5 min read
by Michelle Alexander | 08/12/2021
Do you ever feel like you’re about to throw up before a job interview? Or when you receive a text from your ex and your stomach flips upside down? Nervous poops? Turns out “gut feelings” aren’t metaphorical. *Your enteric nervous system (ENS) has entered the chat*.
The ENS comprises two thin layers of 100 million+ nerve cells that line the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Although its main function is to communicate with your brain regarding digestion, blood flow for nutrient absorption, and swallowing, your ENS sends signals to your brain that trigger emotional responses. Interestingly enough, that connection also works both ways. Long story short, rumblings in your brain may cause rumblings in your stomach — and vice versa.
Think of it this way: your brain and gut are in an intimate relationship. When our gut health isn’t on point, our intestines send an “uh oh” signal to the brain, which could lead to anxiety, stress, depression or mood changes. And as mentioned earlier, it works the other way around as well. When a person experiences nervousness or anxiety, the body releases hormones that can cause a chemical imbalance leading to several GI issues such as IBS, indigestion, constipation, or loss of hunger. Studies show that the brain is more responsive to pain signals from the GI tract, meaning folks with chronic GI disorders perceive pain with more intensity than those who don’t — and, as a result, are more likely to experience mental health issues.
After years of realizing the connection between the brain and gut, science-based evidence has led to various holistic treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressant medications when treating functional GI disorders. Your brain is a powerful force, and stress will manifest in physical ways if you don’t find ways to manage it.
For example, I once got an ulcer from going through a break up. You can imagine my shock when my doctor explained that my stomach issues were a physical symptom of my stress and that I needed to focus on healing my noggin. I focused on eating non-processed, whole foods that would decrease inflammation in my stomach lining and make me feel energized. I filled my schedule with cathartic hobbies such as picking up a new instrument, physical activities such as tennis lessons, and tried to make myself as busy as possible to distract myself from my anxieties. At the time, it felt like only a distraction, but I now realize that I was creating *healthy* coping mechanisms for reducing stress. Get your mind right and the body will follow!
If you’re going through stressful times in your life and notice that your stomach is feeling significantly more uneasy or upset, it may be time to head to the doctor for a check up.
Okay, I’m not saying that a cup of Greek yogurt is going to heal your trauma. However, there are foods you can eat that balance out your gut and can help you manage your mood. Some foods that are excellent for gut (and mental) health include bone broth, salmon, flax seeds, oats, and other high-fiber or other foods high in omega-3 fatty acids. These foods reduce inflammation in your gut — and then send signals to your brain that result in you feeling *hella good*.
Oh, and don’t forget about probiotics. To name a few, these are found in Greek yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, and apple cider vinegar — and will balance your gut flora out with some ~good~ bacteria.
Recognizing that the food we eat not only impacts our physical health but also our mental health gives “eating for fuel” new meaning. We want to hear from you! What are your experiences with the brain-gut connection?
Michelle Alexander (she/her) is a freelance writer based out of colorful San Francisco. She enjoys sunny days, oat milk lattes, and hanging out in Mission Dolores Park with her fluffy canine companion, Winston.
by Michelle Alexander