WHAT IS THE MIND-GUT CONNECTION? WHAT CAN WE DO TO MAKE THE BRAIN, GUT, AND BODY WORK WELL TOGETHER?
The conventional wisdom about the brain is that it’s separate from the body. We think of problems as being either brain or body issues. Stress, anger, depression, and anxiety are brain issues, right? While nutrition, problems with digestion, twitchy muscles, and aches and pains are concentrated in the body, no?
They’re all connected and talking all the time. Nothing happens in your body without the brain being in on it. And little happens in the brain without your gut having some say. The body sends signals to the brain, which sends signals back to the body. They’re in a constant feedback loop. Problems that begin in the gut can cause your brain to perform sub-optimally, and problems that start in the brain can also manifest in the body.
Gut Feelings Is More than an Expression
Our body chemistry and biology impact our thoughts, beliefs, moods, and emotions. These factors, in turn, influence our stress and physical health. For example, if you’ve ever felt your stomach tighten up when you were anxious or nervous about something, you’ve experienced the mind gut connection.
But, when you think of the brain as a piece of a more extensive system, you can resolve problems in new ways. For example, if you feel stressed and anxious all the time, it could be because something is going on with your digestive system. Suppose you treat the stress and anxiety symptoms with medication but do not investigate a possible gut problem. You will likely still struggle with stress and anxiety, though perhaps not as intense as before. The reverse is true, as well. If you’re having problems in your body, the problem could be connected to something happening in your brain.
You must address problems holistically. Though medication may still be necessary, you don’t only need a pill. You need to understand body-mind duality and how they affect each other.
Your Gut is Your Second Brain
Until recently, we had a “what happens in Vegas” mindset regarding health. We were taught that what happens in the brain stays in the brain and only impacts the brain. And what happens in the body stays in the body and doesn’t impact the brain. But in the past few years, new research has emerged demonstrating the mind-gut connection (oddly, through the Vagus nerve) in ways we never understood before and showing us the impact our brains and guts have on each other.
In the past, if you had a mental issue, perhaps you went to see a professional, like a psychiatrist, psychologist, or neurologist, who specialized in mental health or brain issues. And if you had body issues, you saw a doctor or doctors who specialized in wherever your problem was. The mind doctors didn’t talk to the body doctors, and the body doctors didn’t speak to the mind doctors. No one suggested coordinating treatments because no one had even considered that they should work together. And almost certainly, neither the mind doctors nor the body doctors talked about the role nutrition played in either condition.
Now we know better. Every few months, more research is released, further documenting the mind-body connection. With each revelation, we get better at treating our body as a connected, coordinated system.
The Truth About the Brain-Gut Connection
Even with all the new research, there is still a great deal that we do not understand about the mind-body connection. Scientists are continually discovering more. We now know that communication between the gut and the brain happens through chemical and physical messengers, such as hormones and neurotransmitters. Researchers have even identified the neural networks that connect the cerebral cortex to the adrenal medulla, the part of the brain that activates the body’s stress response. Findings like these show how mental states, such as stress and depression, can impact organ function.
Stressful emotions can impact several bodily functions, including the immune system. Researchers have found that stress decreases immunity by altering blood cell function, with one study showing that stress diminished white blood cell response to infected cells and cancer cells. This means that individuals under increased stress are likely to heal more slowly and receive less benefit from vaccinations. At the same time, research has shown that talk therapy can strengthen cell function and make the body more effective at fighting disease. One study of breast cancer survivors had one group consistently engage in a mindful meditation practice while a control group did not practice meditation. When they checked back in, researchers found that the meditation group had longer telomeres, the protein complexes at the end of chromosomes. Longer telomeres are associated with protection from disease, while shorter telomeres are associated with illness. Longer telomeres are also indicative of a longer, healthier lifespan.
Many other studies have shown that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a form of talk therapy, modifies the neural circuits involved in regulating fear and other negative emotions. These studies show that people’s thoughts and behaviors can change their neurobiology—meaning, our stress and physical health are connected.
Gut health is significant, too. What we eat and drink also has the potential to prevent or help reverse mental health challenges. Research has shown that the food we eat can have a tremendous impact on our mood, with specific nutrients linked to positive mental and emotional health outcomes.
And nowhere is the mind-body connection more apparent than how the brain and gut communicate. The gut is even sometimes called “the second brain” or the “belly brain” because there are about 100 million neurons embedded in the walls of our guts. But, contrary to received wisdom, it’s unlikely that neurotransmitters made in the gut cross the blood/brain barrier. Dr. Sarah MacKay explained: “The gut is not the brain’s ‘serotonin factory’. Neurons in the brain make their own neurotransmitters. Also, gut-secreted serotonin (and other neurotransmitters) cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, so it’s improbable gut serotonin directly influence brain function via the bloodstream.”
