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Have you ever thought about where the expressions "gut feeling" and "gut reaction" come from? During this stressful time, we've all had to deal with difficulties or uncertainties that will have provoked strong feelings like these1
Powerful emotions, like panic or anxiety, are often accompanied by a definite physical feeling in your gut2. Why? Here, we explore just how your gut is linked with your mental well-being with five fascinating facts.
Read on and you’ll also find tips for safeguarding both your mental and gut health during these troubled times.
5 Things You Need to Know About the Link Between Your Gut and Your Brain
1. You have a second "brain" in your gut
Your enteric nervous system (ENS) controls your digestion3. This mesh-like system of neurons is housed in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract4. It can function independently of the brain to handle your digestion, which is why many people refer to it as your “second brain.”4
2. Your ENS makes use of a high-speed connection to your brain
While your ENS can run independently, it can still be heavily influenced by your brain. This is because the two nervous systems run a direct connection through the spinal cord2.
3. Your gut can therefore receive warning signals from your brain
In times of stress, your brain sends out distress signals5. Your gut receives these loud and clear thanks to their strong connection2 3.
4. These signals can alter your gut’s behavior
When your brain sends out an alarm, your gut will often respond2. Reactions might range from a fluttery feeling in the abdomen to needing to make an urgent dash to the bathroom2. These reactions are caused by frequent or strong contractions in your GI tract- its response to stress signals2.
5. Your gut is super-sensitive to signals from your brain
Your gut is hypersensitive to stress signals from the brain2. The link is so strong between the brain and the ENS that your gut can react to warning signals that you are barely aware of2. This means that even mild stress and anxiety can cause unpleasant symptoms in the gut and you could be unaware that stress is the cause2.
Gut Symptoms That Could Be Caused By Stress
Stress signals can cause the following gut symptoms:
✓ Abdominal pain
✓ Nausea and vomiting
✓ Changes to bowel movements6
It's vital to nurture the connection between the brain and gut2. In short, to minimize stress-related gut problems, we need to look after our mental-gut health2.
Essential Tips for Looking After Our Mental-Gut Health During Troubled Times
1. Cut down on comfort eating
This may seem counterintuitive, but many of the foods we might turn to for comfort are high in sugar or saturated fat, or are highly processed7. This means they can irritate the gut further, exacerbating and not solving the problem7.
2. Aim to consistently eat a healthy, Meditteranean-style diet
The Meditteranean-style diet is best suited to good digestive health. This means eating lots of fruits and vegetables, as many varieties and colors as possible. This diet is also high in legumes, wholegrains, lean meat, fish and seafood. It’s also important to consume healthy fats from oily fish, nuts and olive oil.7
3. Add more probiotic foods to your diet
Probiotics are good, helpful bacteria that naturally live in your gut7. They help you fight off bad bacteria and infection7.
You can boost the numbers of good bacteria in your gut by eating foods that contain them8. Improve your gut health by adding more of these probiotic foods to your diet8:
✓ Live yogurt
✓ Fermented milk drinks
✓ Pickled vegetables including sauerkraut and kimchi
4. Add a probiotic supplement to your daily routine
A really simple way to experience the benefits of probiotics is to take a probiotic supplement9. These will send plenty of good bacteria into your gut where they can help digestion and support your immune system9.
5. Take time to rest and relax
Finally, rest shouldn’t be considered a luxury. It’s vital to both your mental health7 and digestive health10. Your body needs you to slow down and take time out so that the digestive system can work efficiently7.
Rest and relaxation can also help alleviate stress (and thus reduce the unpleasant gut symptoms associated with it)7. Many people find that taking time out for deep breathing exercises or meditation is a really useful tool in the fight against stress-related mental-gut health problems7.
6. Getting an adequate amount of sleep each night
Stress may make pain, bloating, nausea, and other stomach discomfort felt moreeasily. Vomiting may occur if the stress is severe enough. Furthermore, stress maycause an unnecessary increase or decrease in appetite. Unhealthy diets may in turndeteriorate one's mood.
- Psychiatric Times. Post-COVID Stress Disorder: Another Emerging Consequence of the Global Pandemic. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/post-covid-stress-disorder-emerging-consequence-global-pandemic. Last visited February 2021.
- Harvard Medical School. The Gut-Brain Connection. https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-gut-brain-connection#:~:text=A%20troubled%20intestine%20can%20send,GI. Last visited February 12 2021.
- Nature Reviews: Gastroenterology & Hepatology. The Bowel and Beyond: The Enteric Nervous System in Neurological Disorders. https://www.nature.com/articles/nrgastro.2016.107#:~:text=The%20enteric%20nervous%20system%20(ENS)%20is%20a%20large%20division%20of,the%20brain%20and%20spinal%20cord). Last visited February 12 2021.
- John Hopkins Medicine. The Brain-Gut Connection. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-brain-gut-connection. Last visited February 12 2021.
- Harvard Medical School. Understanding the Stress Response. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response. Last visited February 12 2021.
- American Psychiatric Association. Stress Effects on the Body. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body. Last visited February 12 2021.
- NYU Department of Medicine. Your Gut Feeling: A Healthier Digestive System Means a Healthier You. https://med.nyu.edu/medicine/gastro/about-us/Gastroenterology-news-archive/your-gut-feeling-healthier-digestive-system-means-healthier. Last visited February 12 2021.
- Harvard Medical School. How to Get More Probiotics. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-to-get-more-probiotics. Last visited February 12 2021.
- NHS UK. Probiotics. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/probiotics/. Last visited February 12 2021.
- Gastroenterology and Hepatology. Sleep Dysfunction and Gastrointestinal Diseases. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4849511/. Last visited February 12 2021.