The Mind-Gut Connection
April is the month of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) awareness as well as Bowel Cancer awareness. The topic of gut health continues to spark more and more interest each day, as research unveils increasing amounts about the relationship between our gut and our brain. Our mental stress and emotions can present as gut symptoms, impacting our lives more than we once thought, and researchers are already beginning to think about the use of bacteria in improving our mood. In this article, you can learn more about this connection and how to optimise your lifestyle for a happier gut.
What is the gut?
The gut makes up part of our gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which includes the mouth, oesophagus (windpipe), stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and rectum. When we refer to the gut itself, we usually mean the organs in the general stomach area, such as the intestines. The majority of consumed nutrients absorb into the bloodstream in the small intestine, where bacteria, fungi, algae and other populations, collectively known as the microbiome, co-exist and interact. A healthy and diverse microbiome is essential for efficient cognitive and emotional function.
What is the gut-brain axis?
The gut-brain axis is the method by which the gut communicates to the brain and vice versa. This communication happens via a major nerve in our body known as the vagus nerve, a significant part of the nervous system that connects to the heart, lungs, and many other organs. The vagus nerve is a part of both the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), respectively known as the “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” responses.
The vagus nerve can signal to special cells on the surface of the inner linings of the intestines, the stomach and pancreas. These cells act as gut sensors and communicate through hormones, reacting to their environment. They sense the surrounding mechanical, thermal and chemical stimuli, including bacteria and nutrients in the gut pathway, and then pass these signals back to the vagus nerve and thus the brain.
The brain can also signal back to the gut in response to these signals and change the gut’s permeability or induce secretions and hormones. There are five times the number of nerve cells (neurones) in our gut as there are in our brain and spinal cord, indicating that the gut is susceptible to change.
For example, when we are in a stressed state, the body reduces blood flow to the gut and sends it elsewhere during a “fight or flight” response. This means that our body’s digestive system is deprioritised and not working at an optimum level, and thus, gut symptoms can manifest, such as bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhoea.
How can I manage gut symptoms?
Gut symptoms look different and vary in intensity from person to person. Short-term stress may suppress the digestive system and cause a reduced appetite for a short period, whereas long-term stress may lead to more chronic issues such as IBS or other GI disorders. It is vital to note how they manifest for you and incorporate tools and support which is effective for you.
Should you experience any unusual gut symptoms, it can be helpful to reflect on your food and mood via tools such as gentle journalling or mindfulness. Looking for a potential trigger or link between your lifestyle and your symptoms may help you to get to the bottom of the problem. As mentioned before, gut symptoms can be brought on by stressful factors and not just food or drink, so it’s essential to notice your mood changes and feelings throughout the day.
You can also use yoga and breathing exercises as a gentle form of movement to reduce your stress levels and take time out of your day. On top of that, particular yoga postures can ease gut discomforts, such as the wind-relieving posture, spinal twists, and child’s pose. You can try this not only when experiencing symptoms but before a meal to relax the body and prepare it for digestion.
Incorporating probiotics or fermented foods into your diet may be an effective way to improve your symptoms. You could try drinks available in supermarkets, including kefir or kombucha, or foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and tempeh. Again, this is a personal choice, but it may be helpful to be open and try out a range of products and see what works for you. Mixing brands can also be an excellent way to add variation and balance to your diet. However, many probiotic products lack research. We do not know if the bacteria in them survive the gut passage and make it into the intestines, where your microbiome is in its highest populations – so keep this in mind as probiotics and gut health products can be expensive.
Aside from probiotics, you can also eat foods high in prebiotics. Prebiotics are foods that pass through the GI tract and feed the bacteria in our gut so that they can perform optimally. Foods high in prebiotics include asparagus, banana, garlic, Jerusalem artichoke, and onion.
It can be helpful to incorporate all of the above into your lifestyle as an aid for when gut symptoms may arise, as they are most effective when done on a regular, long-term basis as opposed to when you are already experiencing symptoms.
It is important to remember that you do not require a diagnosis to seek treatment and relief for gut issues. Your symptoms and experiences are still valid and deserve recognition whether you have been formally diagnosed with a gut issue or not. However, if you are feeling any of the following symptoms, please seek urgent medical attention:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Severe pain or tenderness
- Blood in your stools or bloody diarrhoea
- Gut symptoms combined with shortness of breath, noticeable heartbeats or pale skin
- A hard lump or swell in your stomach
Remember, many medications also can cause gut-related symptoms, so if you are concerned about this, please speak to your GP or your local Kamsons pharmacist, who may be able to steer you towards effective products to manage your symptoms.
NHS (2021) What is IBS? Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs/ (Accessed: 26th April 2021).
Hall, John E. (2011). “General Principles of Gastrointestinal Function”. Guyton and Hal Textbook of Medical Physiology (12th ed.). Saunders Elsevier. p. 755. ISBN978-1416045748
Black, D.S., Slavich, G.M. (2016) ‘Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomised controlled trials’, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 373(1), pp. 13-24.