Your Gut’s Effect on Your Mind

How the gut microbiome can play a part in health concerns

We often point to our digestive system (the gut) when issues like bloating, indigestion, nausea, cramps, and bowel movement problems arise. But today, we are coming to understand that the digestive system, and the microbiome that lives within it, affects more than these obvious concerns.

Patients who come to me looking for solutions to anxiety, depression, mood swings, brain fog, and fatigue are surprised when I start off by asking about and suggesting better eating habits and offering strategies for a healthier gut.

Though you may already know your gut can affect your overall physical health, it may be surprising to hear that the gut and brain are connected, too.

Artistic illustration of intestines
YagiStudio / Getty Images

The Many Parts (and Functions) of the Gut

Your gut includes your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which is a series of hollow organs that are joined in a long, twisting tube from your mouth to your anus; it also includes your liver, pancreas, and gallbladder. After your mouth is your esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, and anus. All of these parts work together with trillions of bacteria (your microbiota) to turn the food you eat into the fuel your body needs, and the waste it does not.

A healthy gut and its bacteria also help protect you from disease, neutralize toxins, and fight bad bacteria that can make you sick. And yes, it also influences your brain.

The Gut-Brain

You’ve felt “butterflies” in your belly when nervous, right? That’s just one simple example of your gut-brain at work. Hidden in your digestive system are millions of nerve cells that communicate with the brain in your head. These nerves can trigger emotional shifts in people who have poor gut health.

Think about it. Say you eat in a way that irritates your GI tract—consuming lots of processed and sugary foods, for example. These foods lead to spikes in blood sugar and the production of excitotoxins—a reaction that causes your gut’s nerve cells to send a signal to your brain that sounds an alarm, putting you into fight or flight mode. The result can be anxiety and stress.

On the flip side, you can feel a lot of anxiety from working a high-stress job or being stuck in traffic. In this case, your brain and body release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which communicate with the nerves in your gut brain and can cause stomach upset, bloating, and diarrhea.

Finding Balance With the Gut, Body, and Mind

Scientists are coming to understand that this relationship between your gut, brain, and the rest of your body are intricately related in numerous situations. The important lesson is that there are many steps you can take to help your body, brain, and gut become healthy and balanced—you just need them to work together.

Use Food as Medicine

This is simple if you break down diet into two categories—those that cause inflammation and those that don’t. I recommend, especially if you are experiencing high stress and any digestive discomfort, that you take a break from hard-to-digest items such as red meats, dairy, gluten, refined sugars and carbohydrates, alcohol, coffee, and other processed foods. A week-long “detox” is usually a good start; then you can start to reintroduce these foods one at a time and track how you feel. In place of these inflammatory foods, I encourage whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, legumes, vegetables, and some fruit. Focus on drinking water and tea.

Consider supplements: Even if you eat a healthy diet, there are three supplements I usually suggest to help your digestion balance out and improve.

  • Probiotics: While there is continued controversy over probiotics, I still find them helpful in regulating digestion and for improving your gut microbiome. Take a high-quality probiotic each morning; choose a supplement with at least 50 billion CFU (colony-forming units).
  • Digestive enzymes: These supplements work to break down what you eat into smaller particles, making it easier to process your food and absorb its nutrients. I recommend taking one or two caplets of digestive enzymes with your heaviest meal, either lunch or dinner. Choose a digestive enzyme with amylase (which breaks down starch), lipase (which breaks down fat), and protease (which breaks down protein).
  • Glutamine: Poor diet and stress can cause leaky gut—when the junctions between cells of the intestinal lining loosen, allowing foreign substances and toxins to leak into the rest of the circulation, affecting the whole body. This amino acid works to strengthen your gut lining and help to “seal” it; take one to two grams daily.

Practice Mindfulness

Lowering stress and increasing mindfulness will reduce the overproduction of stress hormones, which will, in turn, quiet those signals that alert your gut. There are many ways to work mindfulness into your day, and you may find many of them easier to employ than you think.

This simple meditation is a good place to start:

  • Sit somewhere quiet and set a timer for 3 minutes.
  • Take a deep breath and blow it all out.
  • Close your eyes. Inhale and focus entirely on that breath: Feel the air go all the way in and your belly expand, and then exhale, blowing all the air slowly out of your mouth, feeling your belly contract.
  • Continue, focusing all your mental energy on each inhale and each exhale. When your mind wanders—and it will, because that is its nature—simply bring your focus back to your breath. Let your thoughts drive quietly by in your mind, like cars zipping down a road. Continue until your timer goes off.

It doesn’t matter if you spend all but one breath wandering around in your mental landscape—the effort to meditate is what counts.

Take a Tech Break

Given the prevalence of technology in our lives and the constant barrage of information they provide us, I also often recommend “detoxing” by banishing electronics from your bedroom and morning routine. As necessary as these may seem, smartphones, tablets, laptops, and television are all highly agitating and stress-inducing gadgets when overused. When you wake up in the morning, do not touch your email, phone, or any other electronic or battery-operated device.

At the end of the day, your gut is the foundation of your health. Stress, food, and the environment work in concert to determine your digestive health, which then affects your overall health. Use these tricks to stay healthy and happy for years to come.

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