? A two-way link between your gut and your brain exists – here’s how you can use it to improve both your body and mind
Ever felt butterflies in your stomach? That’s because both your gut and brain are far more interlinked than you might think. “We have these phrases in our language like ‘gut feeling’ and ‘feeling gutted’, but only recently has research boomed in that area and we now know that we have billions of bacteria in our gut,” explains Dr Katerina Johnson from the University of Oxford. The good news is research has shown that by altering the types of bacteria in your gut, it may be possible to improve your brain health. And vice versa, by reducing stress and regularly doing exercise to improve your mental wellbeing, you can keep your gut functioning smoothly. To find out more, we asked Dr Johnson how the connection works and how we can utilise it.
To understand the brain-gut connection, it’s good to know the different ways it’s linked. “The major nerve at play here is called the vagus nerve,” says Dr Johnson. “It’s a twoway connection that works via neurons (cells found in your brain and your spinal cord), that tell your body how to behave. Around 80 percent of the messages that travel along this nerve are in the direction of the brain or the gut, highlighting how much information these two parts of our body receive from each other. Studies done in animals have found that if the vagus nerve is damaged, gut bacteria no longer affects brain chemistry and behaviour, so we know that this nerve plays an important role.” But the vagus nerve isn’t the only element at play here. “Research has shown that our immune system is regulated by our gut, and that we need to be aware that it might in turn, affect our mood.”
If you’ve had an upset stomach after a stressful day, you’re not alone. When you’re anxious, some of the hormones and chemicals released by your body can interfere with digestion. “Stress can affect our whole gut environment, not only in terms of the bacteria but also processes such as mucus production, and an obvious example is IBS, which is aggravated by too much of stress,” says Dr Johnson. “A bit of stress every now and again is fine, but prolonged intense stress doesn’t leave your gut in a good state.” Mindful practices, such as meditation, can be a great way to combat the adverse effects of high levels of cortisol. In fact, just 20 minutes of meditation a day can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue.
We know that eating a diverse diet can help keep our gut healthy, but can it also keep our brains healthy? “There’s been a lot of research surrounding the effect that different diets can have on your gut,” says Dr Johnson. Some research shows that prebiotics (fibres that are fermented by your gut bacteria) may also affect brain health. According to a study in the Psychopharmacology Journal, participants who took a prebiotic called galactooligosaccharides for three weeks saw a significant reduction in the amount of the stress hormone cortisol. But prebiotics have also been shown to have a positive effect. “Prebiotic fibre, which encourages the growth of bacteria such as bifidobacterium and lactobacillus, occurs naturally in bananas, wholegrains, Jerusalem artichokes and lentils, has been shown to help reduce stress levels.” While snacking on a banana won’t necessarily make you feel instantly less stressed, having a diverse diet full of the foods mentioned above will certainly impact how quickly you handle stressful situations.
If meditation, yoga, or a run doesn’t work for you, it can be worth looking into some alternative therapies to help ease your gut issues. Some studies have shown that natural therapies can have an impact on our gut too. Craniosacral therapy, which uses gentle pressure on the head, neck and back to relieve stress and pain, touches on the vagus nerve which, as previously mentioned, can impact the way our gut functions. While there is no conclusive evidence that this therapy can help alleviate gut problems, patients often report feeling relaxed and in a better state of mind afterwards, something that would, as research shows, help to keep your gut running smoothly. In Chinese medicine, herbs such as ginseng and ginger aid digestive function, and are prescribed by Chinese medicine practitioners to help with digestive flow.
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