Would it surprise you to learn that your digestive tract is sensitive to emotion? The sayings, “butterflies in your stomach” or “gut wrenching” actually make a lot of sense when you start to understand the complex relationship between your gut and your mood.
For example, when it comes to digestion, the mere thought, sight and smell of food trigger the digestive process in your mouth and in your intestines. When you experience any form of stress, even something minor like reading a stressful email while eating, it can impair the digestive process.
It’s not uncommon for people with digestive symptoms to also experience some level of anxiety, depression, or to describe “feeling” stress in their stomach. In a review of 10 case-control studies evaluating irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and ulcerative colitis (UC), the UC and IBS patients scored higher in anxiety and depression scores compared to healthy controls. It's difficult to say what came first: did the anxiety cause the digestive issues or did the digestive issues cause the anxiety? The latest research on the gut-brain axis suggests that it’s both.
Your brain receives a constant stream of information from your digestive or GI tract, integrates it with information sent from the other cells of your body, and combines it with contextual information from your environment. It then uses this web of information to send an integrated response to the cells of your GI tract. This system is in place to ensure that the GI tract and its various functions continue to operate smoothly during physiological stress, and to adapt your GI function to your overall state. This whole process occurs, for the most part, subconsciously.
The latest research suggests that people with chronic abdominal pain and discomfort appear to have some sort of dysregulation within the gut-brain axis that is linked to anxiety, depression, inflammation and pain. In addition, some people with functional GI disorders like IBS or UC may perceive pain more strongly than other people do because their brains are more responsive to pain signals from the GI tract.
The microbes in your gut seem to play a key role in this interaction. Certain gut bacteria either directly or indirectly communicate to the brain and cells to influence different physiological processes. This isn’t surprising when you consider that scientists estimate there are around 10 times more microorganisms within the gut than there are cells in the human body. It’s a whole other world that we are just beginning to understand.
It’s also estimated that at least 90% of serotonin is produced in your gut and it’s these microbes that stimulate your gut cells to produce serotonin. Serotonin is your “feel good” neurotransmitter, helping to regulate mood and cognitive function, but it’s also involved in regulating digestive secretions, smooth muscle contraction and pain perception. Bacteria also produce short-chain fatty acids, which influence the memory and learning process in the brain. Gut bacteria also play a role in tryptophan metabolism, which is the precursor to serotonin. There are countless examples of chemicals involved in mood and cognitive function that are influenced by your gut bacteria.
There are steps you can take today to support your GBA. From a dietary perspective, eat a colourful, nutrient-dense whole foods diet that supports a healthy gut and avoid non-foods that contribute to a die-off of healthy bacteria like processed foods and refined sugars. This includes a variety of sprouted and fermented foods and products like Genuine Health fermented organic vegan or Greek yogurt proteins+, and fermented organic gut superfoods+ that either offer beneficial probiotics or help to feed them. It’s also important to limit your consumption of antibiotics (in the food supply and the pharmacy), harsh chemical cleaning products and chlorine in tap water which kill your gut bacteria. Taking a daily probiotic, like the Advanced Gut Health Probiotic is a great line of defense against against modern-day lifestyle and dietary stressors.
To ensure optimal digestion, embrace mindfulness techniques around eating. Here are some exercises you can try:
Addressing stress, depression and other mood disorders involves a personalized, multi-faceted approach. Don’t underestimate the importance of a healthy gut!
*This article was published in partnership with Genuine Health. Opinions are my own.
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Rege, S. and Graham, J. (2017). The Simplified Guide to the Gut Brain Axis - How the Gut Talks to the Brain. [online] Psych Scene Hub. Available at: https://psychscenehub.com/psychinsights/the-simplified-guide-to-the-gut-brain-axis/ [Accessed 28 Sep. 2018].
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