Updated: Nov 17, 2020
Stress affects your gut... and your gut affects your response to stress.
Right now, your brain and gut are communicating. The conversation they are having is an important one that can have huge implications for your mood, how you handle stress, and your metabolism. This crosstalk will not only affect how you're feeling right now, but the patterns that emerge determine your overall health including whether you will be more at risk for major chronic illnesses. The use of sanitizers, avoiding physical contact, being more sedentary, and being in a constant state of vigilance are all taking a toll on the health of both these organs and it's important we support a healthy communication.
The gut is often referred to as the second brain and that's because the enteric nervous system that's embedded along its walls and contains the second highest number of nerve endings after the brain. With its strong connection with the brain, we tend to feel our strong or subtle emotions in our intestines, giving us what we call a "gut feeling". In my last blogpost, I discussed the vagus nerve and maintaining health by strengthening our vagal brake, it is along this bi-directional nerve that the gut and brain communicate. The vagus nerve is known to send messages of safety from the brain to other organs, allowing the body to go into a state of "rest and digest". The enteric nervous system also sends signals back to the brain along this same nerve and what's interesting about these signals is that they are driven by the trillions of bacteria that reside within the gut, known as the microbiota. Your emotions affect your bacterial population and in turn the bacteria sends signals, including neurotransmitters, that will affect memory, emotions and behaviour. An important byproduct of these bacteria are short-chain fatty acids like butyrate that balance both the metabolism and the autonomic nervous system that's involved in stress and rest.
The microbes in our gut have full access to the vagus nerve via the enteric nervous system and this has huge implications for our mental health. Virtually every hormone and neurotransmitter that affects the brain is regulated by the gut and a healthy balance of microbes is crucial. Over 90% of Serotonin, the neurotransmitter associated with happiness, is made in the gut. Dysbiosis, an overgrowth of pathogens in the gut, has been linked to mental health problems like anxiety, depression and schizophrenia. It has also been implicated in how we respond to stress. One study looking at mice suggests that the early colonization of bacteria helps develop the the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), the feedback loop central to the stress response. By age 2-3 the human microbiome is fairly similar to that of an adult and the diversity at this age seems to matter; the levels of the happy hormone, serotonin, have been shown to to be regulated by the amount of bacteria early in life.
The gut-brain axis is perhaps most apparent in IBS, a condition with a recognized link with dysbiosis. where depression and anxiety are seen at higher rates. Many digestive issues are believed to be the result of the breakdown of the intestinal mucosal membrane, that lines the gut wall. The overgrowth of harmful yeasts and bacteria in the gut can irritate this lining and cause it to break down allowing pathogens, endotoxins and indigested food to enter into the bloodstream with some making it through the blood-brain barrier. Some viral and bacterial pathogens in the gut are known to lie dormant until the stress response is activated as this provides an environment fo them thrive. The causes of leaky gut are believed to be genetic and environmental; some may have a genetic predisposition but low-fibre, high sugar diets, heavy alcohol and stress seem to be the main culprits. Leaky gut and its role in health is at the centre of much research now looking at its role in autoimmune diseases, chronic fatigue, allergies, asthma, allergies, obesity and mental illness.
The communication between the gut and the brain along the vagus nerve is so important that currently, researchers are looking into the use of vagal nerve stimulating devices to treat Inflammatory bowel disease (among many other chronic diseases). The standard treatment for moderate to severe IBD are medications that block the inflammation causing TNF (tumor necrosis factor) from the immune system. Amazingly, our parasympathetic nervous system also blocks the release of TNF. Some researchers believe that electronic stimulators of the vagus nerve could calm many auto-immune conditions and devices are in development.
We've all likely noticed the affects of stress on the on our digestive system. Nausea, stomach pains, diarrhea, or constipation can all be related to stress. Imminent stressful situations often trigger to the body to void, which can be very inconvenient. But chronic stress can have the opposite effect, with blood flow being diverted for extended periods of time away from the gut and toward the vital organs, motility slows down. Along with this, serotonin levels in the gut increase which can cause the gut to spasm which can cause motility to come to a halt. Constipation is not simply an uncomfortable problem but can have broader implications since the health of the microbiome depends on smooth motility, and motility depends on a healthy microbiome.
Right now, there is so much talk about staying healthy by boosting the immune system, but in fact the health of the immune system is highly dependent on the health the gut and the brain. Instead, we should be asking how we can support our gut-brain axis as this is is going to be the major determining factor in maintaining health during the pandemic and beyond. Here are some ways you can support your gut and brain:
Eat plenty of plant fibres- bacteria eat plant fibres and the byproduct is short-chain fatty acid butyrate, that provides energy to the cells
Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables- the diversity of the microbes is so important! Bacteria have their favourite foods so by eating a variety of food, especially plant-based food, you will be encouraging more diversity in the microbiome
Stimulate the vagus nerve (see my previous blogpost on this). Singing, humming, deep breathing with long exhales are great ways. Frequency and duration are key, aim for 5 minutes sessions 3 times per day, every day.
Address your leaky gut- this can be tricky, but I can help you!
Take a high-quality probiotic if you think you're dealing with dysbiosis- I am now selling a probiotic that has been shown to improve leaky gut within 30 days, get in touch for more information.
Don't over-sanitize your home- with the use of strong anti-bacterial and anti-viral products in public spaces we are likely living too clean, having exposure to bacteria is important for the health of the immune system. Use natural cleaners and limit the use of disinfecting wipes in places where you are not worried about exposure to the virus.
Only take antibiotics when they are absolutely necessary - some infections can be cleared without antibiotics and in the past decade many doctors are only prescribing them when absolutely necessary. Some doctors however, are still prescribing them because the healing time will be much faster. If you have recurring infections like UTIs, you definitely want to follow your doctor's advice but take a preventative approach by addressing the root cause, which may be a leaky gut.
Everyone is stressed out to some degree with this pandemic. The stress, along with this new highly-sanitized world we are now living in, our guts are affected and it's important to take at least some small steps in supporting this axis. Keep in mind that it's a feedback loop so if you're only addressing one side of the problem, progress will be very slow. If you want to see results, you have to address both the gut and the brain.
My good friend Brandee and I will be offering a workshop on immune health that addresses this axis, I hope you will join me! You can register right here!