What’s the Brain & Gut Connection? This will change how you look at your health

Everyday Resolutions, Gentle Nutrition, Intuitive Eating, Mindful Eating

Have you ever said or heard the saying: “I feel butterflies in my stomach” or “I’m so nervous my stomach is in knots”?

Those sayings have so much merit! Let me walk you through it.

The relationship between our mind and body is extremely complex and multi-faceted. Throughout the day, our brain and all the different parts of our body communicate using neurotransmitters, little chemicals messages, that ultimately determine how we feel and react. The brain-gut axis in which they’re connected by the Vagus nerve, or what I like to call, the “elevator nerve”, is a two-way communication system that uses hormones and neurotransmitters. This connection links your emotional state to your gastrointestinal function, and vice versa.

So, if you’re unhappy and unwell mentally and emotionally, you’ll feel it in your gut. As well, if your gut bacteria is all out of whack, then your mental and emotional wellness will also feel out of sorts.

This is where SO much starts making sense about how certain foods make you “feel good” or “feel unwell” when it’s inconsistent, and/or you don’t have a true allergy. This shows up in my counseling clients a lot, especially when they’re so stressed and overwhelmed, that it seems like most foods “don’t make them feel well”. 

There’s a neurotransmitter for every purpose you can think of, but I will be focusing on two main neurotransmitters that connect our emotions to our digestive system: serotonin and dopamine.

Serotonin

Serotonin, the “happy” signal, is a neurotransmitter that when released, gives you the pleasant feeling we all know and love. Not only does it regulate mood, but it also helps maintain sleep quality, support cognitive function, and control appetite!

Dopamine

Dopamine is the “pleasure” signal released as a reward for actions your body perceives as beneficial such as exercise, physical touch, and eating food you enjoy, motivating the future repetition of these triggers.

There’s multiple things you can do to improve the positive feedback loop of both of those neurotrasmitters, and I have summarized them in a freebie downloadable for you. Check at the end to get your copy. 

Prebiotics, Probiotics, and the Gut

The Good Bacteria

Your gut is chock full of beneficial bacteria that help digest dietary fibre which your body would otherwise be unable to break down. By breaking the fibre down for you, the bacteria release fatty acids which have been seen to improve mental state, reducing anxiety and distress. In addition to aiding digestion and absorption, the bacteria also produce nutrients such as vitamin K and up to 90% of the serotonin in your body, helping you stay happy and healthy!

As you can see, probiotics play an important role in keeping you well; however, like most components of our diet, getting your probiotics from whole, fermented foods such as yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, and miso rather than in the form of supplements will better nourish your body and is also so much tastier!

Feeding the Team

The prebiotic, fibre-containing foods you eat such as fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates are just as important as the probiotics that they support. The prebiotics go towards nourishing a symbiotic relationship between you and the trillions of bacteria in your gut. Beyond just providing food for your team of beneficial bacteria, fruits and vegetables are jam-packed with vitamins and minerals which prevent disease, and the fibre they contain help keep you satisfied for longer and encourage healthy bowel movements, a win-win-win situation!  

Stress on the Brain and Digestion

The brain-gut axis is a two-way street–not only do our emotions affect our digestion, but our gastrointestinal tract also directly affects our brain, explaining why we may say that we have a “gut feeling” about something, or be irritable or “hangry” when we haven’t eaten all day. There is a mutual wellness and emotional connection between our brain and our gut–if one is not happy, the other will not be happy either!

Adding Stress to the Equation

When we experience stress, anxiety, or depression, serotonin and dopamine levels decrease, causing negative emotional responses which can also be reflected in gut function in the form of poor bowel movements, lack of appetite, or inflammation.

Negative feelings also trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol, and in an attempt to combat these negative feelings, the brain recalls past experiences that triggered serotonin and dopamine. In the moment, this may cause us to repeat these actions to elevate our mood, explaining why we might reach for our favourite triple chocolate mousse cake when we’re feeling down in the dumps.

However, continuous use of these short-term “band-aid solution” repeatedly activate the dopamine reward system, lowering the sensitivity of its receptors, which, over time, will require more and more of the neurotransmitter to trigger the same feeling. The desire to repeatedly trigger these “pleasure highs” are the same desires that result in addiction and may contribute to emotional eating or binge eating habits.

What can you do?

Mindful Eating

When it comes to eating, it is important not to focus too much on the food going in. Because our emotions and gut function are so tightly linked, additional stress over what we’re eating affects our mental state, therefore affecting our digestion, absorption, and overall enjoyment of the food.

Practice eating mindfully, take note of your cravings, and listen to your body’s hunger and fullness cues, but remember: wellness is not just about food! Staying hydrated is just as important eating, and hunger can often be confused with thirst. Try to drink enough water so that your urine is light yellow and pay attention to signs of dehydration such as fatigue, headache, constipation, dry skin, and increased sugar cravings.

Unwind

In your daily life, try to identify what the causes of your stress are and determine changes you can implement to decrease said stress. Destress through activities that cause the release of serotonin and dopamine in healthy ways such as exercise, relaxing with friends and family, or spending time in nature. Try to get sufficient sleep and remember to take time for yourself and practice self-care, whatever that may look like to you.

Cut Yourself Some Slack

It is easy to focus on what you can see and feel but it is important to acknowledge and understand that you can see size but cannot see the hormones, neurotransmitters, and chemicals that control how you feel and react. Remember to be kind to yourself and remember that change does not happen overnight, but rather, is an ongoing process that takes time and effort.

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In next week’s blog, we will be diving into 5 Tips to Improve Your Sleep Quality & Bedtime Habits to further improve your habits around this “brain” connection. Sign up for the nutriFoodie newsletter so you don’t miss it!

Blog Contributors

This blog was written with the help of some amazing nutrition & dietetics students, Gilbert and Celine.

References:

https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-gut-brain-connection
https://desireerd.com/why-we-crave-comfort-a-peek-at-the-science-of-food-mood/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4728667/
https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/0217p14.shtml
https://nutritionstripped.com/what-is-the-gut-brain-connection/