The mind-gut connection is more than just a biological system within the body. It is a connection that can aid us in our pursuit of positive well-being or cripple us with debilitating complaints. Many scientific studies have explored the link, but you might not have known what this means for your life.
Sure, you are aware at times that your stomach ties itself in knots when you are anxious and that when you get thoroughly overwhelmed by emotions, you can experience nausea or even diarrhoea. It is just a thing that happens, right?
Well, no. It doesn’t just happen. There is a connection between the brain and our digestive system that requires understanding. This link can help us live our best lives if only we make the best use of knowledge.
What is the mind-gut connection?
Rather than define this connection as butterflies, let’s get a little more scientific. Simply expressed, our gastrointestinal system is susceptible to the emotions we feel. We can experience intestinal issues if we feel sad, stressed, anxious or angry. A good example would be your loss of appetite on hearing the news of the loss of a friend or family member.
The connection isn’t all bad. It is our thoughts and emotions that tell our stomach to expect food. We think about food, and we get hungry because our stomach takes the signal and starts to produce acids to break down what is coming its way. When the connection works well, we can turn to our gut for all sorts of advice about the emotions we are feeling, too, if only we tuned in right.
Poor relationships between our mind and our gut occur when we suffer extreme emotion or a lot of low-level emotion over a long period. We can then upset our system and suffer all sorts of issues that can cycle around and make our lives challenging.
How do I know when the connection is broken?
When you experience stress or negative emotions over a long period, your body will react in several ways. You will start to have disturbed sleep, suffer recurrent headaches, gain or lose weight, and concentrate and focus and waiver. You may also find yourself constantly hungry or with no appetite at all, often crying, feeling nervous for no reason and suffering lapses in memory.
You are likely tempted to withdraw from social settings and isolate yourself to stop this sense of being overwhelmed.
When you get in this state, you can quickly see how your mind and gut are entwined in expressing your distress. It is not true to say that stress is all in the person’s head, as other things are happening in the body that contributes to being off-kilter. When you are struggling with your mental health, you could also experience physiological changes to your body, including inflammation in your gastrointestinal tract or other such ailments.
Why does all this happen?
Well, when faced with stress, your body goes into a flight, fight, or freeze mode. Basically, you get a hit of cortisol intended to prime you to survive and deal with whatever threat is perceived. The cortisol puts you in a heightened state of awareness; your heart pumps faster, you breathe quicker, and your blood pressure rises.
Your cholesterol increases, and your muscles will tense. For a short amount of time, this is a beneficial response. Over a longer time, it can cause massive issues with your digestive system.
A burst of stress can cause esophageal spasms or hiccups. You will experience an increase in the stomach causing heartburn, acid reflux and indigestion. You will feel sick, suffer diarrhea, cramping, lower back pain and excess gas. These symptoms might be short term if the event that causes the stress is over a short period.
However, extreme cases of stress or extended periods can cause a restriction in oxygen and blood flow to your stomach. Your body thinks it needs these vital components to fight that bear that is imagined in your brain, so it takes it from other systems. This can result in IBS, peptic ulcers, IBD, GERD, and other GI conditions over a period.
The mighty struggle is that these also impact your nutrient intake and your general sense of emotional well-being. Therefore, once you are in a cycle of mind-gut disconnection, you will find that it can get increasingly severe.
Taking back control
While it is easy to tell you to do the right things, you need to decide that this is the right course. When your world is upset, it is difficult to take advice, as it always seems to diminish the level of pain and distress you feel.
Consequently, you have to decide if this is good advice and if it might help your situation based on everything you have read so far. If you feel a little paralysed to make this choice, you could always think, “What harm will it do?”
The starting point is to change the way you eat. Not only will eating the right things settle the reaction in your gut, but it is also proven to improve your mental well-being too. Our minds and bodies are part of one system, help one, and you support the other.
Probiotic and prebiotic foods are fantastic for your gut. Prebiotics fertilise the bacteria that exists in your gut, the friendly bacteria we all need. The probiotics add even more helpful bacteria to the mix. Using the prebiotics, your body will develop microbes; they occur naturally in complex carbs such as vegetables, whole grains, beans, and legumes.
Probiotics are in yoghurts, raw cheeses, and fermented foods such as sauerkraut and miso paste. You would be surprised how many super tasty foods are loved by your gut.
If you want to stick to more basic advice, then eat more plants, nuts, grains and the like and drink a lot of water. You should use extra virgin olive oil as your chosen fat, as it is full of helpful microbes. You should be especially conscious of eating these things if you take antibiotics, as these drugs don’t just kill the harmful bacteria.
Once you have helped your gut, it is time to address your mind by looking at your lifestyle. You might want to try mindfulness, and apps like Headspace can really help. Calming the mind will calm the gut and generally make you feel better.
You can also practice yoga, which is also great for your body. Ultimately, you need plenty of quality sleep and exercise, and you need to cut out alcohol and smoking.
Annoyingly, managing that connection between mind and gut is similar to the boring advice adults gave you when you were a kid and wanted to live on chocolate buttons.
Why bother trying?
You might be thinking that life is for living and all this sounds too wholesome for words. However, when you improve your gut health and mental health, everything about your life will improve. It is the way you can take control when you don’t think you can. Simple small steps like eating right and drinking water can give you the strength to get those stresses into proportion.