The Gut and Mood Connection

We’ve all been made aware – possibly too aware – of the connection between our mind and our gut at some point: the rumbling stomach in a job interview (or, worse! on a first date), the irritability and brain fog when we’re hungry, the sleepless night after a meal that isn’t sitting quite right.

There’s more to that connection than just a bit of inconvenience, though. It’s a deep one, and it plays a bigger role in our lives than you’d expect. If you know how to treat it well, you can leverage the gut-mind connection like your very own digestive, biohacking superpower. You can feel great, enjoy better mental health, and know what to do the next time your brain or gut has an off day. 

With gut power comes gut responsibility, you might say.

Let’s dig into the magic of the gut-mind connection. 

DID YOU KNOW….? GUT-MIND TRIVIA

Time to wrap our minds about just how important and integrated our guts genuinely are. 

  • The gut microbiome weighs between two and six pounds. The human brain only weighs in at about two and a half pounds — which means that ounce for ounce, the “second brain” in our gut may outweigh our first.  
  • You may be familiar with serotonin as a neurotransmitter that works to boost happiness levels in the brain. The vast majority — 90%! — of the body’s serotonin is made in the gut. 
  • Tweaking the ratios of disease-causing and beneficial bacteria in an animal’s gut can make that animal more anxious or courageous. 
  • Stress (issuing from the human brain) can lower your gut’s defenses toward infectious diseases — making you more vulnerable to sickness and further stress.

YOUR GUT = A TRUE REBEL AGAINST AUTHORITY

Unlike literally every other organ in your body, your gut doesn’t wait for your brain’s okay to act. 

Instead, it has its own nervous system — the enteric nervous system — which gives your gut the go-ahead to do its thing without any sign-off from your brain. 

This means your gut is FAR from being just a disconnected center of digestion. Instead, it’s a signaling powerhouse, creating and triggering cascades of hormones that influence or even control a lot of your body’s daily to-dos. 

It’s also strongly connected to the way your brain works. 

This is thanks in part to the vagus nerve, a veritable highway that shuttles information back and forth from the gut to the mind. Researchers have discovered that 90% of the traffic on this highway goes straight from the gut to the brain. The brain, in turn, interprets this constant flow of gut-signals as emotions.

This gut-mind connection can be incredibly powerful. 

It can also cause odd symptoms if your brain or your gut is having an off day.

SIGNS YOUR GUT-MIND CONNECTION MAY NEED SOME TLC

Mess up your gut’s flora and fauna, and you’ll know it. And your brain’s stress definitely doesn’t just stay neatly in your brain. 

Or, as Harvard Health puts it: “A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut.” 

Interested in watching for signs of trouble? Keep an eye out for these symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Feeling hangry
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • IBS
  • Sudden changes in digestion
  • Bloating

That’s quite the laundry list of things that could happen if either side of your gut-mind connection isn’t working properly. 

The good news: Since you know something’s going on, you can feel empowered to do something about it.

Here’s what you need to know. 

STRESS, SADNESS, AND YOUR GUT-MIND CONNECTION

Think about the last time you got stressed. 

Maybe you were up against a challenging deadline. Perhaps you lost your keys moments before you needed to get in the car. Maybe someone was watching you type over your shoulder. (Everyone hates that.) 

As your brain was racing to help you survive and move past that stressful experience, your body was rushing to support you.

Your heartbeat sped up. 

Your muscles tensed up. 

Your body got you ready to run a marathon or lift a car, just to make sure that you would be okay. (Your body is thoughtful like that.)

And — though you may not have realized it at the time — your gut tried to help you out, too. It made a selfless sacrifice. It prioritized your body’s energy in preparation for fight or flight, at the direct expense of resting and digesting. 

With resting and digesting slowed or stalled, you might have experienced unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms like constipation, bloating, or diarrhea. Unfortunately – as you perhaps know all too well – these not-fun symptoms can lead to further stress, continuing the cycle. 

Here’s the flip side of that downward spiral, though: If you’re able to stop stress in its tracks, you may be able to help your gut health, too. 

STRESS LESS. DIGEST MORE. FEEL GREAT. 

It may not seem like lowering your stress level would do much for your gut, but taking a quick second to breathe when you find yourself in chaos can help shift your body from flight-and-flight to rest-and-digest. 

