Trust Your Gut: The Gut-Brain Connection And Mental Health
Have you ever noticed that the language we use to describe feeling anxious and nervous often relates to… our gut?
Think of the phrase “butterflies” in your stomach. Have you had an experience that was just “gut-wrenching”? How about “going with your gut” when something feels right? Or feeling a ‘pit’ in your stomach when you are nervous or really dreading something that must be done?
This language makes it seem like our gut has feelings: “What does your gut tell you?”
Well…you may just be surprised to learn that our gut tells us a LOT. There is, after all, a powerful connection between the gut and the brain. Let’s describe and de-mystify it today.
In this post, we will explore:
The gut-brain connection
How gut health affects mental health
Tips for soothing an anxious gut
Here we go.
What Is This Gut-Brain Connection You Speak Of?
Researchers have found that a gut-brain connection exists. The body’s gastrointestinal (GI) system and brain communicate with each other. This connection goes both ways!
For example, if you are experiencing any bloating, diarrhea, nausea or stomach cramps, it can affect your anxiety. The same is true vice versa- feeling anxious or stressed can lead to stomach issues. This explains why we feel nauseous before a big speech or have stomach cramps during exam time!
Scientists call this system- your “gut brain”- the enteric nervous system (ENS).
The ENS- Your ‘Gut Brain’
Your ”gut brain” is not an actual brain. It is unable to carry out complex thoughts like your large brain can. Nor it is capable of directly influencing your behaviour.
Now that we’ve discussed what the ENS is NOT, let’s talk about what it IS:
- Two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells (i.e. cells found in the central nervous, or brain system!!!) lining your GI tract all the way from the esophagus to the rectum (which is a long way)
- The main function of the ENS is to control digestion- however, given that our gut contains neurons, which are connected to our brain, there is more to the ENS than meets the eye
- There are also multiple pathways through which the ENS communicates with the brain
Building on that last point, scientists have found that irritation in the GI system may send signals to our brain, triggering mood shifts! This explains why many people who have GI conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), constipation, and diarrhea, tend to experience anxiety and depression.
This is a growing area of research that we may hear more about in the coming years! Here is a little bit more about what we know right now:
Our Gut Brain And Mental Health- What’s The Connection?
Research has shown that there is a bi-directional relationship between our brain and the microbes in our gut. This is known as the gut-brain-axis.
Many things happen along this axis. Something researchers have noticed is that a troubled gut can send signals to the brain. So, stomach and GI issues can be both the cause OR the side effect of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and stress.
All because of this intimate, two-way relationship between the brain and gut-brain.
Soothing An Anxious Gut
I did a little reel over on my Instagram (@the.poc.therapist) about this very topic! Read the caption for my recommendations on actual products to help calm an anxious gut:
What does a ‘nervous stomach’ or an ‘anxious gut’ feel like? For many of us, it can show up in the following ways:
- Feeling unsettled, like you have ‘butterflies’ in your stomach
- Stomach cramps, or feeling like your stomach is in ‘knots’
- Feeling queasy or nauseoous
- Digestion issues
- Feeling full really quickly when eating
- Frequent trips to the bathroom
- Bloating and heavy sensation in the stomach
Here are a few ways we can soothe that an anxious gut.
*Note: Please speak to your doctor before trying anything that may impact your physical well-being! We are certainly not experts in this area. A nutritionist, dietician, physician, or naturopathic practitioner can guide you more reliably on your healthy gut journey 🙂
1. Try Avoiding (or cutting down) Caffeine
We all know that coffee makes things worse when you’re already feeling anxious! For many of us, there is a soothing, ritualistic element to coffee and blacl. That can be calming! However, caffeine also tends to stimulate the bowels, increasing the frequency of those bathroom trips and adding to your anxiety.
If possible, avoid caffeine and opt for herbal teas (i.e. oolong or low-caffeine green tea)) to benefit from the soothing feeling of sipping on something without the anxiety of a caffeine rush.
2. Herbs And Roots Are Your Friend
Ginger root has long been used to soothe GI symptoms. Whether you are chewing on a piece of ginger or boiling it with tea, ginger helps with nausea, and settling the stomach.
Other herbs such as mint, lavender, and lemon balm and help with stomach cramping and other nervous stomach symptoms.
Often, just the experience of slowing down to sip something warm can be soothing in and of itself! Boosting that process with nature’s natural remedies never hurts.
3. Deep Breathing
Practice deeply breathing into the belly. Imagine you are inflating a balloon in there and slowly releasing the air. Belly breathing helps to calm our anxiety, which fuels those nervous stomach symptoms. See our visual guide to belly breathing below:
4. Move Your Body
If your nervous stomach symptoms aren’t allowing you to move freely, try doing some simply stretches where you are sitting, laying down, or standing.
Try going for a walk if you can, or doing easy and relaxing yoga poses such as child’s pose or mountain pose. Moving your body may help ease the anxiety which is worsening your nervous stomach symptoms.
I’ve always been fascinated by the incredible things our body does to protect us and nourish us. Learning about the gut-brain connection was exciting for me because it helped explain those nervous stomach symptoms every time I stepped outside my comfort zone.
Knowing this information also put me in touch with relaxation techniques and specific foods that have become a part of my wellness and self-care routine. The more we know about how our body works, the better equipped we are to manage those curveballs it can throw at us!
Until next time!
Sarah Ahmed is the co-founder and a psychotherapist at WellNest Psychotherapy Services. Sarah strongly favors an integrative, trauma-informed, client-centered approach to create a healthy alliance with clients and their loved ones.