Have you experienced an upset stomach when you’ve felt anxious about something?
Maybe even nausea, cramping, or diarrhea? Or have you had digestive troubles that went along with a low mood, brain fog, and fatigue?
You know your brain sends messages to the rest of your body to control movement, behaviors, and breathing. Even when and how to digest food.
But you may not know that your gastrointestinal (GI) tract communicates back to the brain! This back-and-forth communication between the brain and the gut is called the gut-brain axis.
Defining the Gut-Brain Axis
The gut-brain axis connects the nerves in the GI tract and central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) through multiple communication pathways. This communication is bidirectional, meaning the microbiome (more on that later!) and GI tract influence the brain, while the brain, in turn, affects the GI tract.
But it's not as simple as that. (Which is not simple!) Also involved in these communications are neurotransmitters like serotonin, hormones such as cortisol, and the immune system.
The Vital Role of the Microbiome
Our bodies are host to trillions of microbes that live virtually everywhere, primarily within our GI tracts. These “bugs” – known collectively as our microbiome – play a major role in the health of the gut-brain axis.
How? They interact with our immune cells, which reside just below the lining of the gut. These cells create compounds that have whole-body effects, including influencing the brain and mood. When the microbiome is healthy, it is the result of a balance of desirable vs. undesirable microbes and an abundance and diversity of bacteria.
Poor Gut Health = More Than Just a Tummy Ache
When microbial balance in your GI tract is lost, the result is called “dysbiosis.” Dysbiosis can develop slowly over time as a result of lifestyle and diet or can happen quickly as a result of causes like medications or food poisoning.
Factors contributing to poor gut health that can lead to dysbiosis include:
- A diet high in refined and processed foods and sugars
- Unrelenting stress
- Overuse of antibiotics or other medications
- Environmental toxins
Just as mental anxiety can manifest in the gut, with symptoms such as cramps and loose stool, the inverse is also true. When the health of the GI tract is off, it eventually affects mood and brain health.
Did you know that the vast majority of serotonin (our feel-good neurotransmitter) in our bodies is produced in the gut? That means if our GI health is off, it can impact our mood and mental health. Research has shown that dysbiosis can contribute to the development or continuation of many systemic issues – including anxiety and depression.
Keep the Cross-talk Positive
There are many things you can do to encourage an optimal ecology in your GI tract, which in turn will support your mental well-being. The right diet and lifestyle choices on your part will help keep your microbiome balanced and the gut-brain axis cross-talk positive!
Be aware of foods to avoid. Do your best to minimize highly refined and processed foods, sugars, artificial additives, foods exposed to pesticides, GMOs, fast food, highly refined oils, gluten, dairy, and excess alcohol.
Know which foods to include in your diet. Some foods have been shown to encourage the growth and diversity of microbes in the gut, which contributes to optimal gut function. They include whole foods, vegetables in a rainbow of colors, prebiotic and probiotic foods, healthy fats, pasture-raised meats, and wild-caught seafood.
Remember to move! Exercise and movement have a positive impact on gut health and the microbiome. As a bonus, they also support positive mental health!
Keep a lid on stress. Meditation and spending time in nature are two things you might think of for managing stress. But everyday activities like spending time with friends, laughing, and engaging in a hobby can also ease tension. All these activities have a positive effect on the microbiome.
Nurture your digestive tract naturally. Turn to nature for microbiome support. Botanical medicines can help maintain balance in your microbiome. Drinking herbal teas that support digestion, taking probiotics, and supplementing with nutrients your body lacks are all potentially beneficial in the quest for a healthier microbiome and GI tract.