If you’ve ever been so nervous, worried, or excited that you felt nauseated, then you’ve experienced one small example of the gut-brain connection. According to Harvard researchers, your gut is highly sensitive to emotion, and “stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression.”
This connection goes both ways, but it isn’t always as simple as we think. About 80 to 90 percent of the cranial nerves that make up this connection carry information about your gut health to your brain. The remaining 10 to 20 percent carry brain signals — such as stress transmitters that cause gut reactions — the other way.
The majority of the connection, though, involves keeping your brain informed about how your body is doing as a whole. From interpreting the quality of your nutrients to the state of your immune system and hormone health, your gut is the largest organ in your body collecting sensory information. That makes it your brain’s most influential advisor.
What’s in Your Gut?
One reason your gut is so sensitive to emotion is that it’s a powerhouse of hormones. About 1 percent of the thin tissue that lines your gut, called the epithelium, is made of enterochromaffin cells that produce serotonin. As a neurotransmitter, the hormone largely impacts your mood, sleep, sex drive, and more.
These cells make more than 90 percent of your body’s serotonin, and if your intestinal lining is compromised, then the hormone balance can be compromised, as well. Likewise, your gut houses more than 70 percent of your entire immune system and 80 percent of all of your antibody-producing plasma cells.
These functions are controlled by the bacteria, fungi, and protozoa within your intestines, collectively known as gut flora. When the balance of healthy and harmful flora is disturbed, the resulting dysbiosis can lead to several serious symptoms, including excessive inflammation in the lining, leaky gut, and more.
Your Gut and Your Mental Health
It’s common to overlook the health of your gut, but it contains 10 times more health-determining microorganisms than the rest of your body. They don’t just promote digestion and eliminate waste, but also protect you from infection, support your metabolism, and help regulate the factors that determine your overall mental health.
For instance, one UCLA study revealed that having a high percentage of certain gut microbes can make some people more emotionally reactive. Similarly, maintaining a healthy gut can improve your mood, cognitive thinking skills, metabolism, and quality of sleep and can preserve proper hormone balance throughout your body.
That connection to your brain and mental health also means that an unhealthy gut could lead to a multitude of problems. If the lining is inflamed because of dysbiosis, the imbalance in stress hormones could leave you fatigued. Leaky gut could become a factor in Celiac disease, Alzheimer’s disease, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, irritable bowel syndrome, and Crohn’s disease.
The symptoms of these conditions, such as bloating, constipation, heartburn, and extreme discomfort, can cause enough emotional distress on their own. But that stress is made worse when the inflammation alters your production of serotonin, the “happy mood” neurotransmitter produced by your gut’s enterochromaffin cells.
4 Ways to Strengthen Your Second Brain
When your gut isn’t healthy, your body can’t absorb all of the essential minerals and nutrients that your organs need to function properly. No matter how healthy your diet is, this malabsorption can make your body feel as though it’s starving. It will become fatigued, slow down its metabolism, and show signs like thinning hair and dry skin.
To prevent or improve these signs, as well as the more concerning effects on your digestive and brain health, these four tips can help you keep your gut and its flora healthy:
1. Single out and remove inflammatory foods.
Improper nutrition is one of the biggest factors in chronic gut inflammation. That’s because much of today’s Western diet consists of highly inflammatory foods, some of which we commonly consider healthy. For example, besides sugar, fat, and gluten, you might also want to avoid dairy, soy-based foods, and seed-based oils, though grapeseed oil is safe.
Instead, switch these out for plenty of pasture-raised proteins, such as grass-fed beef and free-range poultry. These contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids that control inflammation (especially in the brain). Switch canola and other seed oils with olive or avocado oil, which also contain high amounts of inflammation-fighting antioxidants.
2. Make stress relief a daily routine.
Eliminating inflammatory foods is an important step, but high stress levels can be just as inflammatory if you let them build up. Prolonged stress causes your body to constantly produce the hormone cortisol to control it. Before long, your gastrointestinal tissues become less sensitive to the hormone, causing inflammation to get further out of control.
Therefore, managing inflammation relies on your ability to manage stress on a daily and long-term basis. If you don’t have an exercise routine, develop one — but beware that exercising daily or too often can lead to inflammation as well. Consult a trainer for guidance on the right program for you.
Also focus on getting enough good-quality sleep every night, take up a hobby that you’ve always been interested in, and avoid processed foods that can affect your cortisol production.
3. Rebuild your gut’s ecosystem.
Part of the problem with nutrient-poor, high-calorie foods is that they cause all the wrong bacteria to flourish in your gut. They can easily throw the delicate ecosystem in your intestines off-balance, making it even harder for your body to digest and metabolize healthy essential nutrients.
After switching out these foods with healthier choices, focus on rebuilding your gut’s ecosystem and balancing out its flora. For example, include probiotic choices such as fermented foods in your diet to facilitate your gut’s physiological processes.
In addition, the amino acid glutamine helps repair the gut lining, reduce sugar and alcohol cravings, improve the immune system, and reduce constipation and diarrhea. L-glutamine can be found in bone broth or taken as a supplement.
4. Give your gut the tools to heal.
In addition to glutamine, your gut will benefit greatly from whole, unprocessed, and live-culture foods. Kimchi, pickles, yogurt, kombucha, and miso are also great sources of probiotics and give you a wider variety of ways to boost your friendly gut bacteria. Also, give your gut time to cleanse your body, heal, and repair itself by cutting down on digestion.
The most effective way to do this is with intermittent fasting, or time-restricted eating. Your feeding window can vary, but many programs suggest dedicating eight to 10 hours of each day to eating, then refraining from eating anything for the remainder of the 24 hours. Your gut will burn the energy you’ve ingested faster and will still have plenty of time to tend to your immune system, hormone production, and communication with your brain.
Worried you won’t get the nutrition you need during an intermittent fasting program? Try preparing your meals ahead of time or using a prepared meal delivery service to ensure you’re always eating a healthy meal.
It’s important to listen to your gut feelings, but it’s even more important to understand the importance of your gut-brain connection. Keeping your gut healthy is vital to that connection and to minimizing your risks of the mental and emotional impacts of poor gastrointestinal health.
Kelley Baker is a Nutrition Health Coach with 15 years of experience of personal training and holistic lifestyle coaching. Her certifications include NASM, C.H.E.K, ICANS, and Poliquin.