Have you ever experienced that sensation of butterflies in your stomach? Or feeling a pit in your stomach when you are upset or stressed? These are simple ways we can see the gut-brain axis (GBA) in action. Our digestive system is known as our second brain because it has its own nervous system, called the enteric nervous system (ENS) which along with the vagus nerve creates a two-way stress for the gut and brain, our central nervous system, to communicate with each other.
The ENS has millions of nerve cells within the lining of the digestive tract running from the esophagus to the rectum that influences gut motility (how food moves through the digestive tract), absorption of nutrients and gut secretions, that help with breaking down our food and more. The vagus nerve is associated with our “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which you can think of as a parachute that slows things down and takes us out of the stimulated “fight or flight” state of our sympathetic nervous system. This is a healing state that we need to have optimal digestion function and immune system and hormone function and more.
Gut microbiome impacts our happiness and mood
Up to 90% of the cells involved in the gut-brain axis send information from the gut to our brain rather than receiving information. This means what is happening in our gut has significant influences over what is going on in our brain and so it impacts mood and behaviour. Our gut microbiome, bacteria in our gut, produce up to 95% of serotonin, our happy hormone. It also produces gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an important calming neurotransmitter, helpful in the reduction of anxiety and stress. These chemicals also affect gut motility and nutrient absorption. Gut bacteria produce many other hormones and neurotransmitters that influence mental processes such as learning and memory.
When something is off with the gut-brain axis, this can show up as various symptoms. Some of the more common symptoms may include, but are not exclusive to:
- Digestive issues such as diarrhea, constipation, bloating, acid reflux/heartburn
- Decreased sex drive
- Depression and/or anxiety
- Excess weight gain or weight loss
- Low energy
- Mood changes
- Increased sadness or anger
- Difficulty relaxing
- Difficulty concentrating or brain fog
- Problems with memory
Many of these symptoms can be related to other underlying causes, but the importance is to consider the root cause and not to ignore these signs of disharmony in the body.
Strategies to support the gut-brain axis
Stressors will always be present, but our perception of stress is an area that we can work on to reduce the physiological and psychological effects. We know that stress and anxiety change the diversity of bacteria in our gut and impairs optimal digestive function and has impacts on gastrointestinal conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. It can cause the symptoms of acid reflux, bloating, constipation, diarrhea and indigestion. Since we are aware that the health of our gut bacteria influences our mood and brain health, let’s discuss ways to support both directions of the gut-brain axis.
Using the technique of box breathing activates our PNS can be used at anytime as a stress management tool and is especially helpful before meals to promote optimal digestion. Picture a box by inhaling for a count of 4, holding that breath for a count of four, exhaling for a count of four and holding that breath for a count of four. This can be repeated for 5-10 cycles.
A health microbiome rich in beneficial bacteria will help foster healthy brain function. Some gut and brain nourishing foods to eat regularly include:
Omega 3 fats: nuts, seeds, cold-water fish like salmon are great sources of these fats that are anti-inflammatory for the brain and gut.
Prebiotic foods: fibre rich foods such as asparagus, chicory root, apples, dark leafy greens are great sources as well as soluble fibres such as legumes and oats. Oats are also a nervine, meaning they calm and nourish the nervous system, making them very supportive to stress and anxiety management.
Choosing whole foods over processed and packaged foods: Refined sugars and processed foods feed the bad bacteria in your microbiome and lead to more inflammation in the gut and the body in general. Choosing whole foods that are nutrient dense will provide abundant sources of nutrients for your gut and overall health.
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Osadchiy V, Martin CR, Mayer EA. The gut–brain axis and the microbiome: mechanisms and clinical implications. Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology. 2019 Jan 1;17(2):322-32.
Suganya K, Koo BS. Gut–Brain Axis: Role of Gut Microbiota on Neurological Disorders and How Probiotics/Prebiotics Beneficially Modulate Microbial and Immune Pathways to Improve Brain Functions. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2020 Jan;21(20):7551.
Strandwitz P. Neurotransmitter modulation by the gut microbiota. Brain research. 2018 Aug 15;1693:128-33.
If you are looking for ways to optimize your gut and brain health or you are wondering if some of your symptoms are related to dysregulation of the gut-brain axis discussed here, I am here to help you. Take action by booking a complimentary discovery call so we can discuss a plan to get you feeling your best.
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Dr. Ramlal believes that we can all be the best version of ourselves and this starts with taking care of our health. We are worthy of having the life we want and doing all the amazing things we want to do. She is passionate about looking at the bigger picture of the factors that shape our health and curating strategies to help others reach their greatest potential. Dr. Ramlal has a strong belief in creating a space to cultivate growth, awareness and fostering the mind-body connection to nourish the foundations of health. As a clinician, her area of focus is helping those with digestive concerns such as irritable bowel syndrome, break free from the constraints of diarrhea, bloating and constipation that are keeping them from living and feeling their best.
She would love to hear from you, connect on Instagram @drroxanneramlal