The Belly-Brain Connection; How Your Gut Influences Your Emotions
Have you ever noticed how many sayings about the stomach are connected to emotions? Butterflies in your stomach. Just a gut feeling. Can’t stomach something. Tickle belly.
Oh, is no one else familiar with that last one? So, a friend of mine who grew up in a one-horse town in Pennsylvania has a story about how, for thrills, her grandmother would load all the kids up in her Mercury Bobcat station wagon, complete with a coveted “way, way back,” and drive fast as hell up and down the hills of the neighborhood.
On the way down, everyone would scream (rightly so) “TICKLE BELLY!” because they both feared for their lives and found it to be the most exciting thing ever … to the extent that they felt it in their stomachs.
And there’s a reason for this connection between the gut and emotions … a scientific reason! Anyway, back to where I was going with this …
So last week during a discovery session, a new client told me she had been struggling with anxiety and depression for years.
She talked about her stressful job, her difficult family life. The issues she believed were the apparent causes for her emotional distress.
This was important ground that I wanted to cover with her, but I knew there could be more to the issue than just the situations and relationships in her life. I wanted to know about her eating habits so I could identify any biochemical issues in her gut that could be affecting her ability to cope with her emotions.
So I asked about her about her diet. “Food is the least of my worries … trust me,” she said.
I explained that I was trying to understand how well her body was set up to help her handle her difficult emotional experiences or if it was setting her up for failure.
So … remember those fancy scientific reasons I was talking about?
A quick anatomy lesson
Well, the enteric nervous system (or intrinsic nervous system) is one of the main divisions of the nervous system that consists of a mesh-like system of neurons that control the gastrointestinal tract, including the gut. The network of neurons in the gut is as complex as those in our spinal cord.
The brain is in communication with the gut through the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the nervous system and can directly impact the gut environment.
And it goes both ways! There are trillions of microbes residing in the gut, and research has shown that these gut microbes can send messages back up the brain, influencing our perception of the world and even change our emotions and behavior.
The kind of microbes that live in our gut and influence our emotions (and anxiety levels) are determined by the environment we create in there. And the kind of food we eat is a major factor in building that environment.
And it’s not only those microbes in the gut that can influence our emotional state. The gastrointestinal tract is in charge of digesting food, absorbing vital nutrients and expelling the waste that’s left behind. It also plays an important part in our immune system as well as in the production of important neurotransmitters, like serotonin … aka the “happy” chemical.
In an ideal state, the gut wall is built like a fortress, only allowing certain particles through. However, bad diet, infections or injury can start to break down the wall and allow antigens, bad microbes, undigested foods and toxins to leak through and seep into your blood, a condition call leaky gut.
Our body’s immune system sees these particles as a threat and go into overdrive to fight them. This compromises the intestines, leading to issues like indigestion malnutrition, IBS, hypertension and thyroid issues, as well as general inflammation throughout the body.
And each of these health issues are all highly correlated to anxiety and depression.
So, when you think about it, our guts play a huge role in how we feel and whether we see the world through rose-colored glasses or are always looking out for the next catastrophe.
So if you want to be happy, love your belly!
Super Belly Health Tips
So, where should you start? Here are some of my top tips to keeping your gut happy and healthy:
- Avoid problem foods and drinks known to damage our intestines. Caffeine, processed foods, sugars and alcohol all support the growth (or overgrowth) of bacteria, yeast and other pathogens in the gut. These pathogens release toxins called exotoxin that damage the gut wall and lead to leaky gut syndrome.
- Get tested for food sensitivities. A food sensitivity, or food intolerance, is not the same as a food allergy. Food allergies involve the immune system and can be life threatening. Food sensitivity doesn’t involve the immune system, but an inability to process or digest a certain food. Your body can’t properly break it down or reacts badly. The result is an unhappy stomach with symptoms like gas and bloating, diarrhea, constipation, cramping and nausea.
- Drink water. Staying hydrated is essential to flushing out all those toxins that build up in your digestive system. These toxins can lead to fatigue and illness if they’re not removed. And try to drink 8 to 10 glasses of filtered or distilled water a day. I make it simple by always having a water bottle with me.
- Eat lots of fiber … it helps protect your gut wall. How? Ready to be a little grossed-out? It’s worth it. Not only does fiber help move out toxins, research shows that when the microbes inside your digestive system don’t get the natural fiber they rely on for food, they start munching on your gut lining. To keep the lining healthy and intact, you need to not only feed yourself, but your microbes! Try to get about 35 grams of fibre per day – at least. The very best source is from veggies.
- Eat healthy fats. Avocados, healthy nuts, salmon, olives … I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’re hearing these foods are good for you. In addition to so many other health benefits, they’re also required by both the smooth muscle cells and the nervous system cells in the gut to keep the gut wall lubricated and keep everything moving like it should. And like I said, flushing out waste is very important to our health, including our mental health.
- Replenish your good bacteria. Yes, there’s good bacteria too and they’re often killed off by my medication and processed foods. Probiotic rich food like miso soup, kefir and sauerkraut all do the trick. You can also take probiotic pills, but fermented foods are a lot more effective.
Probiotic supplements can re-inoculate the gut too. But you want to start with a good brand that contains a 30 billion count. Take them once a day for the 2-4 weeks, then maintain with 8-12 billion per day.
- Get your glutamine on! It’s an essential amino acid that’s naturally produced in the body, but can be depleted by stress. It has anti-inflammatory properties, protects the intestinal cells and wards off irritants in the gut. Supplement your glutamine with foods like raw cabbage, aloe vera, legumes and beans, eggs and seafood.
When your gut is healthy, you not only feel more energetic and joyful, you’re better armed to take on whatever comes our way. You’ll have a peppy little microbes, a healthy does of those happy neurotransmitters, like serotonin, and your body won’t be busy battling away at leaky gut invaders.
Addressing difficult family issues and healing from childhood trauma is so important to managing stress and anxiety, but that will take time. Why not start off on the right foot by first arming (or re-arming) yourself with a healthy gut.
It’s a process that you have complete control of. And with just a few tasty changes to your eating habits, you’ll see a significant difference in your state of mind and how you show up to those stressful situations that you can’t entirely control.
Cheat Sheet: Beating Anxiety with Self-Talk
Are you hijacked by your anxiety? Constantly making mental lists of all the ways that you could fail – and all the things that might go wrong?
Use this Cheat Sheet to transform your negative thoughts into loving and constructive self-talk – so you can ditch your anxiety once and for all!