Researchers have repeatedly found that people with healthy, diverse gut microbiomes are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. In addition, when harmful bacteria is replaced with good bacteria, people benefit from significantly altered moods and emotional regulation.
Tips and Tricks for Better Mind Gut Connection
So, now that you know that the brain and the gut are talking and working together to regulate all the systems in our body, what should you do with that information?
Tip #1. Nurture gut-brain communication.
Think of this as hosting a party. You’re the party host, and you invited all your bodily systems to a big backyard barbecue. Like a good party host, you want to mingle around so you can check in on all your guests. You want to make sure everyone is happy, has what they need, and that no one is getting obnoxious and irritating others–and if they are, you’re ready to step in to defuse a tense situation.
So, your body is the party. (You’ve been saying that since your teen years anyway, right?) You are the host. You want to monitor what’s happening and make sure all your systems have what they need and that you pay extra attention to any parts that seem to be flaring up.
How do you do that?
Tip #2. Check-in with yourself.
If you frequently feel stressed or anxious, do what you can to minimize the factors making the stress and anxiety worse. See a therapist for talk therapy to mitigate the stress response in your system and look into practices like yoga and meditation to further manage your stress and anxiety. Feed your body nutritious foods and supplements with high-quality probiotics to encourage the growth of good gut microbes for an optimal gut microbiome.
Tip #3. Treat your problems as interconnected.
Your depression, anxiety, or OCD very likely is linked to your diet and the balance of good and bad microbes in your gut microbiome. See a mental health specialist for your mental health issues and take a hard look at your diet. Focusing on your gut health can be a game-changer.
Stop Doing These Things
- Consuming artificial sweeteners that destroy the gut microbiome. UK researchers have found that sugar substitutes (like saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame) can cause good microbes to become pathogenic.
- Eating high-sugar, non-nutritious foods.
- Treating conditions as being only body OR mind, instead of seeing them as connected.
- Ignoring your everyday stress. It’s impacting your mind and body.
Start Doing These Things
- Incorporate yoga, meditation, talk therapy into your stress management plans.
- Take a high-quality probiotic to feed your gut microbiome.
- Listen to your body and recognize that your symptoms and systems are connected.
- Spend time outside every day. Take a walk around the block. The idea is to get some outdoor time and some sunlight. At first, it may sound woo-woo, but we were built to be in nature. Our bodies thrive on rhythm, and we sleep better when we experience the outside. Even spending just two hours on the weekend outside can have profound benefits.
- Get connected. Being in contact with other people you like has tremendous physiological benefits.
- Focus on a particular relaxing activity. Whether sitting at a pottery wheel, reading poetry, taking a restorative yoga class, gardening, or taking a walk, commit to doing something relaxing once a day.
- Take a big, refreshing breath once every 30 minutes. Practice “4/7/8” breathing, also known as “relaxing breathing,” which involves repetitions of the following: breathe in slowly for 4 seconds. Then hold your breath for 7 seconds. Then slowly release it over the course of 8 seconds.
- Do a cognitive workout every day. Try puzzles like chess puzzles or sudoku. Practice an instrument or a new language. Or build something. Engage your mind in different ways. The 10 Percent Better app is also a winner as it relates to helping you meditate.
- Minimize contact with social media and the news. You don’t need to go cold turkey, but these online activities are designed to agitate and enthrall you, not to make you the best version of yourself.
- Every day, concentrate on three blessings in your life. It sounds hokey to argue for a “daily gratitude practice,” but compelling science suggests this habit can make you happier over time.
- Play music and sing routinely. Even if you don’t have an amazing talent, engaging in musical activity can make you happier, reduce anxiety, and keep you centered.
The Bottom Line
The mind-body connection is very real, and it has powerful implications for your health and how your body functions. When you understand and nurture the mind-body connection, you can positively impact your whole-body well-being, even at the cellular level. Experts are constantly discovering new ways for treatments to be used in the mind or body to affect problems in other regions. Learning to harness the mind-body connection will enable you to maximize your physical health, get more enjoyment out of life, and even live longer.
Are you looking to jumpstart your mental well-being?
We are obsessed with helping everyone reach their fullest potential through feel-good probiotics. Our Mood product with its four probiotic strains will regulate your mood by supporting your body’s production of serotonin. In addition, it contains Vitamins D3, B6, and B12 – all essential for brain health – to help with feelings of stress, fatigue, trouble sleeping, and lack of focus. It also has L-theanine which promotes physical and mental relaxation. Hands up for happiness!