That can make a BIG difference. 

Here are a few practices to try: 

1. Meditation. Whether you want to take a structured approach (perhaps with a guided meditation app) or just sit quietly (perhaps in a sunny spot, with some tea and chill music), taking a second to still your mind or let it drift can help calm your entire body. 

2. Deep breathing. If meditation sounds like too much to tackle, just get a few deep breaths in. (The 4-7-8 method of breathing is particularly great for insomniacs and people with high anxiety, and it can be done in just a few minutes.) 

3. Get outside! Slap on some sunscreen and catch some rays – and that all-important Vitamin D. Get your blood moving and feel the fresh air. Being outside – or surrounding yourself with greenery wherever you are – is associated with lower rates of depression and faster stress recovery. 

BONUS: If you’re interested in fun, holistic, slightly out-there interventions, think about gut-directed hypnotherapy. (We know it sounds odd! Stay with us.) In a gut-directed hypnotherapy session, a therapist guides patients through deeply-relaxing suggestions to calm their digestive tracts. While this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s an exciting area of research: Studies by the University of Michigan suggest that gut-directed hypnotherapy can reduce IBS symptoms by a significant percentage. 

YOUR BRAIN-BOOSTING GROCERY LIST

As much as stress in your brain hurts your gut’s function, having off-kilter gut microbes can send stress back to your brain – which makes nourishing your gut absolutely vital for optimal brain function. 

So let’s talk gut-mind connection menus. 

Gorgeous guts love

  •   Fiber. If it could, your gut microbiome would be munching on fiber all day long. Fiber keeps you regular and feeds your gut’s beneficial bacteria. There’s even some evidence that the byproducts of fiber fermentation in the gut could help improve memory and reduce brain inflammation. 
  •   Probiotics. Foods rich in probiotics — or good bacteria that keep you healthy — are incredibly gut-nourishing. Add some yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, or sauerkraut to your cart, and eat up! (Or you could take a high-quality probiotic supplement to get all of the goodness without the sour edge.) 
  •   Fruits and veggies. Plants contain polyphenols, valuable vitamins, and magic-feeling minerals that keep your gut working like a finely-tuned Swiss watch. Plus, they’re full of fiber. Plants: two gut-treats for the price of one!
  •   Mushrooms. Shiitake mushrooms have naturally high vitamin B-6, which helps your gut produce serotonin, the happy-making neurotransmitter. 
  •   Fuel. Whatever you do, don’t starve your gut! While prioritizing healthy foods is key, you need to eat — period. Try to focus on whole foods, healthy fats, and gut-friendly foods when you can, but make sure you’re fueled above all else. 

HAPPY-MAKING TIPS FOR BETTER GUT-MIND FUNCTION

Now, because what we think, see, and do matters for our gut, just feeding it well may not be enough. Here are a few fun ideas to take gut-mind health to a new level. 

1. Make sure you’re not shopping on an empty stomach. This will only lead to hangry grocery hauls that fill your house with useless (from your gut’s perspective) junk food.

2. When you get home from the store, get yourself a tasty, gut-friendly snack, and write down (and even research) healthy, easy-to-make meals using your new grocery items. The “easy” part is critical: Assuming you’ll suddenly know how to braise bok choy or grate ginger the next time you’re hungry paves the way for takeout, spoiled groceries, and no real change. 

3. Fill your home with things that make you want to be happy and eat healthy! Go thrift shopping and get yourself a beautiful dish for your crudités and hummus. Set out a delicate, gorgeous fruit bowl to keep yummy-looking fruit top of mind.  

4. Here’s a fun and practical tip: Learn how to quick pickle radishes and cucumbers! (Your gut will LOVE the fermentation benefits, and the bright pink and green colors will add sparkle to your healthy-gut sandwiches and salads.)

Finally, if you’re looking for a way to supercharge your gut-mind function, we’ve got a handy tool you can start using anytime. 

WANT A TRUE BRAIN BOOST? SEEK THE POWER OF PROBIOTICS 

Taking care of your gut health can be a lot of work. We’ve got your back if you’re looking for a fun, simple, and effective way to jumpstart your gut health as you work on stress and ramp up your diet. Take our free online gut check to learn a little more about what probiotics can do for your gut, your brain, and you! 

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