Your digestive system and brain are pretty far apart, and you may think they have nothing to do with one another. But these two systems are intricately connected via something known as the gut-brain axis.
This connection explains why anxiety affects the digestive system first (and why it’s a trigger for irritable bowel syndrome). It’s also why you get a “gut feeling” when your brain detects something isn’t right.
What is the gut-brain axis, and how does it influence mental health?
Your brain is the control center of your body and mind.
But did you know your gut acts like a “second brain”?
It contains a network of 100 million neurons that make up a branch of the autonomic nervous system called the enteric nervous system (ENS). This is a bi-directional line of communication between your brain and digestive system.
Central to regulating the gut-brain axis are trillions of beneficial microorganisms in your digestive tract – called the gut microbiome.
It might sound creepy, but these little critters are essential for good mental health. They produce mood-boosting neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and the anti-anxiety chemical gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). With the help of the vagus nerve (the longest cranial nerve), your gut microbes send information to your brainstem via the ENS.
It’s no surprise poor gut health and abnormal changes to the gut microbiome increase the risk of anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and other mood disorders.
Managing your mental health requires a holistic approach that addresses the gut and nervous systems.
5 Tips to support your gut-brain connection
Here are some actionable steps to strengthen and stimulate your gut-brain axis.
1. Consume a diverse, prebiotic-rich diet
An emerging field in health care, nutritional psychiatry, uses dietary changes to treat the second brain.
Experts recommend eating 30 different plant foods per week to improve the diversity of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Prebiotic-rich foods are especially useful – bananas, apples, berries, oats, barley, leeks, onions, garlic, and asparagus.
Prebiotics feed the good bacteria in your gut, helping them to keep the “bad” bacteria under control. Bacteria ferment prebiotic fiber and release metabolites like short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs feed your gut cells, stimulate serotonin production, and influence the vagus nerve, which, as you know, is the main comms line between your gut and brain.
To summarize, eat a diverse, prebiotic-rich diet to diversify your gut microbiome and strengthen the brain-gut axis.
2. Take a quality probiotic (+ eat fermented foods)
Most of the serotonin in your body comes from your digestive tract – and gut bacteria are essential to this process. However, they are destroyed by chronic stress, antibiotics, drinking excessively, smoking, and a diet high in processed food.
Taking a high-quality probiotic supplement helps to correct this imbalance – and products containing Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains are promising for reducing anxiety and depression. Probiotics help the gut-brain connection by, among other things, stimulating the vagus nerve.
However, check the product you choose is third-party tested and contains live bacteria.
In addition, fermented foods are a fantastic way to introduce probiotic bacteria to your gut. Research shows they may reduce social anxiety symptoms. Start by adding some fermented foods to your meals – raw sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, plain yogurt, and kefir.
3. Practice bumblebee breathing
Chronic stress is disastrous for mental health because it disengages the vagus nerve, cutting the signal between the brain and gut.
Breathing exercises are an antidote to stress. Slowing your breath engages the vagus nerve and stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, the branch of your central nervous system necessary for relaxation, digestion, and healing.
The bumblebee breath is a relaxing technique that creates a slight vibration in the throat, activating the parasympathetic nervous system (and vagus nerve). It’s also fun to do!
Sit comfortably and move your breath into your lower ribs and belly.
Breathe in through your nose slowly for a count of four.
Exhale slowly through your nose, making a continuous buzzing “mmm” sound. Continue until your breath runs out.
Repeat for a couple of minutes.
Practice this before and after eating to support a calm mind and efficient digestion.
4. Drink bone broth
Maintaining a healthy gut lining has amazing knock-on effects on your digestion, immunity, and brain health.
Adding a cup of easy-to-digest bone broth to your daily routine is transformative for gut health. It’s packed with collagen and rich in gut-healing amino acids like glycine and glutamine.
You can make bone broth by boiling beef or chicken bones for several hours in pure water with a dash of a slightly acidic medium (like lemon juice or cider vinegar).
5. Get moving
Regular exercise always comes up as a tip to improve mood and reduce stress. In addition to boosting the production of “feel-good” brain chemicals, regular activity improves gut microbiome diversity and increases short-chain fatty acid production.
We suggest you exercise moderately for 30-45 minutes at least five days per week. Find something you enjoy like walking, hiking, cycling, dancing, yoga, lifting weights, or even trampolining.
As you can see, your digestive health profoundly impacts your mental health, concentration, and clarity of mind.
With the help of the tips in this article, your gut and brain will begin to work in harmony, so you can start living your best life!