Our stomach is one of the most important organs of our body and one that is more prone to symptoms of stress and anxiety. Studies have found a significant connection between your gut and your brain. Like your brain, your gut is made up of a bundle of nerves called the enteric nervous system or ENS. It has the same type of neurons and neurotransmitters found in your central nervous system, often also referred to as the “second brain”.
What’s more, this connection between the brain and the gut impacts your digestion, mood, thoughts and cognition. The ENS stretches across your complete digestive system, from the oesophagus to the rectum, and lines this area with a million nerve cells in two layers.
But, how are your gut and brain connected?
The gut, which is cleverly called the second brain, manages and controls your digestion. It helps break down food, controlling blood flow so that the nutrients are absorbed properly and the unwanted ones are eliminated.
The vagus nerve, one of the biggest nerves connecting your brain and your gut, sends signals in both directions. Studies have shown that those who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome or IBS have a reduced vagal tone, this means their vagus nerve functions only partially. When the vagus nerve doesn’t function properly, it can react ineffectively to inflammation, which is terrible for your gut and gut bacteria.
Research has also suggested that conditions like depression and anxiety contribute to people who experience IBS and functional bowel issues like constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, pain and an upset stomach. However, studies also suggest that this could occur due to the ENS.
The ENS also shares information between your gut and your immune system, significantly impacting your mental wellbeing. This occurs through the nervous system and your body’s hormones.
How can stress affect the gut?
When our body experiences nervousness or anxiety, it releases hormones and chemicals that head straight for the digestive system. This impacts the microorganism found in your gut, those that help digestion while reducing your body’s antibody production. The chemical imbalance caused by this chain reaction leads to gastrointestinal conditions like:
- Stomach upset
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Loss of appetite or unwarranted hunger
How can you cultivate a healthy gut?
There are several ways you can reverse the inflammatory responses that occur due to an unhealthy gut. Our gut microbiota is highly reactive to external factors like our diet, smoking, using antibiotics, infections and stress. The following steps can help you combat an unhealthy gut.
1. Focus on digestion
A healthy digestive system is very important for your body’s functionality. After a meal, ensure that you’re in a relaxed, stress-free state to ensure the production of gastric juices required for nutrient absorption. These gastric juices help absorb vitamins, minerals and nutrients necessary for your brain and body function.
2. Regulate your diet
Staying away from junk food is key for your gut. Instead, opting for healthy snacks and food is the way to go. Planning meals ahead of time which include a healthy balance of fruits, protein and fibre is a great way to inculcate the habit of eating healthy. Avoid mid-day snacks and if you’re hungry, choose a granola bar or fruit instead.
Another way is to include probiotics in your diet. This has several health benefits including mental wellbeing. Probiotics keep the gut ecosystem balanced and help support our health. They are also said to reduce symptoms of depression. Some foods you can include are yoghurt, blueberries, kefir, apple cider vinegar, kombucha and fermented vegetables.
3. Work out
Staying actively regularly isn’t as easy as said. But taking time out to exercise 3-4 times a week can encourage you to be active regularly. This helps reduce your stress levels and also improves physical, mental and emotional health.
4. Drink water
Drink at least six to eight glasses of water a day to boost your digestive system. Water can also help flush out the unwanted toxins from the body, keeping your overall health optimal.
5. Eat prebiotics
Probiotics are crucial for gut health but their nourishment is just as important. And this happens by consuming prebiotics, substances found in plant-based foods essential for maintaining gut bacteria. Some foods you can include in your diet are almonds, garlic, chickpeas, onions, mushrooms, barley and rye.
Read more: How Emotional Turmoil Affects Gut Health