gut-brain connection

What is the gut-brain connection?

What exactly is the gut-brain connection? The gut-brain axis refers to the millions of physical and chemical connections between the gut and brain. The state of the gut can be affected by poor diet, stress and lifestyle factors. These issues can result in a reduction in the abundance of bacterial species that we need for so many aspects of health, including our mental and emotional wellbeing. If we are very stressed, anxious or grieving, then the gut-brain axis linking the emotional and cognitive centres of the brain with intestinal functions, can become adversely affected. Very often I will see clients experiencing anxiety, depression or grief who also have digestive issues.

The Vagus Nerve

It is the vagus nerve that creates this communication path between the gut and the nervous system. The vagus nerve is the longest of the nerves that arise from the brain and it communicates with different parts of the body. It’s a key part of the parasympathetic rest and digest nervous system and counterbalances the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight mechanism. It influences breathing, digestive function and heart rate, all of which can have a huge impact on mental health. Unfortunately, chronic and traumatic stress interrupts this communication between the brain and the body, affecting the ability of the vagal brake to calm and regulate the nervous system.

A low vagal tone means the vagus nerve isn’t functioning as it should, potentially causing or exacerbating depression, anxiety, gut issues and inflammation. Increasing your vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system, meaning that your body can relax faster after stress. It reduces heart rate and blood pressure, changes the function of certain parts of the brain and encourages healthy digestion. By stimulating the vagus nerve, we are able to send a message to the body to relax and de-stress, leading to improvements in mood, wellbeing and resilience.

Healing and revitalising the vagus nerve involves a multi-faced approach which includes the following:

  • healthy diet
  • probiotics
  • breathing techniques
  • meditation
  • cold showers
  • splashing the face with cold water
  • exercise
  • connecting with nature
  • foot massage

Diet and the gut-brain connection

Alongside looking at eliminating foods that might typically exacerbate any digestive symptoms (such as wheat, sugar and dairy), the inclusion of gut-supportive foods and supplements are going to provide a good foundation for the health of the gut-brain axis. Fermented foods such as kefir, yogurt, tempeh, kimchi, miso and sauerkraut can support this. In addition to a probiotic, supplements such as aloe vera, digestive enzymes, L glutamine, marshmallow, slippery elm may also be worth considering. These measures are best implemented under the guidance of a fully qualified nutritional therapist.

Serotonin, mood and the gut

Mood boosting serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to send messages from one area of the brain to another. It’s estimated that gut bacteria manufactures around 90% of the body’s supply of serotonin. Chronic stress is a known cause of low serotonin and so it’s also likely to be depleted during bereavement and other stressful events. Establishing a healthy diversity of gut flora is therefore something of a priority for ensuring the production of serotonin.

Foods that might help to raise serotonin levels

The amino acid tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, so eating foods containing tryptophan may help the body produce more serotonin and therefore enhance mood. Eggs, spinach, salmon, tofu, nuts, seeds, turkey and any foods high in protein, iron, vitamins B2 and B6 all tend to contain good levels of tryptophan. Whilst foods high in this amino acid won’t necessarily boost serotonin on their own, they may when in combination with complex carbs. Carbohydrates cause the body to release more insulin, which promotes amino acid absorption. Therefore, if you mix high-tryptophan foods with complex carbs, you might get a serotonin boost.

How I can help you

If you’re experiencing anxiety, low mood, depression or grief then addressing the gut-brain connection may prove helpful. As a nutritional therapist, wellbeing coach and grief coach, I’m able to devise a programme specifically for your individual needs and support you in improving your symptoms. For more information about my services see here

Please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions on the gut-brain connection and how I can help: vanessa@wellbeingandnutrition.co.uk

(Always consult your GP if you are concerned you have a serious mental health issue)